Putting the Prodigal in Context

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return-of-prodigalLuke 15 is one of the most famous chapters in the New Testament. In this chapter, Jesus tells three stories about things that are lost. Really it is about one thing, one sheep and a young man. I guess I am not so sure sheep and people are things. Things get lost by no power of their own.

So Jesus tells these three stories and each one ends with the proper celebration of things that were lost being found and that is celebration. That is part of the story but not the whole story. The point is not just that there is celebration, the point is who is celebrating. Those who find things celebrate. Those who refuse to celebrate, when everyone else around them does have issues.

That gets us a bit closer to the point this text was made in its original setting. That should matter to us. Before we know what a text means to us today we must try to understand what it meant to them then. If you are interested in context, as we all should be, these parables are making a particular point to a particular group of people and the hint is found in the only non-red letters in the chapter.

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” – Luke 15:1-2

Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them while the Pharisees complain about it. Sound familiar? God is celebrating the return of these sinners. Jesus celebrates it. Everyone is celebrating except these older brothers who would rather complain because they have been “slaving away all these years” just as Jesus depicted them as saying and doing in the parable itself.

The key point of this parable, in context, is about our attitude toward those who return to God. Do we make comparisons? Do we withhold forgiveness? Are we unwelcoming?

I remember hearing from a young adult once that he was at one point scared to return to church because of what people might say or the questions they might ask him. Isn’t that a shame? Let us never be “older brother Christians. Imagine how much growth the church could sustain through restoration of those who have left but are too ashamed or too afraid to return if only we were just willing to lovingly and gracefully welcome back our own.

Let us replace, “Where have you been?” with “Welcome home.”

Let us replace angry, scornful looks with, “I am glad to see you.”

Let us stop putting scarlet letters on people and start putting on them robes and rings.

This is what we are called to do and it doesn’t mean we are affirming of all things sinful. It does mean we recognize, appreciate and give the same grace to our brothers and sisters that our Father has given us.


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