The Misnamed Parable

We first knew it as The Parable of the Prodigal Son. More recently, probably in an effort to broaden understanding, we have heard it called The Parable of the Lost Son. While it is true this story is in a series of parables involving something lost, to use such a title for this parable conducts our attention away from the full impact of Jesus’ intended message. Why is this so? Jesus told a story about two sons who mirrored the two groups of people gathered around him.

The scribes and Pharisees had been looking down their noses at Jesus. They had been grumbling about Jesus’ enthusiastic acceptance of undeserving people, those lesser individuals and blemishes upon society stained with sinful reputations.

Jesus immediately began to challenge the religious leaders’ outlook regarding sinners. Repeatedly Jesus proclaimed that because God values all people, there is great rejoicing when the lost turn to God. Such passion for people leads to enthusiastic celebration.

While it might be true that God longs for each of us to come home regardless of how sinful our trodden paths might have been, and although to comprehend such enfolding grace and love can richly warm our hearts, to end our analysis of this parable at this point falls short. Jesus told a story about two sons, not one.

Why the second son? At first blush the two sons in Jesus’ story appear diametrically opposed, that classic case of a bad apple among the good. But Jesus ripped off the veneer revealing two sons with problems. While the younger son had initially been consumed with an overt rebellious self-centeredness which all could see, his older brother’s self-centeredness eventually erupted into plain sight as poutingly he protested his father’s favor toward the sinner. To despise the sinner and hold him at arms length does not reflect the heart of God, rather it reveals one’s own heart problem.

Just as in Jesus’ story of a father in love going out to an older son to pursue a transformation in his older son’s heart, likewise Jesus’ very act of telling this parable was his continued attempt to change the Pharisees’ misshaped hearts. God loves the Pharisees also and wants them to come home as well. As Jesus unfolded the story of a father eager to win back two sons, his story mirrored those gathered to hear him. Two sets of people each with their own problems. Two sets of people whom God was eager to embrace if they would change their ways.

If Jesus were to follow us around for a week and saw how we treated people and whether we thought certain types of people are unimportant, would he want to tell us the story of a father and two sons?

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