Over the centuries, the story commonly called “The Prodigal Son” has arguably influenced more poetry, art, and literature than any other told by Jesus. This parable has been the single largest inspiration for my faith over the past 15 years. Most notably, the story of the Prodigal Son inspired the name for my first church plant “Reunion”
Read the Gospels and you will see how Jesus’ message of Divine-hope was attracting those who were outcasts from Jewish society and those who were despised by the Jewish religious leaders. The first two verses of Luke chapter fifteen set the stage.
Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
The Pharisees and Scribes were watching Jesus teach. The whole time they complained that he was hanging out with the worst sort of people. Imagine their shock to discover that Jesus was eating with sinners! “Oh no! Not sinners!” Jesus, seeing their harsh criticism and judgmentalism, decides He needs to teach these Pharisees and Scribes a valuable lesson about God’s love for Man–His greatest creation. In trying to open their minds and hearts to a radically different Kingdom view, Jesus tells three parables.
The first parable is about a lost sheep being found and the second is about finding a lost coin. Both of these stories are designed to drive home a simple message that every one of us can understand; when you lose something of value, you will do anything to get it back and when you get it back, you will be excited. Kind of obvious, right? But, the third parable challenges the obvious. Do we really rejoice when the lost are found?
This parable is often called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” which puts the emphasis upon the young son who is seen as wasteful of all that he has been given by the Father. The obvious problem here is that this title pulls the focus away from the story of the older son nor does it put a proper emphasis upon the love of the father. If I were to give a title to this parable, I think I would call it “The Unfinished Parable” because, as we shall soon see, this is probably the only parable that Jesus never finishes. The open-ended nature of this parable is discovered when we recognize Jesus’ use of chiasmus in Luke 15:11-32.
In a typical chiasm, the emphasis is placed on the center of the structure. In this parable, Jesus does something unique. In the first half, we see a complete story of the young son (A B C C’ B’ A’). In the second half, the story of the older son is left incomplete (A B C C’ B’ ?). Jesus ends this parable leaving us on the edge of our seats. There is no A’ to complete the chiasm. He leaves us wondering, “what will happen with this older son. Will the shame of his own sin and anger lead him to repent and embrace the Father’s mercy?” (B’) “Will the older son discover the joy of this family reunion and the pleasure of embracing his lost brother? “(A’) Or will he sit outside and stew; condemning his brother with every thought and look for the rest of his days?
Jesus does not finish this parable, because the Pharisees and Scribes, who are represented by the older son, must write the ending (A’). Just like the older son, their outward actions were commendable, yet their heart did not beat in unison with the heart of the Father who wanted only to have the lost come home (Luke 15:1-2). I don’t think this parable is a condemnation of the Pharisees and Scribes as much as it is an open-ended question asking them, “what kind of son will you be to the Heavenly Father?”
Now that you can see how this chiastic structure works, it is easy to see that this Unfinished Parable is an open invitation for us to live as a people of reunion. This parable is a challenge from Jesus, “what kind of son are you, my church, going to be?”
As I listen to to the voice of Jesus in this parable, I cannot help but remember an encounter I had back when I was a student at Penn State University. Our campus ministry put on an outreach to the homosexual community by inviting in a speaker who was once living a homosexual lifestyle and who now proclaimed the message of freedom in Christ. As the speaker got up to begin his talk, two-dozen or more students stood up from the crowd, made a circle around the room and took off their outer shirts to reveal t-shirts with a message of silent protest. As the speaker talked, I was drawn by God’s Spirit to pray for a young gay man who was standing nearby. By the end of the talk, I knew that God wanted me to speak with him. As we talked, I could tell he was very interested in hearing what God had to say about the sin of homosexuality and the forgiveness in Christ but his friends kept pulling him away. Finally, I knew my time with him was at an end but I prayed that God would give me something to say that would help transform this young man’s life. As I said goodbye, I knew what I had to do. I reached out and pulled this young man to me and gave him a huge hug. In the midst of my embrace, I could feel his body tense with anxiety. He must have been wondering, “I thought this guy said homosexuality was a sin. How then can he give me this hug?” As I released my hug, I told him that God loved him and wanted him to come home.
Whatever became of that young man I may only discover some day in heaven, but as I read this parable from Jesus, I am convicted that we can do a lot more to embrace the lost sons and daughters who only wish to come home for a family celebration.
Jesus is waiting for you and me to finish this parable. How will you respond to the Father?