Lesson Focus: To be prepared for the coming of God’s Kingdom we must learn what it is like to love and give grace like our Heavenly Father.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:
Identify the nature of each of the three characters in this story.
Understand that the nature of the Father is a radically free love that allows us to walk away and to return again with the assurance of full acceptance and a loving embrace.
Understand that if we are to participate in God’s coming Kingdom we must live and act like the Father.
Catching up on the story: Jesus has been going around the countryside teaching, preaching and healing. He is continuing his journey toward the cross in Jerusalem. Along the way, we have discovered that his disciples are not yet ready to encounter what they will encounter in the events that lead up to Jesus’ death and resurrection. For the last few chapters Jesus has been actively engaged in helping to prepare his disciples for what lies ahead. His goal is that they be fully prepared for the coming of God’s Kingdom. As we journey with the disciples toward the cross, we too are being prepared for the coming of God’s Kingdom through the cross.
One of Jesus’ favorite ways of speaking is the parable. In this section, Jesus busts out three in a row. First, there is the parable of the lost sheep, then the parable of the lost coin, and finally, the parable of the prodigal son and his older brother. In most readings of this parable, the younger brother gets all the press. But, perhaps, the story is much more about the older brother’s response to the radical grace of his father than it is about the grace that the father has given to the younger son.
The Text: In our passage we find three characters. First, there is the younger son who is intent on doing his own thing. He would rather have his father’s wealth than a relationship with his father. He would rather have money and freedom than a living father. He squanders all he has only to realize that he has done a great wrong. There is the Father, who despite the insult brought about by his younger son, releases his son into the world. The Father gives his son radical freedom, freedom even to betray and reject him. This radical freedom, on the other hand, also allows the Father to welcome back his wayward son. The Father is a radically free, loving, giving and graceful person. Finally, there is the older son. The older son is the faithful one. He’s been at his father’s side, doing his father’s work for all of his life. Yet, when his brother returns he is resistant to offer the same grace as his father has. Let’s look at each of the characters.
The Younger Brother – The Free One While this story may be a little strange to us, not because it is unfamiliar to us, but because our culture and its rules about inheritance don’t work the same way for us today.
Just who is the younger brother? The younger brother is the one who values freedom over everything else. This desire for freedom is usually grounded in a sense of entitlement and self-fulfillment. What matters to the younger brother is not what other people think. No, what matters to him is freedom, the freedom to choose how to live and act and be. No one determines for him what he is going to be or do.
In the text, the younger brother cares nothing for his father, or for his older brother. By seeking his half of the inheritance before his father has died, the younger brother is, in fact, wishing that his father were dead. The young man’s priorities are driven by his own needs and wants and not by the family relationships that were and are so important. The younger brother uses his freedom to turn his back on the father who has no doubt loved him, nurtured him and provided for him all these years. Given all that he wants, the younger brother sets off for a life of living all on his own. Well, we know the story. That kind of free living is unsustainable. It just can’t last. It can’t last because when we use our freedom solely for our own good we tend to alienate everyone around us.
We all know people like this. We all know people who find themselves alone and in a lot of pain because their preoccupation with their own self-interest has driven everyone away. Often these people wonder why no one is there to support them when they are in trouble. It’s because they have never really cared for anyone else but themselves. So the younger brother, I believe still motivated by his own self-interest, decides to return home. His realization is that there are servants in his father’s home who are better fed than he is. Driven by hunger, and the basic needs of life, the young man returns home. Perhaps you know someone like him?
The Father – The Radically Free and Loving One While the younger brother is the Free One, the Father is the radically free and loving one. While the younger brother uses his freedom for his own advantage and self-interest, the father also exercises his own freedom. But it’s a freedom not grounded in self-care, it’s a freedom grounded in care for the other; it’s grounded in love.
See, when you truly love someone that means that you have to provide space for the other to love you back, or not to love you back. Love that doesn’t allow for choice isn’t love; it’s probably more closely related to coercion. Radical freedom, the freedom of the father, means that the father loves his son so much, with such true love, that he cannot hold the son against his wishes. So, in love, the father lets his son go.
In the text we don’t hear much from the father. We don’t hear how much he’s been hurt by his son’s request. We don’t hear of the anguish he must have endured all of those long and lonely nights when he wondered about the condition of the one he created and brought to life. The father’s actions speak louder than his words.
When the younger son is seen returning, the father hikes up his skirt and runs –a great indignity for a man in that culture– to meet his long lost son. Only a few words manage to escape the son’s mouth before the father begins issuing commands to his servants. Quick! Bring the very best clothes and a ring (a symbol of belonging in the family and economic resources) for my boy! Quick! Kill a fat calf and let us celebrate! The younger son doesn’t even have a chance to offer his full statement. The father, rather, embraces and reinstates the son without any question of where he has been or what he has done!
The very same radical freedom and love that allowed the father to let the son go now accepts the son back without question or condition. The son comes looking only for a bit of bread, but the father throws a party. The father is a radically free, loving, gracious, merciful, and giving person. Perhaps you know someone like him?
The Older Brother –The Faithful One, The Resentful One While the younger brother is the free one, and the father is the radically free and loving one, the older brother is the faithful one, the resentful one. The younger son and the father seem to always get the press in this story. But for Israel, and I think for us as well, this story is really about the older brother and his reaction to the acceptance of the younger brother.
The older brother has been the faithful one. Throughout everything, throughout his younger brother leaving, wishing his father dead, throughout all the extra work that the older brother most likely had to pick up, through it all, the older brother has been there. He has been faithful. He has worked the fields, he has been responsible with the money, he’s respected his father, he’s done all of the things a son is supposed to do, and what has he received? In his mind, nothing! He comes home from doing what he is supposed to be doing to find a party going on. The older brother approaches a servant to find out what’s going on. The servant explains that his brother has returned and his father has killed a fattened calf and is now throwing a party!
The brother’s response is probably really close to what our responses would be in that situation: frustration, anger, and resentment. How, after all his faithfulness, could his father overlook the blatant disrespect and unfaithfulness of his brother? How?! So, he refuses to go in.
The father, because of who he is, comes to his older son to convince him to join the celebration. The son states his very valid case: ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ (Luke 15:29-30).
The older son, who has lived with and experienced the gracious, free love of his father, can’t imagine the depths of love his father has. He thinks it unfair to lavish such great love and forgiveness on the unfaithful one. The older son is faithful, but resentful. Perhaps you know someone like him?
The parable ends with the father trying to explain to the son what he really doesn’t seem to want to understand. I find it crazy that, just like in a lot of Jesus’ parables, we aren’t really told what happens. We don’t know if the older brother goes in to the party and eventually welcomes his brother. We aren’t told if the younger brother, the recipient of so much grace, love and forgiveness orients his life so that he lives in grateful response to all that he received. The story just ends, begging us to ask one question, and that question is: Who am I in this story? So that’s the question that I want you to consider today. Who are you like?
So What…? Today, are you like the younger brother, a person steeped in freedom to do only what you want to do regardless of how it might affect others? Because of your desire for self-fulfillment, have you alienated and sabotaged all of the relationships in your life leaving you alone with no one to support you? Are you in need of forgiveness and repentance? Are you in need of a radically free and loving father to run down the path to wrap you in his arms, to love you even though you don’t deserve it? If so, the Father is here, running toward you.
Or are you like the Older Brother, who is resentful that the unfaithful have received forgiveness? Have you been faithful since childhood, doing all that the church has asked that you do or not do? But do you fail to see how God could be so excited, so free to love and accept and embrace those who have been so unfaithful, so outspoken about their disdain for the Father? The older brother is much like Jonah, who hopes that the people of Nineveh will not repent.
Or are you like the Father? That would be a wonderful thing, and I’m sure there are some of you who are like the father, people who have been so transformed by the love and grace of God that they will stop at nothing to share that same love and grace with even the vilest of people, even if it means their own shame. O Lord, help us to be like that! We all need people who are like the father to embrace us in our unfaithfulness and in our resentfulness.
Regardless of who you are today, regardless of if you are the wayward younger brother or the resentful older brother, this story calls us to leave behind our former attitudes and ways of life and allow the radically free and loving arms of our Heavenly Father embrace us. We don’t know how the story ends for these two brothers, but what we do know is the Father is there, with open arms wanting to embrace and transform the lives of both the younger brother and the older brother, so that they might become like him.
Our preparedness for the coming Kingdom of God is contingent upon our acceptance and offering of the radical grace of God the Father. If we are to live as citizens of God’s Kingdom, if we are to understand the nature of the cross and the power of the resurrection, then we must allow the unfathomable grace of God the Father to flow through us to those have been unfaithful.
Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
The younger brother begins this parable by requesting his half of the inheritance he would receive when his father died. Why do you think he makes this request? How might this have made his father feel? How do you think his older brother felt?
Have you ever acted, albeit maybe not as severely, like the younger brother? What were the consequences of your behavior?
The younger brother represents an unchecked freedom and self-centeredness. What were the consequences of his behavior?
We are often led to believe that we should only look out for ourselves first. How does this parable go against that notion?
The father’s response to his son’s response is rather lavish. Put yourself in the father’s place. Would his reaction be your first action? Being honest, what would be your first reaction to the return of a son like the younger brother? The older brother has been faithful this whole time. Is his reaction to the return of his younger brother reasonable? If so, why? If not, why?
Reread verses 29-30. Have you ever found yourself saying similar things in regard to those who have been forgiven? If so, why? How is the older brother’s reaction a misunderstanding of the kind of person his father is? How well do you think the older brother actually knew his father?
In a sentence describe each of the three characters. Which one are you most closely like?