Summary: How do you know if you are inching away from a relationship with God? The story of the Prodigal Son features two sons - this is the one who don’t often hear about. Yet he usually bears the closest resemblance to those in the church.
The Prodigal Who Stayed Home
Luke 15:1, 2, and 25-32
"Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such despicable people - even eating with them!"
These two verses from Luke 15 set up Jesus’ three stories of things that were lost and then found. Really, there are three categories of people here in the two verses. There is, first of all, Jesus. Then, secondly, there are all these sinners, tax collectors, spiritual zeros flocking to Jesus, and they are thoroughly disreputable people.
Then there’s a third category, people that are thought of as spiritual giants, who are devoted to following God. These are the people who measured their church membership in decades, rather than weeks and years, finely decked out in their tailored sport coats and ties. These are the people who flaunted their attendance pins, and sat as chairmen of all the key ministry committees. These are the thorough going church people of their time, and they knew they were. And they could not understand Jesus. They say, "This fellow, who claims to be a holy teacher, this fellow welcomes riff-raff, and eats with them."
These fine churchgoers were deeply offended by Jesus having table fellowship with sinners. What they’re saying, essentially, is, "He’s watering down the faith by accepting anyone. Sure, it’s no wonder he’s successful and can draw lots of crowds when he junks all of our traditions. He’s no different than they are."
So in Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories. Most all of us here know what they are. Every one involves something lost. Somebody lost a sheep in the first one. Somebody lost a coin in the second one. Somebody looses a son in the third one.
They all knew the meaning that Jesus is laying out in these stories. The sinners who are with Jesus, this riff-raff, hear these stories and they say, "That’s me. That’s my story. I was lost like that sheep. I was missing like that coin. I was a prodigal in a distant land. Now I’ve been found, and the one that’s found me is Jesus."
But here is where Jesus turns up the heat on contented church folk. He doesn’t end the story of the prodigal son where we usually end. Actually, the part we usually read is simple stage dressing for the climax of the story.
In the second half of the story, we discover there was not simply one prodigal son in Jesus’ story. There were two. And the real force of Jesus’ story is that he confronts us with the prodigal who stayed home.
For, as you will see, the story shifts its focus from the younger son, who has returned home, to the elder brother. And, again, as we will see, we don’t have to wander away from home to be far from the father.
Let’s pick up the story at vs. 25. As we read through this part of the story, pay close attention to the interchange between the father and elder son. Luke 15:25:
25 "Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on. 27 ’Your brother is back,’ he was told, ’and your father has killed the calf we were fattening and has prepared a great feast. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’
28 "The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied. ’All these years I’ve worked hard for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the finest calf we have.’
31 "His father said to him, ’Look, dear son, you and I are very close, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!"
What picture does this story paint for us of the relationship between the father and the elder son? Pay particular attention to the relationship from the side of the elder son. How close would you say he is to his father?
There are a couple of indications within the text. Notice he never calls his parent father or dad. There is a disconnect in the relationship between father and son. The only term the son can muster to describe the relationship "I’ve been your slave".
The other indicator is he doesn’t even go to the house to find out what is going on from the father. He is suspicious from the very beginning, and so he asks someone outside. He summons the household staff out behind the barn. He could get the word straight from the old man, but he connects with the hired hand.