Looking for the hidden treasures is actually a fun way to read Scripture, especially something as well-written as the Gospel of Luke. Here’s another famous, famous, famous story from Luke. And, this one is only in Luke’s gospel:
The Parable of the Lost Son
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
There is so much here that stokes the imagination, especially when we do what we are usually taught to do and read the father character as a stand-in for God.
We can hone in on how at the beginning of the story the younger son basically wishes his dad dead: “Dad, I’ll take the inheritance you owe me when I die right now thank you very much.”
We can focus on the cycle of living it up, crashing hard, and realizing that we want to return to the safety of home again.
We can rejoice in the jilted father’s compassion (literally his hurting guts) for the renegade son whom the father sees shuffling up the path to the family home.
We can remember that the father actually shames himself publicly by running to greet his useless, unappreciative, deadbeat son.
We hear all of this and more and it is awesome. It’s gospel, especially when we picture ourselves as that younger son. It’s that amazing grace energy that has fueled hymn lyrics like this:
Love lifted me! Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help
Love lifted me.
And, of course, this:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
But there’s another son, an elder son. And he gets 8 whole verses, almost as much screen time as the rebellious, younger son. Yet the older son is easy to forget, even though he’s where Luke is focused at the end of the story.
Even more than that, the elder son’s story is left open-ended. It’s with the elder son that Jesus in Luke breaks the wall of the story, looks at us, and asks, “So, what do you think? How do you believe the story will end? Do you think the elder son who has been wronged by the amazing grace of his father will let it go and join the salvation party? If so, can you live out of that conviction?”
In this angle on the story Luke unlocks another aspect of grace – amazing, perplexing, and Jesus-shaped grace. We are great at coming up with contemporary versions of the story of the younger son, maybe even stories from our own lives.
But, what about casting ourselves as the character of the elder son who is incensed by how his father seems as wasteful with love as his younger brother is with money? This role actually hits much closer to home for me based upon my life-experiences during the first 40 years of my life. What about you?
I even think that the father winning over the elder son is a much harder miracle than reclaiming the younger son. But, what if the father does it? What if he and his love pull it off?
How does amazing grace look to you in the role of the younger son?
What does it look like to you in the role of the older son?
And, if you dare, take on the role of the prodigal father for a moment. How does graceful love look then?