This is such a famous chapter in the Bible. The first two stories deal with an animal and an object, whereas the last one focuses on the loss of a person.
Jesus talks about great rejoicing when the sheep and coin are located. It reminds me of a book I’ve just started reading about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, and her parents’ absolute determination to get to the bottom of what happened to her. You see a parent’s love and you think how they would rejoice the day their daughter was found. Although it’s eleven years on now, we can still pray for that outcome.
The story of the lost (or prodigal) son is rather different. He hasn’t disappeared; he’s left of his own volition, but he’s still lost to the father and to the family. We’re not told how long the son was away; only that he wasted all his money in wild living (Luke 15:13). Later when he returns, the older son tells the father: “All these years I’ve slaved for you”, which might give us a clue. The older son would have received a double portion of the inheritance on his father’s death, so the younger would have owned one-third of the estate, which could have taken several years to spend.
At around the time his money runs out, there’s a famine and the starving son is hired by a local farmer, but no one gives him anything to eat. He thinks of the hired servants at home with enough food and some to spare, so he makes his way back. He’s forfeited his rights as a son, but maybe his father will take him on as a servant.
The father clearly hadn’t lost hope, if he saw him coming from a long way off. Perhaps he was out looking for him. Perhaps he’d been scouring the neighbourhood weekly or daily since his son left, and now here he is. The father runs to meet him and organises a lavish celebration, but this son isn’t an only child; his brother’s involved too.
I must admit I do sympathise with the older son in the story. His brother’s wilfully taken their father’s money, which in that culture would have been akin to wishing him dead. He’s made no effort to contact them until the money’s all gone … Now suddenly he’s back in the fold and their father’s beside himself with joy! It doesn’t seem right, but the heart of the older son can be seen in that phrase I quoted earlier: “All these years I’ve slaved for you” (Luke 15:29). He’s slaved. He’s served resentfully, not with joy. In a sense, perhaps he’s been as wayward as his brother, inwardly if not on the outside. The father wants both sons restored to him.
In so many sermons, we’re told the older son represents the religious leaders, while the younger represents the sinner who’s dependent on God’s mercy, but I think the older son could be me sometimes. I love the thought of people coming to God and living their lives for Him, but people who call themselves Christians and wilfully go against Him? I really struggle with that. I’d like to think when someone turned and came back to God, my response would be one of happiness and joy, but what about when their past mistakes have caused hurt and mistrust? Can I risk trusting them again? Can I believe they’re genuine?
What God ultimately wants is the same as the father in that story – for everyone to be restored into relationship with Him, so I need to look at my attitude as well. I know there are times I’ve resented God for things He hasn’t done, and I’ve felt more like a slave than the daughter of a King. Perhaps it’s time to admit we’ve all been wayward in our own ways, and we’re all dependent on the mercy of God. Because of His love for us, that mercy is ours for the taking.