What the Parable of The Prodigal Son Teaches Us About God

What the Parable of The Prodigal Son Teaches Us About God May 14, 2019
Courtesy of Pixabay

There are many stories throughout the Scriptures that teach us what happens when families fight. In fact, it could be argued that that is what a good majority of the book of Genesis is all about. From Cain and Abel to Jacob and Esau, all the way to Joseph and his older brothers, this book is chock full of family drama, vengeance, and out-and-out violence.

These stories are not included without reason, however. It’s not just drama for the sake of drama. There’s real anthropological and psychological meat for us to chew on.

In the story of Cain and Abel, for instance, we have a tale about two brothers who vie for God’s favor in the form of sacrificial offerings. Both brothers desire God’s blessing and favor, and when only one is perceived to have it, they get into a bitter rivalry that ends in spilt blood: Cain rises up and kills his brother Abel. This starts the downward spiral of seventyfold vengeance that culminates in a flood of epic proportions.

Fast forward a handful of generations to Jacob and Esau. On the one hand, Esau was loved by the boys’ father, Isaac, but on the other, their mother, Rebekah, loved Jacob. Family drama, am I right?! Mimetic jealousy of the highest order! On top of that, there was this whole business about the birthright and blessing from Isaac. Who was gonna get it? Well, tradition stated that it was to go to Esau, being that he was the eldest. But Jacob, being the heel-grasper that he was, used his deceptive nature to trick Isaac into giving it to him. This causes a near lifelong crisis that, on multiple occasions, almost ends in blood.

And finally, there is the story of Joseph and his brothers. And again, it all comes back to fighting over who is the “chosen one.” Who is gonna find favor? Who is “the man?” In this story, it was going to be Joseph, the youngest of the lot. At least, according to Joseph’s dreams. In them, it was implied that all of the brothers were going to serve the youngest. Joseph was going to be supreme among them. So, they plot to kill him. But instead, Joseph gets away, is sold into slavery, and then rises the Egyptian ranks until he becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man. After some plot twists and a bit of deception by Joseph, it is revealed that Joseph indeed became “the man” among them, and there you have it, the dreams come true.

What can be gleaned, among other things, is that when we compete for God’s good graces, or our father’s blessing or birthright, we end up tangled up in mimetic rivalry that often ends in bloodshed. The same could be said about the two brothers in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

In this parable, after the younger brother squanders his entire inheritance, forcing him to become a swineherd, he comes crawling back to his father with his proverbial tail between his legs. His father, however, showing no favor to either son based on any merit or good-standing in the family, comes running down the lane to shower his son with love and, shortly thereafter, a celebratory meal. That is to say, the father showers his son with preemptive love, grace, and mercy.

This, as we’re all probably aware, pisses the eldest son off. He gets caught up in pure mimetic jealousy: “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) For the eldest, it was all about a quid pro quo: I did this so I deserve that; he didn’t do this so he deserves nothing! But for the father, who is to be a picture of God, there is no such exchange, no such mimetic set-up for the sons.

The father, rather than getting annoyed by his eldest’s jealousy, reminds him that, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:31–32). What we should notice here is that the father’s grace is free, and his love for his sons of equal breadth and depth. Unlike Isaac, who specifically loved Esau over Jacob, there is no favor shown one way or the other. One isn’t blessed over the other. Both are blessed equally. Everything that is the father’s is also the sons—both sons, regardless of their behavior.

Now, we certainly can see how this sort of unadulterated grace can cause scandal for many. We still tend to operate under systems of exchange, a tit for a tat and all that. We expect that our “good” behaviors will be rewarded while their “bad” behaviors will be punished. We expect the Deuteronomic God who blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked (see Deuteronomy 28). But God isn’t like that. As Jesus teaches us in Matthew 5:45, God sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. God, like the father in the parable, gives all he has to both sons, regardless of their past deeds (or misdeeds).

Sadly, this is something that is often either missed or overlooked by many Christians. We tend to oversimplify things and only focus on the sons in the story. What we need to do, however, is focus a little bit of our attention on the father because it seems to paint a picture of God that is strikingly dissimilar to the gods we tend to concoct in our image. We approach things in an economic way and tend to create gods who act similar. We bless those in the right while punishing those in the wrong and we tend to think God acts like that. But not for Jesus. Not here in this parable. God is always giving all God has, even when we don’t think they deserve it.

Let us be less like the sons and more like the father.

Peace.

 

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About
Matthew J. Distefano is the author of 4 books and co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour podcast. He lives in Chico, Ca with his wife and daughter. You can read more about the author here.
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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ivan T. Errible

    this is stupid. Like religion itself.

  • Then go find something better to do, instead it wasting your time making vapid, worthless comments that contribute nothing of value.

  • RonT

    The father gives all he has to BOTH sons. Not true. While it is true that there was a share of property given to the one son in the beginning, on his return he received acceptance back into the family; however, everything that the father had went to the elder son.

    While the father did wait patiently as our Father, God, waits for our return, the prodigal son had to acknowledge his misadventure and return with repentance to be accepted back into the family.

    In this situation, I don’t know of a time limit (maybe his father’death), but in our situation, our return is limited by our lifespan. In the son’s situation his fate was a life of feeding of the pigs – or worse. In our case, the Bible is quite clear of the future of those who miss the deadline of our earthly demise.

  • KontraDiction

    It’s not a perfect metaphor for God’s love, then. Love isn’t property, a limited thing to be divided between us. The utter scandal of this story is that the father didn’t even wait for the son’s apology, he started running toward him the moment he spotted him off in the distance. Then gave him his ring and a fine cloak – symbols of full integration back into the family. No more feeding pigs! He was fully a son again, perhaps he never even left his father’s grace, despite his awful behavior.

    In light of this overwhelming grace, any deadline or punishment seem really out of place, if not ridiculous.

  • RonT

    You are correct, love isn’t property, but the younger did in-fact demanded property sharing. Concerning “off in the distance”, would you not be excited to find someone you loved, believed permanently had gone from the family, returning. Notice, the son did make apology, and showed repentance BEFORE the father extended full integration back into the family.

    You are right, we are unendingly offered God’s grace as was the case with the prodigal son.

    Without a deadline do we will all go to Paradise – but wait, Isn’t Jesus’ job that one day He will judge wicked? What then is the reason for the White Throne Judgement? What does “(Hebrews 9:27) Death and then the judgement” mean?

  • RonT

    I don’t see my reply here, so, I will re-post again (here) to be sure you get it.

    You are correct, love isn’t property, but the younger did in-fact demanded property sharing. Concerning “off in the distance”, would you not be excited to find someone you loved, believed permanently had gone from the family, returning. Notice, the son did make apology, and showed repentance BEFORE the father extended full integration back into the family.

    You are right, we are unendingly offered God’s grace as was the case with the prodigal son.

    Without a deadline do we will all go to Paradise – but wait, Isn’t Jesus’ job that one day He will judge wicked? What then is the reason for the White Throne Judgement? What does “(Hebrews 9:27) Death and then the judgement” mean?

  • KontraDiction

    Well, as Matthew said in the article, “We expect the Deuteronomic God who blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked. But God isn’t like that. As Jesus teaches us, God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. God, like the father in the parable,
    gives all he has to both sons, regardless of their past deeds (or
    misdeeds).” (the links to verses are in the article above)

    I can see that you want there to be repentance before acceptance and love, and that is the way of most justice systems. They are retributive, demanding punishment to make amends. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be about divine judgement as much as divine love. He hangs out with sinners, not to berate them, but to extend grace to them. I feel too many Christians focus exclusively on judgement (especially of other people!) and completely miss the grace part.

    Let God handle judgement, we are here to love each other as God loves us – no exceptions, no conditions.

  • RonT

    Your last sentence is correct: God, in the form of Jesus, will judge, as I mentioned in my last post. In your opinion, what will be the purpose and result of ( as you mention) let God’s handle judgement?

    It isn’t that I want repentance before acceptance, that was determined without my input: Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.(Luke 13:3,5), From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”(Matthew 4:17).
    Christians are not necessarily judging when they encourage others to repent. I sense a little judgement here.

    Why did Jesus have to be unjustly crucified? Why did Jesus direct the apostles to Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieves shall be condemned? Or, do you believe that all living and dead people regardless of their condition be future citizens of heaven?

    Grace means that God OFFERS to all – salvation for the taking or refusal. I would not say that Jesus HANGS OUT out with sinners. He did meet with them to tell them about salvation. Mark 16: 15, 16 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation . He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieves shall be condemned.

    Just a side thought. The story of the Prodigal son states that (1) the younger took his share and spent it. The father states, to the elder at the younger’s return celebration, (2) that (ALL) everything that the father has belongs to him! So, there is no portion to give to the younger. If he gave the younger his share in the beginning and all he had left he gave to the elder.when the younger returned, how could he give both the same.

  • Bones

    According to you, if the prodigal never returned and died, the father would dig up his body, revive it, and torture it forever.

    What was it Jesus said to a woman caught in sin????

    Without any act of repentance???

    He says….

    Neither do I condemn you.

    Go and sin no more.

    (Apparently if the woman died Jesus would then condemn her and torture her).

    BTW luke 13 is about the judgement on the Jews as shown by the fig tree later on in in verses 6-9.

    Studying context is handy. That way you know what you’re talking about and not pulling out verses willy nilly.

  • Widuran

    God always forgives us when we run back to him.

    The older son thinks God is a slave driver and he earnt his blessings. Which is a falsehood.

  • KontraDiction

    I’ll be honest, I’m no expert on God’s judgement, but if he’s as loving and forgiving as they say he is, I’m not afraid.

    Yes, you sense correctly, I AM tired of Christians’ judgementalism, it really gets on my nerves when religious people go on about how every one else is a sinner who needs to repent, without displaying the kind of empathy and kindness I would expect from a follower of Jesus (I don’t mean you in particular, it’s a general observation).

    The idea of eternal torment just doesn’t doesn’t make sense if there’s a loving God. Especially if it’s just because someone didn’t believe a certain doctrine or perform a certain ritual. I’d never condemn my kid for that, and I would hope God is a better parent than I am.

  • RonT

    I concur: “Studying context is handy. That way you know what you’re talking about and not pulling out verses willy nilly.”.

    In the first application I think you are just being argumentative. You missed the major point of the story intentionally or unintentionally.

    In the second you missed the context because this was an application of Moses’ law. Jesus couldn’t condemn her because he did not witness her in the action, and also in Moses’ law the man would have be there to be stoned with the woman. Only someone that witnessed the action had right to throw the first stone, or accusation(sp), and I believe there had to be three witlessness. Anyone that made a false accusation would be punished by the same penalty that would have been applied to the innocent party.

    As you know this was a devious setup question to trip Jesus up.

    You are correct. The story of the fig tree was about Israel, but I referenced Luke 13:3,5. The fig tree is a new story (parable) that starts with verse 6. That is a whole new concept from 3 to 5.

  • Bones

    Lol talk about reading your own bs into the texts. Yep Jesus would’ve stoned the woman to death if the right procedure had been followed.

    Bahahahahahahahaha

    In the first application, you’ve missed the entire point of the story ie the woman was not condemned though apparently you would have killed her. Well done, Mr Phar I See.

    Secondly, the whole point is how mosaic law brings death whereas jesus brings forgiveness. Notice your jesus would execute her but for a technicality. So jesus is really no different to the pharisees who we know were sticklers for the law in Jesus’s time. (Gee I dont know maybe look up the school of Shammai who controlled the sanhedrin in Jesus’s time). While you’re at it maybe do some study of the conflict in John’s gospel with the Jews.

    Well done for missing the whole point of the story.

    Says a lot about you and your ‘god’ actually.

    You follow a god of death.

    Lol let’s get this right about luke 13.

    Starts off talking about Jews in v1 and 2.

    Then apparently skips to talking about condemning all humanity in v 3-5.

    Then back to judging Israel in the following verses.

    You really don’t have a clue do you?

    Why does your god hate people so?

    I think that’s just a projection of your own beliefs.

    Come back when you know what you’re talking about.

  • Bones

    Well according to Ron, the only reason Jesus didn’t bludgeon a woman to death with rocks was because the legal process hadn’t been followed.

    Says a lot about his view of humanity and God actually.

  • Bones

    Btw when jesus asked the father to forgive those who were driving nails into him, did he?

    Or did he have to wait for their repentance?

    Which if it didn’t happen, would make it a meaningless prayer.

  • KontraDiction

    Right? I like this view a lot better. Doesn’t wait until we’ve met his standards, just wants us all in his arms. Not stingy or angry or eager to punish, but eager for us to become the best version of ourselves.

  • RonT

    Bones, what ever you say! I guess I am confusing you because your interpretation of what I am writing in not what you are reading or replying. Since we can’t seem to discus with out insults and I will not trade insults and sarcasm with you or anyone. Seems like some Progressives are very angry and rude. Bye

  • Bones

    Go run away Ron.

    Yet again people of your ilk are shown for the dishonest swindlers they are.

    Anyone who thinks Jesus executes women is no better than ISIS.