Lost and Found

Most are familiar with Christ’s parable of the prodigal or lost son. It is recorded in Luke 15:11-32. The main point is very clear: The younger son repents of his wasteful lifestyle and returns to his father’s house, and his father receives him back with joy and celebration, while his older son is angry and refuses to greet his brother.

The father’s final words bring home the main lesson of this parable: “It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found” (verse 32).

But there is much more to this parable.

It begins with the younger son asking his father to give him his portion of the father’s goods which he would inherit upon his father’s death. The early Jews warned fathers against breaking up an estate too early, but here, the father grants his son’s request, giving him prematurely what he asked for. The son leaves and wastes all that he has received with prodigal living (verse 13). In doing so, he sins against God and men (verse 18), by devouring his father’s livelihood with harlots (verse 30).

Once the money is gone, so are his “friends” and “acquaintances.” All he can do now is to feed swine—an insulting and disgraceful job for a Jew—and he has sunk so low that he would be willing to eat swine’s food, but even that nobody is willing to give him. Perishing with hunger, he “comes to himself” (verse 17), realizing that he has been living in an illusionary dream world, which seemingly started out very promisingly, but ended up in a nightmare.

Recognizing his sins and anticipating that his father would reject him as his son, he is still willing to go back to his father’s house to become one of his servants.

The reaction of his father must have been surprising to him. Seeing him from afar off, the father shows compassion, runs towards him, embraces and kisses him and adorns him with sandals, a robe and a ring, showing his willingness to accept him as his son, who was dead, but has been found. He begins to celebrate—as God the Father and Jesus Christ and the holy angels rejoice when a sinner repents.

When the older son learns about the celebration for his brother, he is angry, as Jonah was angry when God accepted the repentance of the people of Nineveh and relented from doing them any harm that He had intended to bring upon them. The older son is even unwilling to recognize the younger son as his brother (compare verse 30). With self-righteous indignation, he claims that he has never transgressed or sinned against his father’s commandments (verse 29), but that his father never celebrated with him. He acts with envy, saying that his father’s conduct is unjust towards him. He behaves like the Pharisee who proudly compares himself with the sinner in the temple, saying that he is better than the sinner. Job had the same attitude of being proud about his self-righteousness, and he became angry when he had to suffer and did not receive at once the reward to which he thought he was entitled.

However, the father makes clear that a just reward will be given for just behavior. The younger son would not inherit anything, having wasted his share. He would not have any part in the remaining livelihood of his father which is reserved exclusively for the older son. The fact that the younger brother is given favors does not mean that there are no favors in store for the older son. Since all that the father has is the older son’s, he can always kill a fatted calf, whenever he pleases.  On the other hand, the wasteful life style of the younger son will have negative and lasting physical consequences for him for the rest of his life.

Still, the younger son has returned, and that was reason enough for celebration, and the older brother should have rejoiced too and joined in. We don’t know from the parable whether he finally did. It is hoped that he forsook his anger and overcame his self-righteousness, envy and pride, following his younger brother’s example who had repented of his sins, swallowed his pride and returned humbly to his father’s house.

We all can and should learn from this parable. If we have sinned against God and men (and there is no human being who does not sin)—we need to confess those sins to God and repent of them, and reconcile with our fellow man, while leaving the past behind. Some are too proud to do that; others are too timid and fearful. But without “coming to ourselves” and acting like the younger son did, we will not return to our father’s house.

Likewise, if someone has sinned against us and shows his regret, we must embrace him and receive him back. We must bury any grudges, forget the past, accept the repentant brother and reconcile with him. If we refuse to do this, we will stay outside like the older brother did, and we won’t go into our father’s house to join the celebration.

You might say, “I would never act like the younger son, leaving my father’s house and wasting my father’s possession.” Or, “I would never act like the older son, refusing to take back my brother.” But in saying this, you might very well be wrong and deceive yourself. Paul does not say without reason: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12) and, “Do not be haughty, but fear” (Romans 11:20).

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