I wonder what life would have been like for the prodigal son after the celebration. I am not talking about the next day, or the next month, or even the next year. I am curious about the long-term impact of his wandering. As far as the parable goes, his part ended well. He received his father’s love, forgiveness, and celebration. But was he ever tempted to wander again?

Jesus does not tell us. This does not seem to have been His point. He was focused on the father. He told the parable to outcasts and elites alike (verses 1-3) to help them grasp the longsuffering grace of God. But still, Jesus’ use of story ignites our imagination, especially since congregations are filled with people who, to one degree or another, identify with the prodigal son. And the imagination does not turn off immediately. Perhaps that was intentional too. Which brings me back to my wondering. What would life have been like for that younger son after his return? The social sciences, and personal experience, teach us wounds lead to scars. Mistakes carry lingering consequences. Post-traumatic stress resurfaces years later. Pastoral ministry teaches us wayward members who return to church are not immune from temptations to drift again. After the thrill of reengagement, it is common for old habits to reemerge. Prone to wander, Lord, we feel it.

Rudyard Kipling felt it too. In his poem, called The Prodigal Son (1901), he offers an imaginative meditation of the now returned prodigal son. Here is how the poem begins:

Here come I to my own again,
Fed, forgiven and known again,
Claimed by bone of my bone again
And cheered by flesh of my flesh.

Notice how the poem starts with a welcome home. The young son is grateful to be back among his own people. He is cheered to be “fed, forgiven, and known again.” But Kipling’s version of his story does not end happily ever after.

The fatted calf is dressed for me,
But the husks have greater zest for me,
I think my pigs will be best for me,
So, I’m off to the Yards afresh.

I never was very refined, you see,
(And it weighs on my brother’s mind, you see)
But there’s no reproach among swine, d’you see,
For being a bit of a swine.

Despite the forgiveness and familiarity he found at home, the younger son had a yearning. The siren song of his previous life called to him. What made it so tempting? Because he was still a bit of a swine. Which picks up on an important theme in the Christian life. It is a theme which comes into sharper focus during Lent. Christians are at the same time sinner and saint (simul justus et peccator). Baptized and forgiven, we have been restored to the family. We are home with our Father. We have returned to life with our siblings. But the sinful nature still clings. Sinful longings still stir. Familiarity breeds contempt. Life away from home does not look so bad months and years removed, especially when compared to the mundane realities of the responsible life. The older son’s experience is not far off.

Baptized and forgiven, we have been restored to the family. We are home with our Father. We have returned to life with our siblings. But the sinful nature still clings.

My father glooms and advises me,
My brother sulks and despises me,
And Mother catechizes me
Till I want to go out and swear.

Kipling’s prodigal son has begun to bristle against life at home. Restless, resistant to paternal instruction, beset by sibling rivalry, he makes his decision. Life in the home was nice, especially after hitting rock bottom. But he would not be a kept man.

So, I’m off with wallet and staff to eat
The bread that is three parts chaff to wheat,
But glory be! – there’s a laugh to it,
Which isn’t the case when we dine.

I’m leaving, Pater. Good-bye to you!
God bless you, Mater! I’ll write to you!
I wouldn’t be impolite to you,
But, Brother, you are a hound! [1]

The young son’s second farewell is less acrimonious than his first. He is a little gentler, a little more grateful to his parents, but not much more. And there is no love lost for his brother.

There is a metric playfulness to Kipling’s poem which is both delightful and disturbing. It almost sings. But it also devastates. He so easily leaves home again. Does he not value his father’s forgiveness? Did he ever truly receive it? Has he learned nothing? Are sibling rivalries so deep? How could he so quickly abandon all that is good in his life back home?

These questions are not only theoretical. At some point, they confront every Christian who has experienced the loving forgiveness of God. The thrill of God’s grace fades and the slow march toward the cross dulls the heart. At such times, the former life beckons. Temptations to return grow strong. Which makes Lent such an important annual exercise. As you continue to lead your people through Lent with this familiar parable, you might use Kipling’s imaginative expansion of this parable to warn your hearers against devaluing the love and forgiveness of their heavenly Father. They may be growing restless, weary of the mundane relationships and responsibilities of life in the Church. In fact, it is likely they are. After all, they (like you and me) are both sinners and saints at the same time. Even as they love the Lord, they also despise Him. Even as they have reconciled with their brothers and sisters, they still bristle at the thought of them. Even as they willingly receive instruction from God and the Church, they have an independent streak desiring to rebel. Prone to wander, indeed.

Your sermon, therefore, should help them recognize these things about themselves. To the extent they are (even subconsciously) devaluing God’s grace and forgiveness, call them to repent, to turn away from the sinful yearnings and the dulling of Christian joy and gratitude.

But repentance cannot be your only word, not even during Lent. Your primary task is to proclaim again the unconditional promise of their heavenly Father’s love in Christ. He still calls us to Himself. He still runs out to us with open arms. He still forgives and feeds. And He will be ready when the prodigal son “comes to himself” (Luke 15:17) a second time. He will also be ready for us.


Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 15:1–3, 11–32.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 15:1–3, 11–32.

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 15:1–3, 11–32.

[1] I have considered these stanzas from Kipling’s poem out of the order in which he wrote them. I have also left out several stanzas. I suggest reading the entire poem as it was originally composed to get Kipling’s full sense.