Everyone enjoys Jesus' parable commonly called, ‘The Prodigal Son.’ For some time in church history Christians focused on the youngest son. Many commentators still today choose to title the parable ‘The Prodigal Son.’ At first glance the parable does seem to revolve around this youngest son. He appears to be the most doomed and therefore the most miraculously saved. He was prodigal in the way he demanded his inheritance and wasted it quickly. Yet, many have also rightly placed the parable’s focus upon the father. Who can argue with that? After all, aren’t all of Jesus’ words and parables ultimately about Himself and His salvation? If anyone is prodigal and wasteful in this parable it is the father. He freely and without hesitation allows the youngest son to grab his inheritance and later waste it! He liberally welcomes the son back, no questions asked. He wastes even more of his goods by dressing him up and throwing a monster party! Jesus clearly wants us to see the prodigal love of God who lavishes upon the worst of sinners not just food, home and shelter, but complete forgiveness and eternal life! Thank you, Lord, for being so ridiculously wasteful of your care, mercy and forgiveness upon fools such as myself!
I have used this parable successfully to comfort many a lost son and daughter who question whether God forgives them. Yet, perhaps our Shepherd’s greater goal, if you can call it that, was to call sons and daughters who were already home, home. I really think the ultimate audience Jesus had in mind with this parable was not those lost outside, but those who were lost inside!
The oldest son never left home. He never wasted his father’s stuff. He worked hard and obeyed. He looked like a great son to those on the outside. He looked quite sanctified! Yet in a twist of the story, it turns out that the oldest son was more lost than the youngest. He was lost even though he never left. The youngest believed that his sin would keep him from ever truly being his dad’s son again, and sadly resigned himself to being his servant. Ironically the oldest talked as if he was just a servant the whole time. The oldest thought he was earning his father’s food, shelter and even love. He had no idea what forgiveness and unconditional love felt like. His father was his manager or even slave driver—not dad.
The oldest never saw himself as a sinner needing grace, therefore he looked down on those who did. Yet he never got to experience His father’s undeserved love and forgiveness. He thought that his identity was tied to his performance, not his father’s love.
There are many in our churches who similarly are lost at home. I am surprised by them all the time. They have attended many a church. They might not even remember a time when they were not a Christian. They have never done anything publicly shameful. Therefore they have mistakenly believed they aren’t as bad as ‘that’ guy. Indeed, I confess I may even be this son from time to time.
Though they have never left the church, they have been lost all the while! Like the oldest son in the parable they see themselves as workers, and not sons. They see their relationship as quid pro quo instead of All Grace All The Time! All this time they have never really experienced God’s prodigal love in Jesus Christ. All this time they never really heard, “I forgive you” after confessing some monstrosity whether publicly known or secretly owned.
There are many people lost at home in our churches. Maybe their pastor never clearly spoke the Gospel, or maybe their ears have been closed all this time. Either way, this Lent, I pray that they come home, too, just like those who wandered away!
Preachers beware, there are people lost in your pews! They may have been at home in church all their life. Still, they don’t need another sermon that assumes they know the Gospel and therefore is filled with directions for living the Christian life. Like me, they, too, need to be regularly stripped of their self-righteousness and dressed with the robes of Christ! They, too, need to be called home to the Father!