Tag Archive: Prodigal Son


He hung up the phone.  He knew it was trouble.  He knew deep down it would be the last time he spoke with his brother.  No one was going to die; but the relationship, which was on life support, was.  

It had been going on for some time.  It was one of those ,what do they call it, enabling relationships.  It wasn’t so much that they needed each other.  Due to the blood line, they were expected to tolerate each other.  

The older brother was a master manipulator.  He was a juggler.  He did not juggle things.  He juggled people.  Some might say he was a narcissist.  Others might go so far as to label him a psychopath or a sociopath.  It didn’t need to be labeled.  He simply used people for his own benefit.   

The younger brother knew something was wrong.  It started one Christmas.  He got a race track he always wanted.  Making a long story very short, the  older brother ended up ruining it and blaming it on the defeated youngster.  

Part 2 was even worse.  Their sister wore wigs.  That’s what they did back in the 70’s.  One day the wig ended up with a huge hunk cut out of it.  It was clear that a razor was the weapon of choice.  Guess who got blamed and severely punished?  You know it!  Even though the younger brother had a very viable alibi, he couldn’t stand up for himself yet.  During the punishment, the older brother never said a word.  He won!  That his how his life was to be.  The older one never lost. 

A few years later, during a game of one-on-one street hockey in the yard, the relationship issues began to show the ugly side.  In the middle of the game, a friend of the older son rode past.  “I’ll be right back.  Wait for me,” he yelled to his brother.  The younger brother waited.  And he waited.  After what seemed like an hour, he quietly walked off the court.  That day began the descent.  He knew it ,but, as he used to say, “That’s my brother.”

After the younger brother married, the couple were sitting at a table engaging in conversation with the, by now, arrogant juggler.  In mid sentence, a more prominent family member walked in the room.  Without finishing his thought, the juggler dropped the conversation in mid sentence and chased after his next victim.  As the younger brother’s wife looked at him, he shrugged his shoulders and muttered what everybody had been muttering for some 30 years now, “That’s just him.  Don’t worry about it.”  

The stories could go on and on.  Throughout their life the older brother took on the image of the Biblical older brother, especially the one in the Prodigal Son story found in Luke 15.  He knew how to keep those he wanted close and satisfied.  He also knew how to manipulate the others.  

He had a good reputation with those on the outside.  He knew what words to use.  It was like he was a card shark, counting cards and knowing the percentages for his next play.  When God is somehow attached to users and manipulators, it makes the picture very blurry.

I have come to learn that, in many family situations, the idea of the older vs. younger brother situation in Luke 15 is not just a classic parable by Jesus but a picture of actual co-dependent relationships in our families, and without question, in our churches.  

It seems that when love, grace ,and mercy are to be idealized, the abuser (yes, that is what they are) finds fertile soil to toil his manipulative practices. We often forget about the older son in the Prodigal Son parable.  He doesn’t seem like a primary character.  Not only that, but we like to focus on the Father and the wayward younger son due to the incredible love and grace.  It’s easy to forget about what looks like a successful, obedient, faithful son.  

I have looked at that one for years.  My eyes were opened as I sat listening to teaching on this one.  The speaker looked right at me (it seemed like it) when he said, “Few realize the older son did not love his father either.  He only wanted what his father had.”  Ahh, who says the Bible isn’t grand.  They understood modern psychology thousands of years ago.  At the end of the day, those who use people, juggle their relationships to look good, and abuse those closest to them with words and attacks don’t love the person in front of them.  They want what they have.  They want their attention and praise.  

The younger brothers spent years trying to figure out what to do with these enabling, co-dependency relationships in their family and in their church.  I think I know why the younger son asked his dad for his inheritance and took off when he got it.  He wanted to get out of the relationship with the older brother.  When he came home, he did not come home to make amends with the brother.  He came home to the father.  

After so many years, the younger brother has figured out what is the best way to handle this one.  He shut the door to the older brother much like Esau and Jacob.  Jacob came home after many years, but there is no indication the relationship with Esau was renewed.  In fact, Jacob put a distance between him and Esau when peace was established.  It wasn’t that he feared his brother.  He  just knew who he was. 

Maybe some of you reading this article are being used and abused by a family member or church member.  More than likely you have tried to practice love, grace, and mercy.  I have come to figure out that shutting the door to such relationships is love, grace and mercy. 

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The outfielder picked up the base hit as it rolled nicely along the turf.  He aligned himself for his throw to home plate.  The ball rocketed out of his hand as the baserunner rounded third and headed for home.  The throw landed short and skipped to the catcher, who waited anxiously for the throw.  The runner slid head first into home, reaching his hand forward.  The catcher made the catch and lunged to tag the speedy runner.  As the dust settled, the umpire screeched, “Safe,” signaling wildly with his arms.  

Don’t look now but spring training has begun for Major League Baseball.  Around the baseball diamonds in Florida and Arizona, players and umpires have begun preparing for the upcoming season.  All want to be “safe” when they touch home plate.  

I remember the days of youth ministry where “safe” had a different meaning.  When we held parent meetings over and over again, year after year, we would hear, “We want a place where our children will be safe.”  There is that word again.  I have to admit I can be a bit of a smart aleck.  My mind works overtime when I want to poke somebody.  Instead of referring to the baseball safe or the safe where we place our valuables, I would ask them politely what was their definition of “safe.”  Amazingly, this simple question often left them speechless.

This past week, a young church attender and I were having a stirring conversation about faith, the church, and his life.  He admitted he has not been a consistent church attender.  With a deadpan look, he said, “My church and my pastor are too safe.”  My mind went back to my youth days and wanted to poke him.  However, the look on his face oozed seriousness.  So, I asked the simple question once again, “What do you mean by safe?”  

Being a young guy, he did not want nor need church to be a safe place.  Safe means we don’t talk too much about sin, and we don’t challenge ourselves with Jesus either.  He needed the wild and crazy Jesus to challenge him out of his safe life.  My mind was working overtime by now.  I looked at him as we drove down the road (not recommended for safe driving) and asked, “When you open the Bible do you see a safe Jesus?”  “Heck no,” he replied.  “I see a very unsafe Jesus.”  

With one of those silly grins I can get I looked at him a little longer than before.  He grinned back as well.  I said the same thing to him I would tell teenagers parents, “Jesus isn’t safe!”  Jesus is far from it.  

Open the Bible sometime and look for a safe Jesus.  You won’t find one.  Jesus disrupts lives, and our default button demands comfort.  Jesus confronts the comfortable.  It was Tim Keller who defined the prodigal (recklessly spendthrift) as the Father (representing the Heavenly Father Jesus knew) not so much the wayward son.  The prodigal is far from safe.

Safe people want a Jesus who does not offend them.  I like to say a church is a place to call yourself a sinner, but the local bar is where you can tell someone what kind of sinner you are. Let’s not talk too much about sin.  Let’s just make it safe to be a sinner.

On the other hand let’s not be confronted too much with Jesus.  Let’s believe in Jesus so we won’t experience hell and be a “good” person is the usual trend.  Don’t challenge us too much with Jesus; we might just follow!  Following Jesus takes in all his teachings, which extend way beyond John 3:16.  

Jesus said, “Whoever will lose his life will find it.”  That doesn’t sound too safe to me.  He also said, “You can’t serve two masters, for you will love the one and hate the other.”  A safe Jesus lets us have our cake and eat it too.  Didn’t one of the first calls of Jesus implore the first disciples to “Follow me,” and they dropped their nets?  Those nets represent all sorts of things.  It was their life.  It was their family.  It was their sense of identity and success.  Dropping those nets to follow Jesus was dangerous!  

We as humans continue to look for the real deal.  Bono sang, “and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”  He marched in front of a generation who is looking for a faith that is authentic.  A faith that is authentic with its failings and authentic in its hope.  A Christian expression that tries to dress up the ugly bride is like trying to sell a car without an engine by repainting the exterior.  The gospel is dangerous, and at the same time priceless.  It calls one to drop their nets. At the same time it that our unquenchable thirst can be addressed by Jesus, whose blood forgives me of all my sinful and wayward ways.  

It’s a faith that isn’t afraid of our sin. It’s a faith that rests solely on Jesus.  It’s a faith that is far from safe.  “Drop those nets and follow me,” Jesus called.  It’s only then that one can be safe.  Safe from our own imaginations.  

I came across an article by Dr. James Emory White in which he listed the top 10 books that helped shape his faith.  I’ve written that one before.  I must be a slower learner.  My list of 10 is really about 18.  

At about the same time I read Dr. White’s article a dear friend dropped off a worn copy of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son picture.  He and I are constantly discussing the amazing story Jesus told to give a picture of his great redemption.  We talk about how we often demand our lot from God and run away squandering it.  Rembrandt’s rendition catches the attention of  both of us.

I don’t want to list the top 10 books that almost everybody reading this article will not read.  If you want to know email me.  I don’t want to list my favorite verses.  Why?  They are mine not necessarily yours.  I would like to talk about the Prodigal Son story.  Tim Keller, author and theologian, calls the story the Prodigal Father.  He’s right.  Prodigal means “wild.”  It’s not about the wild son.  It’s the wild nature of the Father who welcomes his son back to the family with no questions or demands.  The Scriptures are fulfilled in this story where we read in Psalm 103:12, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us,” and Hebrews 8:12, “For I … remember their sins no more.”  

Rembrandt’s picture details the love, grace and mercy in such forgiveness.  It is consuming and mysterious at the same time.  Henri Nouwen, author, had an opportunity to sit for hours with the original painting.  It humbled him and inspired him at the same time.  

The hands of the father bring comfort to the weary son whose shoes and feet reveal his troublesome paths.  We like to think we can hide the paths we have taken.  If only our feet and shoes could talk!  So often those paths are far from a loving God.  We like to think we know better than the young boy.  But, it’s the hands of dad that bring safety, drawing the smelly, stained and broken boy to his bosom.  

The eyes of the Prodigal Father look downward with compassion at his long lost boy.  He isn’t looking for a response from the onlookers.  He isn’t rolling his eyes as if to say, “What do I do now?”  No, they look to his boy.  His son!  Yes, “all we like sheep have gone astray.”  But, He, as the Good Shepherd welcomes the wayward one home.  No questions.  No demands.  The safety of His embrace is all that is needed.

Meanwhile, the onlookers are watching every move.  The older jealous brother of the prodigal is shadowed in the darkness that surrounds the embrace.  Their faces speak volumes of questions.  Those questions often like ours are not ones of redemption but rather ones of judgment.  

Can you hear those questions?  Where has he been?  What is wrong with the father?  Will he not have to give account?  They go on and on.  All questions whose answers cannot satisfy the one asking.  After the questions come the comments.  We have all heard them.  He must pay!  He is not allowed in the house smelling like a pig!  He needs to take a bath?  His father is out of his mind!  

From the Father come no words. His actions are more important than his words.  Few understand it is not the actions of the son that are the center of this story. It is the actions of his father that are the emphasis!  For his actions say more than words can.  Anybody can say, “I love you.”  What they do in the name of love will reveal them as true or not.  

Of course this picture and story reveal the nature of our faith in Jesus Christ.  Christianity has forgotten that the faith is not about the Christian.  It is about the Christ.  HIs love transcends the expectations of a fallen people.  HIs grace is limitless.  HIs mercy is so profound a wayward son can’t help but be on his knees.

Left in the shadows is the brother.  His attitude and words reveal that he doesn’t understand the heart of his father as well.  He thought it was about obedience.  His love of the law kept him as well from the love in the heart of his father.  So, he stays in the background.  He should be on his knees as well.  

Our world is full of questions.  It’s full of condemnation and criticism.  What will it take to turn it’s focus as in the Rembrandt masterpiece, to the love, grace and mercy of the Prodigal Father?  We know the answer.  In the end of the Good Samaritan story, when mercy was given,   Jesus gives a simple command.  He says, “Go and do likewise.”  As we embrace the love of the Father, the words echo again, “Go.”  There’s more.  “Go and do.” Nope we are not there yet.  “Go and do likewise.”  Like whom?  His name is Jesus.  We can’t be known for our obedience.  But we can be known for our love, grace and mercy of which the Father through Jesus gives immeasurably to us and desires for us to give to others.