“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field…” (Luke 15:25a)
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is probably misnamed. Don’t get me wrong, the younger son was certainly lost. Twice the father describes him as ‘dead, but alive again. He was lost and is found.’ The parable begins with the younger son wishing death upon his father (‘Father, give me my portion of the estate’) and then leaving the family to waste his inheritance. After reaching rock bottom, he ‘comes to his senses’ and decides to return to his father and beg to be taken on as a hired hand. At least then he wouldn’t starve.
But before the son even gets one word out, his father sees him, runs, embraces him, and kisses him. The son tries to make his apology, but is quickly cut off as the father calls for a celebration for his returned son. The Son is forgiven and restored to the family. He was dead, but is alive again. He was lost and is found.
This powerful portrayal of God’s mercy in the form of the father is one of the reasons this parable is so well known. It speaks of good news that this son never even imagined he would receive. Interpreters and preachers for centuries have been right to draw attention to the story of the prodigal son and his gracious father. We too have a heavenly father who runs to embrace all the lost.
Yet, I want to suggest a new name for the parable that might paint us a fuller picture of the drama: The Parable of the Two Lost Sons. This name is not original to me; I’m not sure who first coined it. However, I think it serves to remind us that both brothers are lost. Both sons are estranged from their father, but in different ways. The younger brother sees his father more as a banker than as a parent. His father is only a means to the end of getting his inheritance. When he gets his chance, he takes it and runs away to live it up in a distant land. When he comes to himself, he wants to go back to his father, but as a hired hand. He still does not see his father for who he truly is. It is only when the Father runs to him and embraces him that everything changes.
The older son is also lost. When his younger brother returns and the father rejoices, this brother sulks outside. He rebukes his father by saying, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” (Luke 15:29). This son, too, sees his father more as a banker (or a landlord) than as a father. He is estranged from his father and sits on the outside while others rejoice.
Both sons are lost. One cannot hide it. His brokenness is visible and public. The other son hides his estrangement behind obedience. Neither sees their father for who he truly is – a loving, gracious father.
The Parable of the Two Sons reminds us that each of us is lost apart from the grace of the Father. Some of us cannot hide our brokenness, while others find it easier to mask. Each of us needs to feel the embrace of the Father in our lostness, to know that we have not an angry Judge but a loving Father in heaven.
When we have been embraced and loved in our lost state, maybe then we will be willing to embrace our lost brother as well.