The Parable of the Dysfunctional Sons: Luke 15:11-32

Luke 15 has three parables: the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and then what is commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In this post I want to focus on the third parable, but let me point out a few overall details worth noting.

The artistry in this chapter is worth noting. First, look at how Luke aligned the stories. There are 100 sheep, then 10 coins, and finally one family. Second, the genders are paralleled: the male shepherd parallels the woman who lost her coin. Finally, Luke lets us see what some of the dynamics that existed in first century families. Many contemporary families have sibling issues. Well, from this parable it is evident that ancient families had sibling issues as well.

What is really painful in this parable is that both sons are dysfunctional. One can only pity the poor father. He was such a great guy – humble, gentle, kind, and generous – but he had two lemons for sons.

Most of us are fully aware of the younger brother’s foibles. It is indeed a shameless act to ask for one’s inheritance before one’s father had died. But what is amazing is that the father overlooked such an incredible slight and acceded to the son’s request. The father responded in genuine, generous, self-giving love – masking his grief. The son then left his family, his community, his country, and went to live among the Gentiles, spending all his inheritance on dissolute living.

The suffering that he consequently encountered led him to realize what a good person his father was, and how good his father’s servants had it. So, he decided to return home to seek mercy from his father. He knew what he had done, how evil that was, but he also knew his father. He was careful not to presume upon his father’s gracious character; but, if his father would allow him, he would gladly settle for being one of the servants in the household. He figured he couldn’t call it home anymore; but, at least he would be treated well as a servant.

His father, being the well of compassion that he was, welcomed the son back – as his son. And the celebration of the son’s return began.

This is when the parable turns to the older brother. What we see is striking. The privilege the older son enjoyed of being a integral part of the family, of being related to his father, of having the heritage of such the family line, of being the inheritor of all that the father owned – the older son had lost sight of it all. He lost sight of all the material and relational blessings that he had. He had reduced his being in the family to fulfilling a set of responsibilities. As a result, the older son had become empty – empty of love for his father and empty of love for his brother. Being empty, he couldn’t share in his father’s joy and he couldn’t rejoice over his brother’s return.

The father’s perspective was so different from his son’s. He responded by saying: “All that is mine is yours.” The father could not comprehend how emotionally poor the older son had become.

Both sons had moved away from “belonging” and “love” to an alien space that was “me” centered. This self-centeredness led the younger son to grab for what he could and run away – which led to his poverty. It led the older brother to a place where he could not value his father or his brother. His self-centeredness caused him to focus on the shame the brother had brought the family. Moreover, the older brother lamented that he hadn’t had the privilege of partying with his own friends. His self-centeredness made him lose sight of all the blessings that were his day in and day out. Even with all he had, he had become miserably poor.

Now, these stories are for us. They are meant to make us ask: Who do we identify with in this story – the older or younger brother? To help us in this process we can ask ourselves: Why do I follow Christ? What is my motivation? Do I follow Christ out of love for him and the Father or have I allowed myself to coast in my relationship with God? Is my following now characterized by a sense of duty? We can also ask ourselves: How do I view my life? How do I view my own relationships in my family, on my job? Is self-centeredness robbing me from seeing all the blessings that I have?

If we have moved away from love and become duty oriented, or if we cannot see the richness that is ours in our lives, let’s take the time to recalibrate and reorientate. Let’s pray and ask the Lord to recenter us in him. He is more than willing to run to us, open his arms to us, embrace us, and fill us with his Spirit. He loves us and cares for us more than we can possibly imagine.

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