In Luke, Jesus tells three stories in a row depicting “I once was lost but now am found.” The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15.4-7) is about leaving the 99 to go and find the one. The Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15.8-10) builds on the first and emphasizes the joy of finding what was lost. The third story is one of the best known in scripture.
What do you call this story?
Often called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” the common title focuses so much on the one who returns, it skips the father and elder brother. Both are integral to the story and can teach us just as much as the younger son. We could call this story “The Compassionate Father” or “The Angry Elder Brother” or “The Patient Parent” or “The People Who Forgot to Count Their Blessings.” There are more iterations and each shows the significance of where we focus.
This third story in the triplet of parables isn’t just a third version of the first two. It complements and builds on them. It’s more complex. The family relationships make it easy to relate. We can put it in different contexts and time periods. No matter how we tell it, the story evokes a deep sense of pain, and it’s not a unique pain. This pain is universal. Each character shares in this pain.
The father confronts his own mortality when his younger son asks for his inheritance. I can’t imagine hearing those words, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me when you die.” Would he have not heard, or felt the insinuation, “I wish you were dead.” Or, “I’m so unhappy here that I am leaving and never coming back” because death is final.
The younger son who went to the distant land and lost everything looked back homeward. He had the pain of rejection, poverty, hunger, and loneliness. He had the pain of uncertainty. When he decided to go home, he had to wonder would his father who he wished dead even accept him as a hired hand?
The older brother felt the pain of bitterness. “I was here! I worked like crazy! Not once did you even give me a young goat to have a party with my friends.” “I didn’t go off and waste half of everything you had. I was diligent, focused, and kept our business going.”
Relationship Between the Brothers
The Bible is not clear about the relationship between the two sons. I have a brother, and we are very close. My sons are brothers, and they are close. I know lots of siblings who are really tight. This passage focuses on their relationship to the father. “There was a man who had two sons.” This sets up sibling difficulties rooted deep in the Israelite tradition: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. Jesus’ audience would have been descendants of Jacob, the younger brother. I wonder if that influenced the way people heard this story.
When we consider the pain in this story, we should think about the excluded characters. These boys had a mother, but she gets no ink. The Bible doesn’t mention sisters so the father might not have had any daughters, but being ignored or left out can be a source of deep pain. That exclusion is dehumanizing. It’s as if to say, “You don’t matter. You don’t exist.” If the father welcomed the younger son home at the end, what did the mother do? If the father wept when he worried about his boy in a distant land, how did the mother feel? If she had passed away, and that’s why we don’t hear of her, then the son leaving would compound the sadness for a grieving widower.
I can’t tell who felt the worst in this story. Was it the father who faced the imagined patricide? Was it the younger son who lost it all? Or, was it the elder brother who though he was the hard worker at the center of the family farm, had to hear about his younger brother’s return from a servant? That would be a bitter pill.
Each of us has pain. It is highly individualized and it shapes and colors the way we see the world. It impacts every interaction with have, whether with people close to us or casual acquaintances. We can suppress our pain or we can take it out on other people.
For the father, pain turned to tortured worry, but the worry didn’t take the place of the pain. The son was gone a long time. When he returned, the father didn’t question him. He didn’t ask where he had been or ask him to give a full account of how he spent the money. No. The father modeled a kind of forgiveness that is hard for us to fathom. With everything that happened, we expect some reckoning. But there’s none. There’s only love.
Before he went home, I can picture the younger son struggling to make up his mind. “Should I stay, or should I go?” He went back and forth in his mind. When finally decided to go home, he rehearsed his speech as he walked along the road. Yet, instead of letting him struggle through it, his father ran out to greet him.
In that moment, the pain was stripped away, both forget their it because they experienced love. The one who is welcoming begins forgiveness and reconciliation. It didn’t start with the son begging to be let back in. It started with the father. “Forgiving is giving life.” The father gave the son new life when he forgave him.
Overcoming pain and replacing it with forgiveness forms authentic joy, and authentic joy cannot be contained. The father has to tell the world, “My boy is back! He once was lost but now is found!” He wants others to see it too, so he throws a party. Yet the older brother doesn’t see it that way. He doesn’t understand what is happening. Once he hears the secondhand account, he gets mad. Gustavo Gutiérrez writes, “Failing to see the gratuitousness of love is failing to understand the gospel. By converting the gospel into a mere set of obligations, external rules or a guarantee of authorities without moral worth, we make a caricature out of it.”
Jesus was not telling a story about a prodigal son, forgiving father, or angry brother. He wanted his listeners to understand gratuitous love because gratuitous love overcomes pain. It can overcome the pain in our lives. When we see the depth of this love, we begin to appreciate the joy over finding the one lost sheep or coin. We start to get a sense of how much God loves us and how quickly God forgives us. Like the father, God is there, welcoming us back, keeping watch on the porch—waiting, hoping, and praying that we will return.
Earlier in Luke, Jesus says, “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (6.36). He could have been adding commentary to the kind of love and forgiveness we see in this story. Henri Nouwen wrote a book about this parable called The Return of the Prodigal Son (1992). In the conclusion, he invites us to try to become (to imitate) the father. Commenting on this idea of being compassionate in the face of so much pain the world, he writes,
That is the core message of the Gospel. The way human beings are called to love one another is God’s way. We are called to love one another with the same selfless outgoing love that we see in the father… Jesus is the true Son of the Father. He is the model for our becoming the Father.
There is plenty of pain in the world. We need not look very far to find it.
But there is also love, God’s amazing, transcendent love—a love that is so gratuitous, it overcomes pain and replaces it with joy. Jesus teaches about that love when he tells his listeners about a father, who even though his younger son wished him dead in order to have the inheritance, still loved him. Jesus teaches about that love when he tells about a son who wandered away but returned with an open heart. Jesus teaches about that love when he shows us through the angry older brother how easy it is to miss the party.
Join the party. Embrace the compassionate, gratuitous love that overcomes darkness and pain. Amen.
 R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 300.
 Gustavo Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year, trans. Colette Joly Dees (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), 60.
 Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word, 61, emphasis added.
 Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 126.