Connections 04.24.2016: Rejoicing in the Found

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Luke 15:11-24

The story of the prodigal son is one of the most confounding, ridiculous, and beautiful passages in the Bible. I can think of a few headlines that might apply: “Spoiled Rotten Kid Wastes Parents’ Money, Gets Rewarded.” “Father Accused of Enabling Ungrateful Son.” “Faithful Elder Son Ignored by Father, Who Favors Youngest.” “Youngest Son Deceives Parents, Receives Pardon.” “Father Throws Party for Spoiled Rotten Kid, Celebrating His Ungratefulness.” Maybe you can think of others.

The big brother seems to have it right. It’s hard to believe in the kind of grace their father offers. It’s foolish and even scandalous. The wasteful young man should be held accountable! How dare he come back and expect to live at home again? How dare their father let him, much less celebrate him?

We feel outraged over the father’s audacity. But this feeling fades when we realize Jesus’ application from the other two stories about rejoicing in the found: the lost sheep and the lost coin. After each of these stories, Jesus affirms that there is great joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Lk 15:7, 10). Just one sinner who recognizes her failures and humbly returns to God causes great rejoicing.

Jesus doesn’t give this kind of explanation after the story of the prodigal—maybe because it doesn’t need one. The father in the parable says, “we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (v. 32). This is explanation enough.

Do you know the surge of joy you feel when something works out for you? Well, God’s joy over your return to God—no matter how long you’ve been away or how many times you’ve strayed—is worth a million of those moments. God may put people into our paths and help them say the right words at the right time, but God will never force us to come back after we choose to go our own way.

In the story of the son, the father hasn’t turned his back and forgotten his child. He watches and hopes, watches and hopes, watches and hopes. And when the child comes back, there is no condemnation or shaming. There is rejoicing! There is a party for all!

When we witness God’s grace, we may feel like the older son, confused and jealous, but I’m sure we can also understand the desperation of the younger son who came to terms with his sinfulness. He went back to get what he deserved. Instead, he got something he could never earn. That is grace, and it is for all of us. There is great rejoicing over the found!

Discussion

1. What other news headlines can you think of for the story of the prodigal son? Can you think of actual news stories that display this level of forgiveness and grace?
2. When have you witnessed “scandalous” grace given to someone else? How did it make you feel?
3. When have you personally experienced “scandalous” grace? How did it make you feel?
4. Jesus says there is great rejoicing in heaven over those who are found. In the parable of the son, this rejoicing takes the form of a huge party with fancy clothes and delicious food. How do you picture this rejoicing in heaven?
5. Why do you think one sinner matters so much to God? Do you feel like you matter this much to God? How can you show other people how much God loves them?

Reference Shelf

This is Jesus’ longest parable, and it is often characterized as the best of them all. The characters are well developed and fluid, the narrator’s diction is both clear and highly nuanced, and the plot provides tensions resolved and unresolved—the best of circumstances for interpreters, because there is plenty here to think about. Like many great stories, it resists titles. “The Prodigal Son” puts the focus on the younger son and his running away from home, but does not account for the second half of the story. “The Loving Father” correctly identifies the hero of the story, but fails to identify the source of the tension. “The Man and His Two Sons” is accurate enough, but bland; what if we called it “The Father and His Two Lost Boys” or “The Dysfunctional Family” or, with apologies to Tolstoy, “Unhappy Families Are All Alike”?

“There was a man who had two sons” sets up an expectation that there will be a contrast between the two boys. Luke’s readers will remember Father Isaac, whose two sons Esau and Jacob fought like cats in the sack of Rachel’s womb. In that story, the younger son, through his own cunning, his brother’s stupidity, his father’s blindness, and his mother’s complicity, winds up with the elder son’s right of inheritance and the parental blessing on the firstborn. If the reader is thinking of that story when this one begins, she will not be surprised to find father and sons acting in less-than honorable ways.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 507–08.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters, and watching television shows on Netflix.

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