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written by Constance Morgenstern

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Bible Study for "The Younger Son"


As I write this, while it's February, the church will soon mark Christ’s Transfiguration (e.g. Mark 9:2-8, NIV). Remember the event: Jesus is on a mountain with Peter, James and John. Jesus’ clothes and face become radiantly bright, Moses and Elijah appear, and a voice from within a cloud says, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him” (italics mine).

I like to think of Jesus in his role as Teacher (e.g. Luke 4:31-32, John 6:68, John 20:10-18). As a sometime teacher myself, I am repeatedly amazed at his skill! Through accessible stories called “parables,” he conveyed difficult concepts about God. One well-known parable that's especially intriguing is often called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” or “The Parable of the Lost Son.”

Now, here’s a bit of small print: This is a story that Jesus created, not the recounting of an actual event. So, when my song “The Younger Son” tries to retell the story from the younger son’s point of view, that too, is a work of fiction. But, good fiction should ring with truth, and Jesus’ stories ring out loudly.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is something most of us can relate to. Read it in Luke 15:11-32. Like the younger son in the story, everyone on earth has done things that are selfish, willful, foolish, hurtful, (the list goes on). Not unusual at all.

What’s most unusual in this story is the father’s response when the younger son finally comes home. Here is the son, stumbling home ragged and starving—intending to ask if he can be a hired man, since he has blown his whole inheritance on raucous living. Here is the father, whose son had asked him to break up his property, wanting the money for it, not the father’s closeness…. Yet, the father races out to embrace his rejecting runaway! And, by calling for the best robe, sandals, and a ring, he fully receives this boy as his beloved son. Even more, he calls for a first-class celebration in his joy for the son returning! (It’s no wonder that people also call this story “The Parable of the Prodigal Father.” The word “prodigal” can refer not just to the son’s initially extravagant living, but the father’s over-the-top welcome.)

That’s how Jesus portrays the intensity of God’s yearning and compassion for persons—all of us who’ve taken His blessings and done what we wanted. In fact, the story follows two other parables in Luke 15 (the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” and the “Parable of the Lost Coin”) which both tell of rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7, 10).

Jesus repeats it, so shouldn't we stop to hear?
Experience how important you are, as an individual, to our Heavenly Father! This is grace. It is life-altering truth from God’s (authorized-to-say-it) Son. Listen to him....


Part 2
Now the mind-boggling message of grace would be enough for any one parable—but in the case of our parable, there were two sons and more to be said. As Jesus taught this story, the crowd included Pharisees and other religious leaders who wouldn’t (openly) tend to identify with the younger son. They generally believed they could merit God’s favor by seriously following the hundreds of Jewish rules, and they categorized people who did not succeed at this as “sinners.” They even criticized Jesus for his association with such people. Yet Jesus, the Teacher, told this one story also for those leaders (Luke 15:1-3).

Let's consider the older brother in the story. He becomes angry when his father gives the household’s best (the fatted calf) to throw a party over the return of his little brother. After all, that rotten kid had burned through about a third of the father’s property in sinful living, probably with prostitutes (according to the older brother). Meanwhile, the older brother had stayed home, worked hard “as a slave” and obeyed his father all that time. Yet, the father welcomes the rotten kid home and reestablishes him as a son in the very household he helped make poorer! It’s so unfair!!!!

We can understand why the frustrated older brother (at first) won’t go in to join the father's party. And, you know, it’s rather brilliant that Jesus doesn’t tell us in the story if the brother ever does…

…because there are different ways this story can go.

One ending might be that the older brother does go in to the party, after considering the words of his father. Maybe he realizes that his relationship with the father hasn’t been especially loving either. Maybe he “hears himself” when he’s ranting against his father, saying how he’s worked all those years “as a slave” and “never disobeyed”? Maybe he catches how ungrateful he sounds when he accuses the father of never providing even a goat for a party with his friends. The father responds by saying, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” (Since the younger brother has already taken his inheritance, this would appear to be true.)

Absolutely, Jesus taught and modeled the primacy of loving God (Matthew 22:34-40), and he spoke against the sin of self-righteousness (e.g. Luke 18:9-14, Luke 7:36-50). However, many Old Testament teachings could have also convicted the heart of the older brother, if he would see it (Deuteronomy 6:5; Exodus 20:12, 16?; Jeremiah 2:35; Micah 6:8).

We don't know if any of the Pharisees or religious leaders who heard that story came to believe Jesus. We do know, though, that some Pharisees did become followers (Acts 15:5). Even the apostle Paul, who had been an especially zealous Pharisee, came to accept that being “righteous” by obeying all the rules, wasn’t what mattered (Philippians 3:4b-11). It was Christ’s coming to die for us, “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:6-8).

Did you notice in Jesus' story how the father also goes out to plead with his angry older son? Did you notice how lovingly and patiently the father responds to the hurtful charges of his son against him? Hear his words again: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

Perhaps, if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, you might not remember your life before God’s continuing presence, comfort, guidance and other gifts. It’s easy for many of us, too, like the older brother, to not avail ourselves of all God offers. I think the older son could have asked for a goat to celebrate with his friends—and gotten one—but he didn’t yet ask. And that wasn’t the father’s fault.

But let’s look at another reason the older brother could have gone in to the party: out of love for his brother. Did you hear how the older brother seemed to distance himself from his brother, calling him “this son of yours”? The father urges him, however, “But we have to celebrate, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again.”

God urged us to love mercy in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:17-18, Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:8), and Christ taught it as well (e.g. Matthew 5:7, Matthew 22:34-40, Luke 10:25-37).
Loving God and loving others seem to be tied together, in the Word, and in practice, too (John 15:9-17, 1 John 3:16-23, James 2:14-17). (It’s interesting to me, in Jesus’ story, that the older brother hasn’t yet seen the thin or changed condition of his brother, which might move him to pity or forgiveness. The father urges love even before that.)

So. Does the older brother go in to join the party to celebrate his lost brother’s homecoming? Did any of the Pharisees who heard Jesus’ story stop settling for the cheap, transitory pleasure of feeling superior to “sinners”, to possibly repent or want to join the party in Heaven over a repentant soul? Did they learn to “love mercy?” I’ve seen it suggested that this is actually the story of the “lost sons.” Neither one initially appreciated the depth of the father’s love, or showed much love to others.

For myself, there is plenty of room to grow in both departments! But, even in this world, I can glimpse what God intends.

The three most beautiful, radiant faces I’ve seen in recent years were not in movies or makeup ads. No. These three faces still make me smile to remember them, because they shone. One was a woman who’d come to know Christ and had recently been baptized. One was a faith-friend in her 50s, as a bride to a faith-filled man. The third was a fellow church-goer who had opened herself to more sense of connection. Love does that.

I was privileged to see those faces, blessed by the joy behind them. So, I believe that God says to all of us, as he says to both sons, “Come know my richness. Come home to joy.”



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