The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is a familiar story for many. In fact, some of us are so familiar with it that we might even fail to see the rich contours of grace presented in its narrative. Familiarity with the story assumes its central figure to be a son who leads a wasteful and extravagant life. But a careful reading presents the multi-faceted contours of God’s extravagant display of grace towards all wayward sons and daughters.
Jesus presents this story as a crowd of tax-collectors, sinners, and religious leaders gathers around him. “A certain man had two sons,” Jesus begins. The younger of the man’s two sons insists on having his share of the inheritance, which the father grants though the request violated the Jewish custom that allotted upon the death of the father a third of the inheritance to the youngest son.(1) With wasteful extravagance, the son squanders this inheritance and finds himself desperately poor, living among pigs, ravenous for the pods on which they feed. “But when he came to his senses” the text tells us, he reasons that even his father’s hired men have plenty to eat. Hoping to be accepted as a mere slave, he makes his way home. “And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him” (Luke 15:20).
This statement reveals the first contour of God’s grace—it is a prodigal, or wastefully extravagant, grace. The prodigal nature of the father’s grace compels him to keep looking for his son—he saw him while he was still a long way off. And despite being disowned by his son, the father feels compassion for him. With wasteful abandon, the father picks up his long garments, exposing his legs and customarily shaming himself, and runs to his son to embrace him and welcome him home. The father orders a grand party for this son who has been found, “who was dead and has begun to live,” brought to life by the rich, prodigal grace, both unexpected and undeserved.
But the prodigal nature of the father’s grace is also a disruptive grace, offending any sense of fairness or justice. It seems unjust, for example, that such an extravagant party was thrown for such a reckless, rebellious son. It seems equally unjust that the dutiful, older brother was not celebrated in the same way as his wayward, younger sibling. Clearly, the prodigal nature of the father’s grace disrupts because of how it is given—prodigally and seemingly wastefully.
The older brother in Jesus’s story provocatively gives voice to this sense of outrage.(2) The text tells us that “he was not willing to go in” to the celebration. The older brother does not understand why his duty has not been similarly rewarded. “For so many years, I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a kid, that I might be merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with harlots; you killed the fattened calf for him” (Luke 15:29-30). We can hear the implicit cry, “It’s not fair!” Not only is he angry because he thinks he has not been treated fairly, but he is also angry over how the father demonstrates grace towards his younger brother. Yet, the older brother fails to hear the entreaty of his gracious father both to come in to the celebration and to recognize that “all that is mine is yours.” The grace that is given freely and lavishly towards sinners is the same grace given to those who do not see their need for it and take that grace for granted.
Jesus tells this story as a way of raising the question about who is worthy to receive grace. Those listening would expect that the older brother should be lavished by his father. His faithfulness and exemplary life merit reward. So many listening to Jesus would be shocked by the way the story unfolds. Instead of punishing the younger son—as his actions deserved—the father does the exact opposite. Instead of illuminating who is worthy to receive grace, Jesus’s story reveals the God who is wastefully extravagant in his outpouring of grace, giving freely and lavished extraordinarily on many whom we would deem the least deserving, but only if we see ourselves as excluded from that category.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Fred Craddock, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 187.
(2) Philip Yancey, What’s so Amazing about Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997).