(Please read Luke 15:11-31 prior to reading this post. All citations are from the NIV.)
We can choose to love or undo love.
When the great American storyteller Mark Twain was asked, “Who do you think is the best storyteller every lived?” Mark twain answered, “Jesus Christ.” “Then which story is the greatest story every told?” He replied, “The Story of the Prodigal Son.”
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Of course, Mark Twain is right on both these answers. The parable of the prodigal is the greatest story because it gives the keenest insight into both human nature and divine nature. The two sons demonstrated what love is not, the father demonstrated what love is.
- Both of the sons chose to undo the father’s love.
Though they went about it in opposite ways, they both made the same choice.
The younger son chose the aggressive way to undo love. He was in line for a third of the inheritance, but he aggressively insisted on his “right” to possess it before his father died. Though he was in a home where he was safe and loved, he scorned these gifts and wanted a more exciting, more self-directed life.
Most of us do not applaud the father’s action: it seems like spoiling the son, giving him what he wanted and not what he needed. Though Abraham had given Isaac the greater share of his holdings while he lived, there was no law requiring the father to honor the younger son’s request.
Predictably, the younger son wasted the money his father had given him. He became a “conspicuous sinner.” The phrase WILD LIVING literally means “unsaved.” When the money ran out, so did the younger son’s so-called “friends.” No one offered him any help.
Left with no visible means of support, he turned to the job that Jesus’ Jewish listeners would have seen as the worst but well-deserved job possible: tending pigs. The mention of FAMINE would’ve been seen as God’s verdict on the son’s lifestyle. Not only was a swineherd, but he was so hungry, he wanted to eat the pig’s food; carob pods. The Jews had a saying; “When Israel is reduced to the carob-tree, they become repentant.”
Having finally come to the worst possible end (Jesus exaggerated the details, so his extremity cannot be expressed too strongly), the younger son was forced to admit that even the hired help back at home had it better than he did. Suffering will train us where character fails. The result of suffering’s training? HE CAME TO HIS SENSES: literally, “he returned to being himself.” This sinful life is an untrue life; it is not our real or best self. Home was fixed in his mind as a good place; he knew he’d be better off there.
Still stuck in his unloving frame of mind, he devised a confession that would allow him to come home even if his father wanted to lather him from head to foot with “I told you so” and was angry with him.
On the other hand, the elder son chose the passive-aggressive way to undo love. He symbolized the Jewish clergy who opposed Jesus. On the basis of the context, I would argue that the older son is the true focus of the parable. We have misnamed this parable; it should be called “The Parable of the Grumpy Son.”
The older son is an example of “passive-aggressive” behavior. That kind of behavior is defined in a person who is no less aggressive, but has learned indirect means to exercise their aggression. Like the older brother, a passive-aggressive person appears to be obedient and often insists on the letter of the law, even perfectionism. However, his legalism is self-serving and unloving.
Grace and love figured into his thinking only when it was to his advantage. For example, reflect on verse 29 = “I’ve never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” I bet he never asked for a goat either. Criticizing people for not doing things, especially things that were never asked for or required, that is a classic example of passive-aggressive behavior.
The older brother wanted to see little brother punished – not because he had an interest in justice – but because he selfishly believed that if his brother was punished it would vindicate his choices in life.
He saw the gracious acts of his father and utterly rejected them. Note what happened in verse 28: HE BECAME ANGRY AND REFUSED TO GO IN. He did not storm into the party and demand an explanation. He did not confront anyone. Instead, he stood outside and pouted and paced until his father came out to explain. This is another classic act of passive aggression.
Legalistically, one might argue that he has a “right” to be angry. After all, no one bothered to tell him there was a part going on, never mind how unfair it is to throw a party for his undeserving brother!
But truthfully, its hypocrisy, isn’t it?
With passive-aggressive people, their complaints are rarely the real problem. In this case, the eldest son didn’t really care about the party; he only cared that the party was not in HIS honor. Regardless of the letter of the law or his own slanted views on justice, the older son chose to undo the love of the father by being selfishly angry.
The choice that both sons made is the thing that will quickly “undo” love: selfishness.
The younger son was selfish in wanting his father to fund his sinful lifestyle. He was selfish in wanting to go his own path on his father’s money. He had been loved by his father but undid that love by selfishly insisting on his own way.
The older son behaved more responsibly, but was selfishly using the letter of the law to beat down his younger brother and elevate himself. He had also been treated graciously by his father, but undid his father’s love by selfishly insisting on the law instead of grace.
- Let’s not follow their example, but follow the example of the father;
a man who knew how to do love.
Whether our behavior is aggressive or passive-aggressive doesn’t matter. Sin is sin. Whether we try to mask it or are “at least honest,” being selfish undoes the love we ought to have for God & another. The father’s love is the example we are to follow.
Remember, God is the hero of every Bible story, including this one. His love is represented by the father’s loving actions in this parable.
We “do” love by being unselfish, we “undo” love by being selfish. That is the simple truth of this parable.
“I believe that any man’s life will be filled with constant, unexpected encouragements if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day of his life that is, tries to make each day reach as nearly as possible the high-water mark of pure, unselfish, useful living.” – Booker T. Washington, 20th century author, orator, and advisor to American presidents
“The secret of being loved is being lovely; and the secret of being lovely is being unselfish.” – Anonymous
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