The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is one of my favorite parables. Not only does it contain levels of interpretation and application, but it depicts our Heavenly Father in such an intimate way. He is the Father who graciously concedes to his younger son’s outrageous request for his portion of the inheritance. And rather than holding a grudge against his son or even maintaining the cultural detachment of a patriarch, he sees his returning son from a distance, runs to greet him, and compassionately restores him.
I am moved virtually every time I reflect on this parable. It strikes a deep and unspoken place within me.
This parable has meant even more to me as I’ve come to realize that this is a resurrection passage. Twice the Father says, “For this son of mine/brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” You can almost hear the faint echoes of Ezekiel 37.
In Ezekiel 37, the prophet receives a vision of Israel’s return from exile. Israel is depicted as a valley of bones. God tells Ezekiel that he will open their graves and bring them back to the land of Israel (Ezek 37:12). This is the first primary image of resurrection in the Old Testament and it represents Israel’s return from exile. They were dead and are alive.
In the time of Jesus, while Israel had returned geographically to the land, they had not spiritually returned from their long exile. Through this parable, Jesus is putting an intimate face on Ezekiel 37. Israel is the younger son, dead and lost in exile. But by simply returning to the Father’s house, Israel meets the compassionate and intimate Father, who is quick to restore. They are resurrected, alive once again.
As a parable of salvation, the prodigal son enforces the fact that our “problem” is not a legal, moral or ethical breaking of some abstract code or law. In other words, the prodigal son didn’t do something wrong or bad and then needed to be expunged of the guilt of his crime. Rather, the son was dead. Life and hope were gone. An apology like he had planned would not solve the problem. He needed to be resurrected and restored.
And this resurrection takes place in relationship with the Father. The son simply hoped for a place as a servant in his Father’s house. But the life he needed was in the restored relationship with his Father. The Father states, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again.”
And the resurrectional relationship isn’t just a “God and me” thing. The Father tells the embittered elder son, “Everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again.” The older brother also has a role in the resurrection of his brother. Everything in the Father’s house belongs to the older brother. While he views the resources of the Father’s house as potential personal blessings, the Father implies something more in the statement “Everything I have is yours.” These resources should not only flow to the older brother, but through the older brother. The older brother should use these resources as the Father uses them. So the Father encourages him to celebrate and in so doing, the resources of restoration will flow to the younger brother. The Father is inviting the older son into the “ministry of reconciliation,” to practice resurrection and thus to be a blessing rather than expecting only to receive a blessing.
In other words, blessings are not intended to simply flow to a person but through a person to others.
But Jesus leaves the parable hanging. In some ways the fate of the older brother is more at stake than his younger sibling’s who is now alive and restored. And we realize that the older brother, despite never having left his Father’s house, is like Israel currently occupying the Land. He too is still in exile. He is also dead and in need of resurrection.