Gary Inrig, in His book, The Parables: Understanding What Jesus Meant, says, “The parable could be better called ‘The Parable of the Father’s Heart,’ pointing this out because there are, in fact, two sons and both have problems, and there is the Father who loves them.”
Today, many of God’s children are outside the Father’s house; some are even in the Father’s house (the Church) and haven’t truly come in yet. Then there are those in the Word, but not the church, and those claiming to know Christ but yet haven’t come in.
Why are so many people claiming to love God and yet stand outside His house? More than half of the world now is standing outside, unwilling to come in, because of contempt, shame or anger with a brother or sister on the inside.
Jesus tells this parable because of a charge levied against him by the Pharisees: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2). Who then were the sinners? Ordinary, non-religious people, unclean tax collectors, street people who didn’t care about the Temple but did care deeply about the truth – these were the people drawn to Jesus.
Jesus’ simple point in telling the story was: “How can we say we love God, if we don’t know what hurts and brings Him joy?” Often our behavior towards others breaks God’s heart.
The father was waiting for one son to come home but now he pleads with the other to come inside.
In the father’s response to both, we see no pride, just love, grace and mercy. The father’s excitement about the lost son’s homecoming upsets the responsible elder brother who thinks, perhaps to himself (like many of us), “Why doesn’t Father wait and see if he has learned his lesson or at least changed? Why not make him feel shame, or make him feel guilty before giving him a party?”
Jesus shows us a father who accepts both the clean and the filthy, a father who needs only to know his sons love him. In the parable The Father’s Heart, the lost son represents the tax collectors and the sinners; the elder brother represents the Pharisees.
Mark Twain, once said, “Having spent considerable time with good people, I can understand why Jesus liked to be with tax collectors and sinners. There is a ‘goodness’ that is not good and a ‘righteousness’ that is not right.”
While the elder brother should have been co-hosting the party, he’s outside fussing, disrespectfully talking to his father. It is in the light of his father’s love that the elder brother’s motives become clear.
In truth, both sons are intensely self-centered, judging things by how they satisfy their individual interests. All these years, the elder son has appeared loyal, respectful and different from his younger brother. The truth is he, too, has contempt for his father. While he has shared his father’s house, he has not shared his father’s heart.
The elder brother is also a rebel. Morally respectable and publicly approved, the elder brother, emotionally, has been further from his father than his prodigal younger brother. He’s been lost in his father’s house, while his younger brother has been lost in his father’s world.
Whether we are partying in the far country or “slaving in our Father’s field,” whether we’re drifting homelessly in the streets or slaving in or around the church, whether we’re stealing clothes or selling them to get rich, whether we’re unemployed or putting people to work, the Father’s heart cries out: “Are you willing to come inside?”
Jesus is not issuing an invitation to come into the Church (though I am sure He would like us to). His real invitation is to come into His Father’s heart. If you’ve been in the Church, in the Word or talking with Jesus (as the Pharisees were) and haven’t come into the Father’s heart again, I ask, “Are you willing to come inside?”
The Rev. Dr. R. Joaquin Willis is pastor of the Church of the Open Door, at 6001 NW 8th Ave., Miami. To contact the church, call 305-759-0373 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org