The Prodigal Project

prod.jpgFor the last three months, I’ve been leading a study of the story of the prodigal son in a men’s Bible study here at OBI. We met twice a week, and I simply took the study whatever direction was interesting to me. It’s been a lot of fun, and I have a lot of material that I would like to discuss here or write elsewhere.

The story of the prodigal son is often judged as the most effective of Jesus’ parables. Certainly it is the most emotionally powerful, as it touches close to circumstances that are timeless. One of my personal treasures in a copy of Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” which was the subject of Henri Nouwen’s excellent book on the parable and the painting.

I’ve always been fascinated by the original setting of this story. What was the audience and setting that first heard Jesus tell this story? In the movie “Jesus of Nazareth,” Jesus tells the story to the “sinners and tax collectors” at Matthew’s dinner party (Mark 2:15-17), while the disciples- especially Peter- play the role of the older brother standing outside the party, looking in the door. At the conclusion of the story, Peter comes into Matthew’s house, apologizes to Jesus and accepts Matthew as a brother.

Despite the Hollywood spin on that particularly setting, it is entirely believable to me that the story of the prodigal son was told with the intention to create a particular kind of community, and not just to invite individuals to respond to God’s offer of forgiveness.

This may sound odd to many of us because we almost exclusively hear this story used in preaching and teaching as an appeal to the individual. Even with much recent attention to the older brother or the father as a focii of the story, there are still many examples of the story being used almost exclusively as an invitation to prodigal sinners to believe the Gospel of the forgiveness.

Henri Nouwen closes his book with an wonderful chapter called “Living the Painting.” He suggests three ideas that have permeated his own application of the story of the prodigal as he has encountered it in scripture and Rembrandt’s painting. The themes are, interestingly, themes that can be pursued as individuals, but are best pursued in community. (It was the “Prodigal Project” that moved Nouwen from academia to chaplaincy at the Le’ Arche Community, where he spent his last years caring for the handicapped and those who cared for them.)

First of all, there is the “homecoming” of the prodigal son himself. The story of the prodigal can be very complex when we try to deal with all the reasons that the son leaves home or that the father allows him to be so foolish, but the story comes into bright focus on the road home. There will be a homecoming, but what kind will it be? Jesus was creating narrative tension like a good novelist. The son has come to the end of his resources and his rope. He’s been humiliated by events and forced to reconsider his life and his relationship to his father.

If you are impressed with the son’s repentance, you aren’t following the story. This is the original episode of “Survivor,” and the son is calculating how he can avoid starvation and see another day. His repentance- like all our repentance- is inadequate. It’s “sincere”…..kinda sortof. It has the right words, but if you suspect this is less than enough to gain his father’s complete forgiveness, you would be right.

The “homecoming road” is the point of real surprise. Here is where I wonder if readers realize how Jesus’ audience would have anticipated these events in the real world. A middle eastern father who had been subjected to the disrespect and embarrassment of this son’s choices would have stayed aloof. He wouldn’t have left this chair, his room or his house to meet such a son. He quite possibly would have refused to see the son for many days. It would have been more appropriate for the son to find a relative who could represent him to his father. (In fact, in some gospel tellings of the story, such a mediator would play the role of Jesus going before an “angry” father.)

Instead, the father acts in a way completely inappropriate for his station and his situation. He looks at the ragtag returning son, and is- like Jesus- filled with compassion. He leaves his chair, his room, his house. He runs- yes, runs- past his servants and employees. He runs and embraces a son he believed was dead to him. Without a word from the son, he embraces and kisses him.

The “homecoming” is already under way before the son has said a word. True to his plan, the son attempts his scripted speech, which now seems ridiculous in view of the father’s emotional reception. There is no doubt that the son has been restored from the very moment that the father sees him. In fact, the son’s speech seems almost funny, as the father is clearly not waiting for it, or particularly paying attention. He is going beyond just a welcome, or even a restoration. He is treating the son as if he were returning in honor or great victory. The father has eliminated the shame of the son’s leaving and the shame of his failure (which were surely evident in his attire and his appearance), replacing it all with the symbols of highest honor and exaltation. The son is treated as a groom, or an heir.

Jesus’ hearers would have been stunned. The father’s actions were insane. His demonstration of acceptance overturned what it meant to be a father in his culture. It ignored the loss of family honor and the son’s disrespect and sin. Instead, the father follows and acts out his feelings of love and compassion- feelings that might be understandable, but were not to be publicly expressed.

Of course, this is exactly what Jesus was doing in his ministry. His audience could see it any time they looked at Jesus’ disciples, healings or exorcisms. They could see it in his treatment of women, outcasts and sinners. Jesus was welcoming Matthew, Zaccheus and Mary Magdalene. He was giving homecoming to the demon-possessed and the unclean. In his words and actions, he was the father in this story. Jesus was presenting God in a way that was revolutionary to his hearers.

But this is more than a good story. It has a purpose. Jesus was creating a community that would keep the homecoming going. The Jesus movement was a homecoming movement. An ongoing party of welcome for prodigals by a father who has thrown convention aside and adopted a new way of being family. A homecoming movement that should perpetually have the character of the father’s party and the father’s willingness to set aside shame and “morality” for the delight of grace.

There are remarkable parallels between the story of the prodigal and Paul’s narrative of salvation in Ephesians, chapter 2.

Ephesians 2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

For his own delight, for his own pleasure, by his own grace, for his own glory…..he saved us as a gift. If that doesn’t move you, something’s wrong.

How is this a community calling? We simply aren’t going to be very good at doing this sort of thing as individuals. In communities- small groups or larger ministries- we can help one another remember and nourish what this movement is all about. It is a continuation of Jesus’ ministry. It is a homecoming that has moved from the end of the world into the present movement by way of the resurrection of Jesus. Death, sin, evil and opposition cannot stop this homecoming. We need to hear about it, and talk to one another about it every day. We need to write about it, tell stories that remind us of it, and keep the party going. Most importantly, we need to have our hearts open to the prodigals all around us. This is the spirit of Jesus that should be the power of his church: the power that sets aside shame and welcomes home those “lost and ruined by the fall.”

We need to hear about Jesus as the one who spread this homecoming everywhere he ministered. He need his presence and Word among us. As prodigals ourselves, we need to feel the father’s embrace and delight, so that same grace flows through us into the ministries and relationships that should mark an authentic continuing “Jesus movement.” This is a community project. I am so grateful to be part of a ministry that openly invites prodigals to come for an education, and to discover Jesus as the father’s welcoming presence. I wouldn’t do this well alone.

There have been moments when my son has disappointed me. Moments that I have been angry. I once broke a new DVD of his because I was angry. And then, there have been times that I’ve welcomed him home. Forgiven him and treated him graciously. There is a kind of religion that revels in the first as an expression of the justice and wrath of God, and winces at the second as soft and sentimental. I read about this in John 8, and in Ephesians 2. I’ve decided that the way of greater joy, and the way of Jesus, is the way of homecoming.

Nouwen’s second application has to do with the older brother, and the subject is our own bitterness and anger. In Rembrandt’s painting, the older brother is in the shadows; in the darkness. He is looking on with shock and dismay at the father’s reception of his wayward, selfish brother. Jesus’ story tells us that the brother was angry, and confronted the father with his embarrassing and inexplicable behavior. Even though there is a “what about me?” side to the older brother that some may find irritating, Jesus’ audience would have understood and sympathized with his case. He was the brother who had followed the rules of society, honored God and been the dutiful son. He was the son whom others would have pointed at with pride. Now, the father was humiliating him. His complain was legitimate, and his anger excusable.

The crux of this turn of the narrative is something rather unlikely. The older son was far away at the time of the younger brother’s homecoming (despite Rembrandt’s painting to the contrary) and must be informed about what has happened by a servant. In fact, the father has started the celebration without him, and without his permission or cooperation. The older brother’s approval of the father’s acceptance of the prodigal isn’t required or necessary. In the real world, this was unlikely, but it serves a crucial point in the parable: the older son must decide whether to accept the father’s restoration of his brother, or to stand apart and away from the party as a sign of his disapproval of both the prodigal and his father.

This is clearly an invitation to community. In the original setting, the “older brothers” were the serious Jews who embraced the way of the Pharisees, Zealots or Essenes: Jews who would have felt their way of keeping Torah and living within the Holiness code showed Yahweh their loyalty to him. If Israel was going to be reborn, in their view, it would happen as Yahweh sent a Messiah to those Jews who deserved restoration. To these Jews, Jesus was dangerous and heretical. All through the gospels, we can see their increasingly hostile reactions to Jesus. They seem to never be able to solve the puzzle of why Jesus is remaking Israel with the unclean and the undeserving, but they become increasingly certain that Jesus is not an agent of the true God, but a false prophet deserving death.

If you have any doubt that the Sadducees were aware of the way Jesus used stories to portray them as the enemies of Yahweh, note this comment at the end of Jesus’ parable of the Vineyard Tenants.

Mark 12:9-12 9 What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not read this Scripture: “‘ The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” 12 And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.

This was certainly not a rare occurrence. The parable of the prodigal son was also well aimed at those who would have been scandalized by Jesus’ way of presenting the relationship between Israel and Yahweh.

Nouwen, however, goes another direction in approaching the story. He observes that the older brother must step out of his anger and bitterness and choose to see and celebrate what the father has done, and will continue doing. In Rembrandt’s painting, the light falls most brightly on the face and hands of the father; a face that is filled with kindness and forgiveness, and hands that are tenderly embracing the prodigal who is on his knees before his father. This lights contrast with the darkness of the older brother’s face. In the shadows, he is seeing what the father is doing, and to come and join him, to embrace the father and become part of the community that is created by the father’s embrace, the son must move out of his anger and bitterness, into the father’s grace and forgiveness.

Certainly, every thoughtful Christian can say that he or she is the prodigal child. We also know, I believe, that we are the older brother as well, but seldom do we take this beyond the simple application of not being judgmental and unforgiving. What we are being invited into is much more. The older brother was insisting on what all of us recognize as a kind of religion that allows us to have a standing with God based on a status created by our own faithfulness. This is a way of living that gives our anger and bitterness toward others a prominent place, because we are insisting that God treat us rightly and gurantee our right treatment in return for our loyalty to him. The father recognizes this in responding to the older brother with “…you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Don’t mistake what is happening here. This is not setting up two ways of relating to God: one on works and one on grace. The older brother was held by the grace and love of the father as well, just like his prodigal sibling….he just simply didn’t understand the priority of that grace in the father’s heart. Instead, his rights as a son, insured by his good behavior and loyalty, were his priority. And so, he is justified in his bitterness and anger.

When we live in anger and bitterness toward others, we are placing our own agendas and rights over those of the father. Again and again, Jesus demonstrates that the center of his life is the father’s will and work. Even more clearly, Jesus embraces the father’s love for others, and teaches us to “forgive, as the father has forgiven us.” Of course, we must have a sense of our own need for forgiveness. We must move from the darkness of the older brother and into the light of the father’s embrace, not only as one affirming this love, but as one experiencing it ourselves.

It is no surprise that community, not individualism, is the environment where this kind of life can best be experienced. In community, we are called to love those to whom we minister and with whom we work. Our own agendas must move aside, and the kingdom of Jesus must prevail. We must forgive when wronged. We must choose the father’s way, and not our own rights.

As one who lives in community, both in a family and in ministry, I can say that I cannot imagine really embracing the invitation of this story if I did not belong to a community that calls me to, again and again, lay aside my anger and bitterness, and come to the father’s celebration. How many marriages are waiting for this to happen? How many parent-child relationships? How many churches? Is there anything more true to Jesus than this invitation to the older brother? Is there anything more pertinent to why we do not live as Christ-followers than our stubborn loyalty to our own agendas over the agenda of Jesus?

Of course, one of the most striking things about the parable are the unanswered invitations. What will the younger son do with the grace of the father? How will he know live? This is the question for all of us, and the question for every person who sees the incarnation and cross of Jesus as the grace of God toward sinful humanity.

But there is another unanswered invitation: the answer of the older brother to the father’s invitation. It is an invitation that we also hear each time we spend time with Jesus, and realize the truth about God’s Kingdom and the identity of God’s people. Will we center our lives around this God as he has revealed himself in Jesus? Will we be part of the community of the graciously accepted? Will we enter the grace of the father as persons accepted and sustained exactly as the prodigal was accepted? And, as Nouwen asks, will we set aside our own bitterness and anger in order to live in this kind of Kingdom?

The final application is more difficult to describe. It is the invitation to become like the father. Nouwen particularly relates this to his own life journey, but of course, it begins in the parable as well.

The father is the central character of this parable. As representative of God, we can easily understand that Jesus is drawing our attention to the God of the Bible, and his gracious forgiveness of prodigals throughout Biblical history. But the father is also something else: he is the destiny of every son. Sons- children- become fathers.

It is most important, Nouwen suggests, that we embrace this as another way of living out the story Jesus tells. The father departs from all that is expected, and becomes a character to marvel at. This is not a father who is driven by the desires or insecurities of his sons. He has grown to know who he is. This is a father who has answered the significant questions of his life. He is free from the need to please others. He is not looking for popularity or acceptance. His calling is to love graciously and boldly.

Every community needs such fathers. Those who have matured in their faith to be like God the father. Those on whom a community can depend to set the direction of the movement faithfully. Fathers show us what we can become as we move through life and come to be more and more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Even as we affirm and experience our continual sinfulness, there can be no doubt that Jesus is inviting us to come to the point in life that we, also, are fathers like this father.

The father knew loneliness. (While so much of the Christian life is a call to community, not everything comes from community. Solitude is an essential part of the Christian life.) He was a person within himself (and before God) before he was a person for others. How do you become a man who can run down the road and embrace such a loser as the prodigal? How do you become a person who can invite others into the heart of God and not become sidetracked into all the tangent issues involved in loving a prodigal? How can you stand apart from the Pharisees that are found everywhere in Christianity? How do you become so secure that you can forgive and celebrate without being paralyzed by what has been done to you?

The father himself is an invitation to be a prodigal experiencing homecoming, an older brother who says “yes!” to the father’s invitation, and finally, to become fathers ourselves, welcoming prodigals and inviting others to do so. And the invitation to become a father is an invitation to the long-term benefits of placing our lives in community and being shaped by that community.

I am continually more impressed that the Christian experience is inseparable from coming to “abide in Christ,” i.e. living in a constant reliance on the God who meets us in Jesus, and coming to know Jesus in the gospels as our way of meeting this God. The entire message of the Bible comes together to bring a focus to the Christian life that is a life in community; a movement that flows through history TO Jesus, THROUGH Jesus in his life, ministry and death, and FROM Jesus into a community- the church- that has come to know God and itself primarily in Jesus.

The story of the prodigal son is, perhaps, the most profound and emotionally compelling of all the parables of Jesus. It speaks to all of us individually, and it allows us to creatively and passionately present the love of God for all kinds of people. But the “prodigal project” is also the creation of a community of prodigals, choosing to be forgiveness-celebrating and wayward-brother-blessing older brothers, who are continually growing into the love of God incarnate in Jesus. Such love makes us like the father, and such a destiny is the proper ambition of the children of God as they are God’s people on earth. Such a hearing of the parable of the prodigal son opens the door for a rich experience of discovering the depths of Jesus with others.

16 thoughts on “The Prodigal Project

  1. MODERATOR NOTE: This comment is not an endorsement by me. I do not know the commenter or his ministry.

    Is there anybody who are willing to help me father the thousands of prodigals in Metro Manila, Philippines? I have no home of my own to shelter them, no hired servants to fix the homecoming prodigals. But I am still taking them to the church I could not afford to rent. I have no fatted calf to offer and modern band to celebrate. But I am happily making sacrifices as token of God’s goodness to me and my family.

    I know what it feels to be hugged, kissed and embraced despite the dirt and foul smell. Because I happened to be one who was done the same thing, the night I was found drunk and laying on my vomit; when suddenly a man came to raised and brought me home, and cleaned me up. I was ashamed to discover that he was none whom I know, he was a stranger, and happened to be a newly assigned preacher to our town. I was ashamed, he was not even my blood father, brother or friend. But I was grateful!

    I know what it feels to be cared by someone I do not know. I have been very grateful, and what he did transformed my life from a prodigal to a minister of the Gospel.

    I was broken hearted to know that that preacher moved to Malaysia and was converted to a Muslim faith. I was told that it was because the Muslims of his place showed him much greater fatherly care and attention, than many of the professing Christians today, who enjoyed church events, if not debating each others doctrines. I’m saddened to have no contact with him.

    In spite of this sad news, I determine to continue fathering souls for the kingdom of God. But I am so limited. Is there anyone I can go to? Anyone who can help me in my fathering ministry? I have asked God the same question. Writing this question is just an attempt whether God wants me to publish it through your Web Page.

    Thank you for the article…

    Areas that brought me new perspective:
    1. TO THE PRODIGAL SON: What will you do to the unmerited favor of God after receiving it?
    2. ELDER BROTHER: What will you do after realizing the good result your father has done to your younger brother?
    3. TO THE FATHER: Will you continue to practice fatherly love and care should you know that this prodigal son was not your very own?

    Again thanks. We would appreciate a courtesy reply to let us know your have read this comments.

    Tony & Joy Gallemit
    Manila, Philippines


  2. This is a really lovely post.

    A tangential recommendation, given your interest in how the story would have been heard in its original context: you might be interested to look through Mark Allen Powell’s recent book, What Do They Hear?. Powell looks at the way social setting affects understanding of meaning in Biblical stories (the point of the book is how awareness of this fact should affect preaching). The Prodigal Son is one of the case studies that the author used, asking groups in America, Russia, and Tanzania what they took as the point of the story. The different aspects that each culture group focuses on are fascinating, and telling.


  3. Thank you for reminding me of that book – I read it many years ago, and need to read it again. A wise and insightful article.


  4. Michael –

    I am new to your site, but impressed by its depth. Citing Nouwen is unusual, and insightful.

    I have meditated on this parable many times myself, and your ideas add to my own. I agree that a huge part of the Kingdom Jesus preached was community. I had not thought of the prodigal representing entering that community, but I think it’s an appropriate metaphor.

    What strikes me about the prodigal is the irony, which Jesus often used. The irony of our faith is that turning from our selfish self to Christ, we find our true self, and find it more rewarding! The prodigal thought he would enjoy life more in the world of wine women and song, but ran out of money, and saw he actually had more at home in retrospect. I suspect it was more than survival instinct that led him home – he knew his father’s servants were better treated than he was, and I suspect the prodigal remembered that even the servants at his father’s house led enjoyable, satisfactory lives for their lot in life. Otherwise, he would not have returned.

    The older son, on the other hand, did not experience the loss and pain the prodigal had experienced. While it is true the prodigal had a share of pleasure for awhile, I think he discovered the shallowness of pleasure for pleasure’s sake, while the older son had no knowledge of this. Perhaps the older son even had some jealousy of his younger brother’s experience.

    Today, we are more often asked why we should bother attending church. As you mention, the prodigal is often used to speak to the individual, to urge a personal repentance. But a repentant person can still sit at home, watching their favorite preacher, never darken the doorway of a church, and feel satisfied. But the community of Christ is diminished!

    We need to remember that it’s always better on our side of the fence – within the community of believers, who do not practice the selfish ways of our stupid natures, but gather together to share joy and love, and our lives. Many may feel like the older brother, secretly wishing to try the Turkish candy C.S. Lewis spoke about, not realizing how good we have it with our brothers and sisters.

    As a believing community, it is our duty to be the father to those prodigals who visit us! When someone comes to worship with us, do we run after them, hug and kiss them, and celebrate? What kind of reaction would we get from that? It might be worth trying…!



  5. “How do you become so secure that you can forgive and celebrate without being paralyzed by what has been done to you?” Now that’s self-sacrifice. That’s giving out your best, even when they deserve your worst. That’s what the Christian walk of reconciliation is about – with God, with others, with ourselves.

    Awesome insights, Michael.


  6. Wonderful post. The section on becoming like the father was moving. I know a man like the father of this parable, and I have been won by his witness. I felt the call of Christ to be more like Him through this essay.


  7. Delurking to say that I loved this post! Nouwen is one of my favorite authors, and “The Return of the Prodigal Son” my favorite of his works that I’ve read. Thanks for reminding me of its lessons.


  8. End of a long day and end of a long week…soon I will be celebrating mother’s day my way…but taking my grandchildren to the faire to created another good grandma memory. So I blog by, aimlessly really, feeling beaten down by blog debates I should really avoid, and I find your Prodigal Project, and read it, and get a renewed sense of His abiding love for me and mine. Thank you Michael. I was blessed.


  9. Thank you Michael. Beautifully told. I realized I was not, as you said “Following the story” before.


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