This Easter, I taught Sunday school. The topic was what Charles Dickens called “the greatest short story ever told,” the poet Robert Bridges labeled a “flawless piece of art” and preachers have identified as “the pearl of the parables,” “the essence of the Christian faith” and “the central message of the whole New Testament.”
It has been the subject of books, poems, art and films. My favorite scene is found in the 1937 movie “Heidi” with Shirley Temple, when her gruff grandfather cites the verses of the story from memory. It brings tears to my eyes.
The story is, of course, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is told in 22 short verses in the fifteenth chapter of Luke (11-32). After telling two other parables, one of the “lost sheep” and one of the “lost coin,” Jesus relates the story of the “lost son.” The story is about a father who has two sons. The younger son is restless and finds life at home boring, so he demands his inheritance and takes off for the city, where he squanders his wealth in wild living. Meanwhile, the elder son stays at home and faithfully works in the fields without complaint. Ultimately, the spendthrift son runs out of money, his friends abandon him, and he is forced to feed pigs to eek out a living. Finally, in desperation, he remembers a comfortable life at home, returns, and begs his father’s forgiveness. “I have sinned against heaven and against you,” he tells his father. His father is so overjoyed by his son’s return that he has a big party for him and kills a fatted calf.
During the feast, the elder son returns from a long day in the field and hears the celebration. When he finds out that his younger brother has returned, he’s angry and refuses to go into the party. His father seeks him out and listens as the elder son complains about having never been given a party, even though he has been faithful all these years. “My son,” the father responds tenderly, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
The Parable of the Prodigal Son (or the lost son) is a great message for Easter, and touches the heart of everyone. The three characters in the parable, the two sons and the father, are symbolic of all mankind. After all, are we not all either prodigal sons, elder sons, or parents who have suffered the pains of a child who has gone astray?
Yet Jesus’s story is a controversial one. After reading the parable, I ask students the simple question, “Which son is better — the prodigal son who grievously sins but later repents, or the elder son who stays faithful but lacks compassion?”
In the many times I have taught this lesson, the question always divides people into two camps — those who sympathize with the prodigal son, emphasizing God’s love and mercy to the poor and downtrodden, and those who demand justice and fairness, defending a lifetime of faithful service to God.
Christian scholars are sharply divided toward the elder son. Those favoring the prodigal son are highly critical of the elder son. In his classic book, The Life of Christ, Dean Farrar lambasts the elder son, who “showed all the narrow unpardoning malignity of a heart which had mistaken external rectitude for holy love. Such self-righteous malice, such pitiless and repulsive respectability, is an evil more inveterate — a sore more difficult to probe, and more hard to cure — than open disobedience and passionate sin.”
On the other hand, in his book, Jesus the Christ, James E. Talmage defends the elder son: “We are not justified in extolling the virtue of repentance on the part of the prodigal above the faithful, plodding service of his brother, who had remained at home, true to the duties required of him. The devoted son was the heir; the father did not disparage his worth, nor deny his deserts. His displeasure over the rejoicing incident to the return of his wayward brother was an exhibition of illiberality and narrowness; but of the two brothers the elder was the more faithful, whatever his minor defects may have been. The particular point emphasized in the Lord’s lesson, however, had to do with his uncharitable and selfish weaknesses.”
Who’s right, the liberal Dean Farrar or the conservative James Talmage?
With few exceptions, I’ve found that liberals relate to the prodigal son, while conservatives side with the elder son. Liberals use this scripture to justify their belief in welfare programs to help the poor and the needy — note that the father gives the prodigal son a ring and the best robe even though the younger son hasn’t earned it. Conservatives sympathize with the elder son, who feels resentful and angry at the father’s apparently unfair treatment. If the prodigal son is rewarded when he comes home, will such liberality encourage more spendthrift behavior?
Who do you relate to? Do you consider yourself an elder son or a prodigal son? If you could live your life over again, which of the two sons would you like to be?
Jesus deliberately avoids telling the ending of the story. Did the elder son go into the feast and welcome his repented brother? Did both of them go on to live fulfilling, faithful lives? Did the prodigal son fall back into sin? Even worse, did the elder son decide that it was time for him to run away and sow his wild oats?
We should not forget the principles of Christian mercy and justice: to welcome back those who are repentant and need our assistance, while encouraging the faithful to endure to the end.
Mark Skousen is the editor of Forecasts & Strategies, and producer of FreedomFest, the world’s largest gathering of free minds.