Of all the parables, Jesus’ tale of the prodigal son has taken on a life of its own. It has inspired paintings. It has become the basis for the plot of several movies. It has been told and retold—both within and outside the Christian context—so many times that people sometimes forget that it is a parable. In other words, the story has become so important that we sometimes forget that it was originally just a story.
The authors of the lectionary keep verses 1-3 of Luke 15 as a way of forcing us to remember the context of the story of the prodigal son: “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So Jesus told them this parable.” Jesus, the wise storyteller, comes up with a brilliant tale just in time to stymie his critics.
What the casual listener on Sunday morning may not realize is that Sunday’s gospel omits two other parables in verses 4-10—the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin. The three come one after another without interruption. None of them is intended to be Jesus’ entire reply to the Pharisees and scribes. All three, taken together, are supposed to underscore the fundamental nature of God as one who searches for the lost. Sheep, coins, and a wayward son—all three of them are images of the lost who are found.
I think the biggest mistake preachers can make with the prodigal son is to over interpret it. I’ve heard clergypeople identify this parable as a summary of the gospel. But it isn’t presented to us as the prototype for faith. Sure, it has elements of repentance and forgiveness. Yes, it contains evidence of God’s unconditional love and grace. Some might call it a tale of salvation, but I think it has more power in its original context.
God seeks the lost. God welcomes back the estranged. Although there may be implications for those of us who have gone astray, the real thrust here is a message of further inclusion to those who are already included. Jesus isn’t preaching to the tax collectors and sinners whom he welcomes back. He’s telling the religious elites to open their hearts.