It’s worth remembering where the parable of the prodigal son is set in the gospel. The third of three parables about lostness in Luke 15, Jesus tells this climactic account as the ultimate correction of the Pharisees and scribes who “were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” This tale wasn’t told in isolation. Although it portrays a powerful story of forgiveness and salvation, Jesus didn’t intend it as a full account of the gospel. He told it as a way of suggesting to the in-crowd that the misfits they’d rather keep out are welcomed to the table by God.
And that’s a hard truth to accept—no matter who you are. I don’t think it’s an accident that Luke’s is the only gospel account to contain this most famous of parables. Matthew and Mark, it seems, were not quite able to make it fit into their story lines. Maybe it was too bold, too radical even for them. If you’re a Pharisee or a scribe—one of the elites who decide what sort of people get in and what sort are kept out—it’s hard to hear that you might not really be in control of that access. If you’re a tax collector or any sort of notorious sinner—one of those who has spent your life on the outside and have long ago given up any hope of getting in—it’s nearly impossible to hear that you might have a seat at the table. No matter who you are, it’s hard to imagine a God who surrounds himself with bad guys and girls.
This parable is too much. Like a bad television show or a low-budget movie, it has a plot that just won’t hang together. There is no such thing as a father who get so thoroughly insulted (spit upon) by his rebellious son and then runs to embrace his lost child. It just doesn’t work that way. There’s always an account to give. There’s that awkward moment when no one—the son, the father, or the audience—knows how it will work out. There’s the shuffling of feet and the staring at the ground. There’s the stammering apology and the offer to do anything to make it up. There’s the long dramatic pause when the father weighs his son’s contrition in his mind before deciding how to respond. And then, maybe, after an agonizing moment of uncertainty, just maybe, the father lets the son come back. And, when anyone else asks how it happened, the father explains it all in terms of his son’s apology: “Well, he came back and looked terrible and showed me how sorry he was, and I just couldn’t turn him away.” But that’s not how Jesus tells it.
Don’t let your familiarity with the story of the prodigal son be the reason you accept it too easily. It’s not supposed to be easy to hear. We’re supposed to hear it and say, “Wait a minute! Are you sure? Does it really work that way?” Yes. Pretend you’re the Pharisee, and ask yourself who in the world is the last person you’d want to let into the kingdom of God. That’s the person who gets in. Pretend you’re the tax collector, and ask yourself what part of your life is most shameful—the part that you wish you could hide even from God. That’s exactly what God has in mind when he opens his arms and embraces you. Too good to be true? With anyone but God, it would be.