One of the best-known passages in the New Testament is Luke 15:11–32, in which Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son. This parable was the third in a series of parables directed against the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees. Their complaint, Luke tells us, was rooted in the fact that Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them.” While the religious leaders were careful to keep their distance from those whom they considered “sinners,” Jesus openly engaged these “sinners” as he sought to reach them with the truth.
When the scribes and Pharisees grumbled that Jesus was receiving “sinners,” Jesus responded with three parables. The first was the parable of the lost sheep (vv. 3–7). The second was the parable of the lost coin (vv. 8–10). The third was the parable of the lost (or prodigal) son (vv. 11–32).
The third parable is the longest, and perhaps the best known, of the three. It is well-known in Christian and religious, and even irreligious, circles. Reflecting on this parable recently, the context of the parable struck me. This was a story told in response to a complain that Jesus received “sinners” who were “drawing near” to him. Sinners were coming to His presence—and being received—and this irritated the religious leaders. The theme of people coming into the presence of the Lord is set in those opening verses, and it continues into the parable of the prodigal son.
We see the younger son removing himself from his father’s presence as he “took a journey into a far country” (v. 13). After he lost his entire inheritance in the “far country” he finally came to his senses and decided, “I will arise and go to my father” (v. 18). The text tells us that that is precisely what he did: “And he arose and came to his father” (v. 20). The son once had all he needed, before he lost all he had, before he once again gained all he needed. And the common denominator was his relation to his father’s presence. When he was in his father’s presence, he had all he needed; when he was away from his father’s presence, he lacked what he needed.
We see the theme of presence too with the older son. Verse 25 tells us that he was “in the field.” He was doing his duty, to be sure, but his duty kept him from the father’s presence and he missed out on the blessing of his brother’s return. When he eventually “drew near to the house” where his father was (v. 25), he realised that something was going on. When he enquired and was told what was happening, “he was angry and refused to go in” (v. 28). He is portrayed in poor light, at least to some degree, because he refused to enjoy the presence of his father.
Skye Jethani, a Christian speaker and writer, and co-host of the Phil Vischer podcast, notes,
Jesus’ story reveals the two sons to be mirror images of each other. One was away from home in a distant country pursuing “reckless living,” and the other was away from home in the field pursuing righteous work—but both were away from home.
We are often reminded that sin can tempt us away from God. It can draw us from His presence and the intimate communion He desires with us. We are warned about the dangers to our souls that lurk in the “distant countries” of immorality. What we don’t often hear about are the subtler, but equally deadly, perils that can rot the souls of those who work tirelessly “in the field” for the Lord. As Dallas Willard observed, “The greatest threat to intimacy with God is service for God.”
The lesson is clear: We must remain connected to the Father. Whether we are like the younger son—wasting our inheritance on riotous living in a far country—or the older son—working tirelessly at our duty in the field—if we are disconnected from the Father we are missing out on the blessings that God has for us.
David made the same point in Psalm 16:11:
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
We may be tempted to condemn the younger son for his riotous living and to suggest that, if he simply lived more responsibly, he would have been far better off. We may be tempted to commend the older son for working tirelessly in his father’s field. But we must bear in mind that both sons missed out on the fullness of their father’s blessing when they kept themselves at a distance. And we must be sure that we stay close to our Father—in devotions, and prayer, and Christian fellowship—if we will enjoy the fullness of the blessings that He has for us.