OVE: Perhaps the most powerful word, in any language, in any culture, at any time. We’ve written poems, ballads, and secular and sacred music declaring its worth. If we as Christians allow love to be wrongly defined by pop culture or even the church, we are in dire trouble.
Unfortunately for the English language, we only have one word for love; and this is, well, love! We understand its definition by context: I love God, I love my wife, I love chocolate. By simple context, a listener understands what is meant by my “love” for each of these.
In 1984, pop diva Tina Turner won the “Song of the Year” Grammy for, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” Answer? Everything. But we see embedded in this song an idea of how a fallen culture understands, or rather misunderstands, love. Turner called love a “second-hand emotion.”
This is a perfect example of the self-centered view of love in our culture: Love has nothing to do with it, I’m going my own way, and I will protect myself.
This brings us to one of Jesus’ most powerful parables, often called “The Prodigal Son.” In actuality, it could be called “A Parable of Love: A Father and His Two Sons.”
Many misinterpretations have occurred because of ignoring the context of Jesus speaking to Pharisees. The most often repeated error is that this is simply a story of a lost son who finds himself eating pig food until he comes to himself and returns to his father in repentance. Yes, that is part of the story, but only part.
There is something deeper in this parable. One way to get at Jesus’ meaning is through the word love. Though the word itself is absent in the parable, its presence dominates the story in three ways: (1) the love of the younger son, (2) the love of the older son, and (3) the love of the father.
The Younger Son. He loves “things.” From what we can glean from the story, he is impetuous and short-sighted. He leaves home for a faraway place; from safety and the familiar to the reckless and unfamiliar. He leaves a father, brother, and home for what? The KJV says, “riotous living” (Luke 15:13)—probably an understatement. He goes to “a far country.” Such a journey gives him time to plan his debauchery. Once he gets “there” (v. 14), wherever “there” was, he burns through his inheritance. This brings him to the pigsty, which brings him to a repentant heart, which leads him home—to the love of his father.
The Older Brother. He loves his own righteousness. The “elder son” (v. 25) gets a footnote at best in our usual telling of the parable. However, we can learn quite a lot about him in this short story. He is hard-working, he has friends, and he is faithful to his position and to his father.
We also glimpse a darker side to the older brother. He refuses to even call his brother a brother! He says to the father, “this son of yours” (v. 30 NKJV), with disdain dripping from his lips. He notes specifically that his brother had wasted his inheritance on prostitution. How would he know that unless something in his brother’s character had displayed itself earlier in life?
The older brother is quick to point this out to the father, perhaps trying to make himself look better than his younger brother. Obviously this underscores the anger and hatred he has towards his younger sibling, who brought shame on the father and the family name.
The Father. He has probably worked hard all his life, building up a reputation and a level of wealth. The father is loving, kind, generous, and wise. He loves his sons equally. There is nothing in the story to suggest favoritism either way. He is a forgiver, standing ready to meet the needs of either son.
So back to context. The younger son is the sinner, the “tax collector” in this story. The older son is the religious one, the “Pharisee.” One has turned away from God and to open sin; the other is self-righteous. The older brother hates anyone less perfect than himself. He has turned to what he loves—his own perfectionism.
Jesus seizes the moment to speak of a Father who profoundly loves both types of sons. Both are sinners, and both are trapped. One is trapped in “I’ll live my life my way” (know anyone like that?). The other son is trapped in perfectionism—morally and legally right, but with a heart of unforgiveness, anger, and bitterness. He is hiding behind a cloak of self-religiousness and has no hesitation to point out the sins of others (know anyone like that?).
Through it all is the intense love of a father who knows the flaws of his two sons. Don’t think for a moment the younger son’s actions and wild living shocked the father. Don’t think for a minute the judgmental, condescending heart of the older son escaped his watchful eye. Remember, he is their father, wise and astute.
Note the father’s love in this story and its many layers. He loved one son enough to let him go, to wait, to watch diligently for his return, and to give him the best robe in the house—his own. Try to imagine the moment. The transformational moment in the younger son’s life was not when he lifted his head from the pigsty; it was when he felt the warm embrace and love of his father who loved him enough to kill a fattened cow and throw a “welcome home” party.
The father also begged forgiveness toward the sinner come home. He told his oldest son, “All that I have is yours” (v. 31 NKJV), and pled with him to join the party. The transformational moment in the older brother’s life was just inside the house. All he had to do was walk through that “door.”
Now where do I fit in this story? I am all both sons, simultaneously. I am the younger son. I was born in sin, and I have sinned. I have, at times, squandered the blessings my Father has given to me. I can be materialistic. I have, at times, lived my life my way. That never worked out well for me.
I am also the older brother. I am faithful. I work hard. I try to honor my Father. But cross me and I hold a grudge. Show kinks in your armor and I pounce; I judge. I will not even call you my brother or my sister. In short, I do not love Biblically. After all, love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV), right?
Sadly, there is something about this story we do not know. Did the older brother ever go in the house and embrace his younger brother? Did he love him?
Thankfully, love is not just a “second-hand emotion” to God. It is central to understanding Him as our Father. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16 NKJV). Paul wrote, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NKJV).
Father, help me to love. Help me to love as You love.
Bob R. Bayles, Ph.D., is professor of discipleship and Christian formation at Lee University. [email protected]