A New Commentary on the Prodigal Son
“I knew that there were many negative stereotypes about religious leaders in L.A. So I decided to surface the negative feelings right at the start and then try to refocus the discussion on the real reason I became a pastor…”
“How many of you,” I asked, “have felt judged by pastors, priests, or nuns?” Way too many hands shot up in the air in response. It was career day at my oldest son’s Middle School in Los Angeles. I previously volunteered to share about my profession and was given 15 minutes in front of four different classes of forty students each. I knew that there were many negative stereotypes about religious leaders in L.A. so I decided to surface the negative feelings right at the start and then try to refocus the discussion on the real reason I became a pastor; the incredible love of God I have experienced through faith in Jesus Christ.
I turned to the dry-erase board and wrote the word “God.” “There are a lot of different opinions about this word, aren’t there?” They nodded in agreement. Pointing again to the board I asked a follow-up question. “What are some things that people believe about this word?” The students responded with one-word answers: “Creator,” “Almighty,” and even “Omniscient.”
Then one of the students I have known since elementary school had the courage to ask, “Are we just saying the good things?” I quickly replied, “No, both positive and negative.” He continued, “Some say He doesn’t exist.” “Yes,” I said, “What do you call someone who doesn’t believe in God?” I turned and wrote “atheist” on the board. “Let’s parse this word.” I put my hand over the “a” and said, “What does ‘theist’ mean?” The room was silent so I explained to them that it means someone who does believe in God. “And what does the ‘a’ before the word theist do?” I asked. I knew they were tracking when one student said “It makes the word mean ‘does not believe in God.’”
We were ready to take the next step.
“There is another word, like “atheist,” for people with a still different view of God.” I turned and wrote “agnostic” on the board. Again I put my hand over the “a” and told them that “gnostic” means “knowledge. “Just like with “atheist,” I said, “the ‘a’ before gnostic makes it a negative. So, an agnostic is someone who hasn’t decided what they think about God.”
Now seemed the right time for “the reveal.” I continued. “There are all kinds of beliefs about God out there,” I said. “I am a pastor and I get to help people figure out what they believe about this word." Seeing that I still had their attention I continued, "Now, as a Christian pastor the person I turn to for knowledge of God is Jesus." "And Jesus told a story I want to share with you." I wrote the word "prodigal" on the board. "Does anyone know what “prodigal” means?" No one responded. In a poor attempt to sound up to date, I said, "Prodigal is someone who can't save a buck.'" Feeling pretty sure I just sounded like a character in American Graffiti, a movie they probably didn’t even know about, I quickly added, "They spend money like crazy." "Do any of you know people that could be called 'prodigal'?" Some of the kids raised their hands with funny little grins on their faces. "Well, Jesus told a story called the Prodigal Son. So guess what the son does in that story?"
While the students were thinking I gave them another prompt: "How does the story begin?" It was encouraging that a few of the students had heard the story of the prodigal son before. One of them said, "A father and his two sons were on a pretty 'well off' farm." "One of the sons asked his Dad if he could have his inheritance now." I stopped him and asked, "Was that a nice thing for him to ask of his father?" The student looked slightly perplexed so I followed up with another question. "When would you normally get an inheritance from your father?" "When he is dead," one of the other students said immediately. "Right, so basically the son was telling his father that he didn't have the patience to wait until he was dead. He wanted his money now." With that, some of the middle school kids became visibly annoyed with him.
We continued to walk through the story. "Well, his father gave him the money and guess what he did with it?" "Saved it!" one boy blurted out with a very mischievous smile. "Saved It?" I asked, playing along. His fellow students quickly disagreed. "Spent it on parties!" they said. "What do people spend money on when they party?" I asked? "Beer!" another boy said. "And what else?" "Drugs!" said a chorus of 11 and 12-year-olds. I thought to myself that, as my son had told me, some of these kids had parents, brothers, and sisters involved in gangs. They were speaking from experience. "What else?" I asked. "Girls!" said one of the smaller boys in the class with a very proud grin on his face. "And how many friends did the prodigal son have while he was using his money to throw parties?" "Lots", they all agreed. "He sure did." "But guess what happened to the money?" "It ran out," they said. "And guess what happened to his friends?" I continued. "They left too". "Right," I said. I saw an opening to offer some practical advice to these kids. "It is easy to have lots of friends when you are buying them drinks and inviting them to parties. But those kinds of friends aren’t true friends. They are only your friends because of what you give them. When you can’t give them what they want they leave." I stopped for a moment hoping the advice would sink in.
"When people get into parties, and drugs and alcohol they eventually 'hit bottom,’ but it takes a lot longer than you might think for that to happen. This boy had left his father, lost the money, and lost his friends. But he still hadn’t hit bottom. Then a famine hit the city where he was living and he still didn’t hit bottom. He got a job feeding pigs and he still didn’t hit bottom. Thankfully no one tried to jump in and save him at this point because it’s only when we hit bottom that we seem to find the courage to make important changes in our lives. And for this prodigal son to find his courage he had to become so hungry that he actually wanted to eat the swill that he was feeding to the pigs. That’s when he found it. That’s when he decided to make his life better. That’s when he decided to do things differently. It dawned on him that he could be even the lowest-paid servant on his Dad’s farm and do better than he was doing right now living on his own. So he decided to go back home.”
"Now, what do you think his father said when he saw his son, who had blown all of his inheritance on parties, coming back to him to ask for a job?" "Leave." one girl said with empathetic indignation. "Punish him," another boy said. “Many fathers would do those things,” I agreed. “And let’s keep that in mind as we listen to what the father does in Jesus' story.” Then I read from the Bible:
"But while (the prodigal) was still a long way off, his father saw him..." I stopped reading there and asked, "What does this mean that his father had been doing before he saw his son?" “Looking for him.” one of the students said. “Yes, even before the son returned to the father, the father was looking for the son. I continued reading. "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him." (Luke 15:20b)
Then I walked over the the dry-erase board, pointed at the first word I had written up there, and said, “This is Jesus’ answer to our question about this word. Jesus says that God is like the father in the prodigal son.” I paused again to let that message sink into these young minds that were so eager to learn.
Then I began to walk them through the last part of the well-known parable, probably the least-known part of the story. "Now guess who Jesus was telling this story to.” “Prod-ig-als” said one student who was clearly reading from the board. “You are right that Jesus hung out with "prodigals" and told them stories about God’s love like this one." "But this time, in this particular instance, Jesus was telling this story to pastors, priests, and religious people.”
“Remember at the beginning when I asked you if you had been made to feel guilty and judged by pastors, priests, or nuns? Jesus had the same experience. And he was concerned that a lot of people, theists and atheists, defined the word ‘God’ on the basis of that experience. They saw God as someone who made them feel guilty and judged. So he told this story.”
“But his story isn’t over yet. You see, the prodigal son had a brother. This son worked really hard to do everything just right for his father. And when he heard that his Dad had, not only embraced his brother but was throwing a party for this prodigal son, who had thrown away his inheritance in his own parties, it really ticked him off.” His brother should be punished not celebrated and made to feel guilty for all he had done. So he told his father, and I paraphrase, ‘I have stayed with you and done all the chores you asked me to do and you have never once thrown a party for me!’ And now this ‘son of yours,’ (notice that he didn't even call him 'my brother') this ‘son of yours’ has come home and you put together an amazing party for him."
"The father said, ‘All that I have is yours.’ (Remember that his brother had already taken and spent all of his inheritance, so what the father said was true.) ‘All that I have is yours. But your brother was lost and has now been found. We have to have a party!’”
“Now, when Jesus finished telling this story to the religious leaders in his day, how do you think they responded? Did they clap and shout for joy? No, they were upset. Like the older brother, they wanted Jesus to tell stories that made the prodigal sons and daughters feel guilty and judged. Instead, Jesus told a story that invited them into the loving embrace of God.”
“And can you guess what happened to Jesus just a year or two after he told this story?” I asked them. "He was killed," they said. "Yes, he was.” The religious leaders wanted Jesus and his view of God out of the way. And they worked with the political leaders to make sure that happened."
"As a pastor who follows Jesus, I get to share stories like this one so that people can decide what they believe about God. Does God exist? Can we know God? Is God like the father Jesus describes in this story? Or is he some legalistic and judgmental old man like some of the religious leaders we’ve known? I work with them so they can see the different options. But then they have to make their own decision."
I looked at the clock on the classroom wall. "We have a few minutes left. Are there any questions?"
One boy asked, "What inspired you to be a pastor?" I knew that many of the children in this middle school were from broken homes, so I wanted to answer in a way that they would understand. "Well, my parents were divorced when I was in high school and that really hurt. So, I turned to God and found him to be just as Jesus described him in our story. Even more, now that I am a pastor, I can help others find the same God that I’ve found.” I had to offer one more bit of hard-earned wisdom. "The real joy in life," I said, "is helping others. Achievement and success are great. But at the end of the day what really matters is making a positive difference in other people's lives. As a pastor, I get to do that regularly."
"What’s your favorite Bible passage?" another boy asked. "Well, the one I read to you is really important. Especially the part that says, ‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.’ (Luke 15:20b) This passage has helped me a lot when times were hard." Then the school bell rang and the students got up to leave.
Later that afternoon I had some time to reflect on the experience. I, like many of them, had been hurt by religious leaders. Not only when I was growing up and figuring out what I believed about God, but even after becoming a religious leader. It hadn’t been an easy journey. But those kinds of challenges paled in comparison with the wonderful adventure I had just enjoyed with those middle schoolers. The kids had been very encouraging to me as they left their classroom. My son even told me that his friends had said I was “chill” which I learned after further questioning was a good thing. But the response that surprised me most was from the science teacher. I wanted to encourage him in his so I called out as he was leaving, “Thank you for teaching!” Just before turning into the hallway, he yelled back, “No, you’re the teacher. I learned something today!”
So did I. It is such a joy to follow Jesus. When we willingly follow him into new situations life becomes an amazing adventure. Those children were willing to jump right into the ancient story that I shared with them. And because of that willingness, we all experienced its power. You can too. Amazingly the stories of the Bible, more than 2,000 years old, can help us to make good happen in our life today. And we have only scratched the surface of the possibilities with the story of the prodigal son. !
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