Let us examine two well-known parables and challenge our understanding about them. Quoted below is chapter 15 from Luke 15 (New International Version).
Please try to answer my questions at the end.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3Then Jesus told them this parable: 4“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders6and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
The Parable of the Lost Son (or Prodigal Son)
11Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.12The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’20So he got up and went to his father.
“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.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.27’Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.29But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 ” ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”
- Is 99 sheep better than the 1 lost sheep, or the other way round?
- Is the prodigal son better than the elder son?
A surprising sequel to the parable of the Prodigal Son
Imagine that the Prodigal Son is the Church, father is Jesus, and the elder son is a Pharisee.
Now how do you see this ending? Soon after the father’s words of love and reconciliation, the elder son takes out his knife and kills Jesus.
In this way, we could even say the story of Prodigal Son foretells Jesus’s death. It is a very cogent story indeed.
My counterpoint about the Prodigal Son – Could he be a Jihadi John in USA?
We may be too quick to say that the Prodigal Son truly repented of his mistakes. He decided to return to his dad only when the going was too bad for him in life. If Jihadi John is expelled from his safe havens and dropped into USA, don’t you think he will plead for mercy? He will not be sorry for his actions, but he will be sorry that he was caught.
Similarly, what if the Prodigal Son was not truly sorry for his mistakes and he was sorry only that his life fell on hard times? Then his repentance is only fake repentance.
I don’t think Jesus meant that the elder son and the 99 sheep were worse off than the Prodigal Son or lost sheep. I think the elder son and the 99 sheep had a certain short distance to go for the salvation, but the lost sheep or the Prodigal Son had to make complete U-turns first. However, if anyone makes a U-turn, and is really serious about it, there is a lot to rejoice about.
Being brought up in good families and living law-abiding and righteous lives are good things. Apostle Paul only had to have an epiphany to make the transformation as the theologian extraordinaire of Christendom. The Prodigal Son had to have prolonged hard times to bear on him to make a U-turn. The beauty of the Christian hope, however, is that both Paul and Prodigal Son gain hope and a future, notwithstanding their different backgrounds.