As a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, public worship services, including Sunday services, have been suspended in Hong Kong since February 2020. After weeks of online church worship, the government has finally given the green light to reopen religious activities, and I was invited to attend the Sunday Service held at the church housed in my school.
The sermon was about the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15;1-3, 11-32), and I was particularly impressed with the pastor’s teaching from the painting The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (1606-1669).
After wasting all his wealth in wild living, the younger son of this story hired himself out to feed pigs. Amidst his misery, he decided to go home and seek his father’s forgiveness. Kneeling on the floor, he had one shoe on and one shoe off. The shoe that was on was on the wrong foot, and it was half torn. He might have walked a long way to come home. From the beautiful linings around his collar and the sword by his waist, one could tell vaguely that he was once a rich person. However, his head was shaved and with scars, a sign of shame, disgrace, and humiliation.
Although the younger son was possibly stinky and filled with dirt, his father threw his arms around him. It was intentional that the two hands were of different sizes. The gentler hand was on the son’s back, and the stronger hand was on his shoulder. The two hands surrounded a hole on the son’s broken garment. The father’s touch was comforting and reassuring. In their embrace, the son could hear the father’s heartbeats.
Nearby the father and the younger son stood a tall man, who dressed similarly to the father – the elder son. He did not join in the embrace but folded his hands on a rod – a symbol of judgement. In this parable, the elder son was angry at his father and he did not even address the younger son as his brother.
The word prodigal means wastefully extravagant. Many people think that this parable is about the return of the younger son, who is the prodigal son. However, in The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller brings in a different perspective that the father is the prodigal God who spends all He has for His Sons. Furthermore, this story may be best named as the Parable of the Two Lost Sons.
Sadly, the hearts of the two sons are the same. They do not love their father but his goods. One does so by being rebellious and the other by being obedient. The two sons represent two different worldviews.
The younger son illustrates the way of self-discovery. Individuals must be free to pursue their own goals and dreams regardless of custom and convention. Freedom and personal autonomy are essences. The younger son says, “The open-minded people are in, and the narrow-minded people are out.”
The elder son illustrates the way of moral conformity. God ought to bless me because I have worked hard to obey him and be a good person. God owns me answered prayers, a good life, and a ticket to heaven when I die. The elder son says, “The good people are in, and the bad people are out.”
However, the gospel is different from these two approaches. Everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change. Jesus says, “The humble are in, and the proud are out.”
Our salvation is by grace alone (Ephesians 2: 8-9). In this parable, the father held a feast for his younger son, and he went out of the house to plead with his elder son. If all are invited to the feast, will you accept the invitation? Are you in or are you out?
Keller, T. (2008). The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. New York: Dutton