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  • Writer's pictureJim Hays

Pigpens and Pity Parties

When reading a narrative text in the Bible, I generally find it helpful to insert myself into the story—to allow the words to guide my eyes toward the different characters as I “eavesdrop” on the conversation. Many times, I will relate to one of the characters in the story to get a sense of what they're experiencing physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

As we move through the parables of lostness in Luke 15, we’ve been reminded that these stories are heard by two completely different audiences. First, there are the religious insiders—the Pharisees and teachers of the law. These have come to watch Jesus as they attempt to figure out if he’s a threat to their power. Second, there are the religious outsiders—the tax collectors and sinners. They have come to listen to Jesus. Does this new rabbi, who speaks with such authority, have a word for people like us?

Both groups hear the same parables. But each group receives a different word from God.

The third parable, one of scripture's most popular, calls us to insert ourselves into the story. Are we the rebellious son who disrespects and makes demands of the father? The son who foolishly squanders his blessings on himself and, only after hitting rock bottom, decides that “home with dad” is not such a bad place to be? Surely the tax collectors and sinners relate well to the younger son.

Or maybe we see ourselves as the older brother. We’ve been faithful and respectful to dad. We would never think of leaving him. However, when the snotty-nosed brat comes back home, we judge him harshly and pout over dad’s exuberance that this disrespectful ingrate has returned with his tail between his legs. Although the Pharisees and scribes would not admit it and would, in fact, take offense at it, they are the older brother in the story.

With which brother do you most easily relate?

The dad in the story is, of course, God. And while it’s always dangerous for us to ever see ourselves on His level, I can certainly understand that parents of a rebellious child would relate to the father. You know the heartache of having a son or daughter disrespect you. You, too, have spent endless hours worrying and wondering about the welfare of that child.

The story comes to a bittersweet ending as the wayward son leaves the pigpen and returns home to beg for a job as a servant. But the father will not hear of it. “You are my son!” He clothes the boy in a fine robe, puts a ring on his finger, and orders that the beefiest cow is barbecued. “Let’s celebrate! My son was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.” That is a sweet story.

The bitter part has to do with the older son's attitude. As he comes in from a hard day in the field, he hears music and sees dancing. “What’s going on?” he asks a servant.

“Your brother has come home. Your dad is throwing a banquet in his honor.”

Ears steam. Teeth grind. Fists clench. Anger burns.

Dad comes out to calm the son down. But the older boy disrespects his dad by pitching a fit. “YOU NEVER DID ANY OF THIS FOR ME! AND I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN LOYAL AND FAITHFUL! HOW COULD YOU?!”

The dad reassures the boy, “Son, you have been faithful—maybe not always—but mostly. Listen, everything I have is yours. And I love you. But understand this—I love your brother, too. And we need to be happy that he’s come home.”

Aren’t we grateful that the father in the story is God? He is waiting patiently and expectantly for all rebellious people to come to their senses and head for home. We’ve all had moments of rebellion. Isn’t it wonderful that God forgives and takes us back?

God is also pleading with the self-righteous and judgmental among us. He entreats us to lay aside those destructive attitudes because He doesn’t want anybody to miss His party.

Before Sunday morning, I would encourage you to re-read this parable. Read it out loud. And focus on the father. When you’re done, lay your Bible aside, close your eyes, and just meditate on what this story teaches about God. I am convinced that you will be deeply moved, maybe even to tears. Because no matter which son you relate to, God loves you and wants you eating at His table. And He has already done everything necessary to ensure that you have a seat.

We can stay in the pigpen or we can come home.

We can stand around pouting or we can come to the banquet.

What are you going to do? The Father is waiting.

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