In the Prodigal Son story, which character(s) are you?

We all are the main characters in our own stories, the central planet in our life’s universe. Everything revolves around us. Dottie’s mom summed it up best by saying, “wherever I go, there I am”. Likewise, we all become the support cast for other people’s stories as protagonists, antagonists, serving minor roles, or even extras in your story.

A life changing book for me was Henri Nouwen’s Portrait of a Prodigal Son. Back in 1992 Henri Nouwen received permission to visit the museum which houses the Rembrandt masterpiece daily and even into the night after the museum was closed. Nouwen spent literally hours and days alone sitting in a chair gazing at each character in the painting, studying every detail in hopes of discovering its spiritual reality for him. Before being introduced to this book, I had studied and given talks on this Luke 15:11-32 parable more times than I can count. It wasn’t until I read this wonderful portrayal that I realized there was more than one main character in the story. I have no excuse because the 1st verse starts with “there were two sons and if you know the story, the father also plays a huge supporting role in Jesus’ teaching.”

The lessons most of us learn from or try to teach in the story is 1) How selfish and greedy the younger son is in asking for his inheritance. It is like he is saying Dad, “I wish you were dead” 2) The same son after squandering all he has been given realizes he would be better off as a servant to his father than living the life he had created by his stupidity. He chooses to go home and ask forgiveness knowing he is unworthy of any kindness from his father. 3) We learn how strong a father’s love is for a child. He has waited for this day; yearning for his son’s return and offers nothing but love and forgiveness. The moral to the story is quite obvious. We learn from these two characters that God knows we will screw up as we think we know how to live life best without Him. We also see that He will be waiting for our return and when we do, He will welcome us and restore our position of being his children. Isn’t it great that there is a happy ending for this wayward child? But wait, is it really a happy ending?

This book did not end well for me. Why? Because like I shared earlier, verse 11 says “there were two sons.” When I started reading what Nouwen wrote about the older brother, tears began to stream down my face. I had never seen what this passage of scripture was trying to teach me. Why? I am the oldest son in my family but my role in this story is I am always trying to do what is right and seeking the approval of my parents, family members, etc. It was like in 2nd Corinthians 3:14, “But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.” Gratefully, a veil was lifted and I saw myself before God in an entirely new way. I could not relate to the Prodigal. What I was made to see was my “older brother self-righteous mindset.” My Father you owe me attitude was just as bad as what the younger brother had done. It was like a slap across the face when my thinking I could earn God’s love was not unlike what the younger brother had done by asking for his inheritance.

The sad part of this lesson from Jesus is, unlike the child who came home with a repentant heart, we don’t know if the older brother ever realizes his selfishness. Verse 28 says, “he became angry and refused to enter the celebration for his wayward sibling.” I am so glad this particular blind spot of my character was removed. Like the Father waited for the Prodigal, I know he also kept watch hoping the older brother would see the error of his ways and return to the party asking for the same forgiveness his brother had rehearsed over and over on his way home. I am so glad I read this book many years ago. It allowed me to realize God’s forgiveness and joy because, like the Prodigal Son, I had returned into His waiting and outstretched arms. I also know when I stumble and find myself back in an older brother mindset, God is always there to love and encourage me forward regardless of how many times it happens.

I hope you will take the time to read and meditate on Luke 15:11-32 and then read this insightful book. When you figure out which character best suits you, ask your loving Father to forgive you. He promises to restore you to your rightful place as an heir to the throne, his adopted Son or Daughter in Christ. Romans 8:17

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