Lessons of the prodigal: the lies of sin, the love of God

Photo: Tim Wildsmith, Unsplash

In Luke 15, Jesus tells a parable that ­centers on an impatient son — the prodigal, as we’ve come to call him — who demands his inheritance while his father lives. 

The son will get the money when his father dies. But the son can’t wait. So he asks his father if they could just assume, for the sake of the payout, that he’s dead. The son values his father not as a person but as a bank account. 

Though the father has no obligation to do this, he agrees. This is the father’s first act of generosity.

The son takes the father’s gift and runs away with it. He values the gift more than the giver. 

The son’s impatience reveals his sinful desires.

Sin dehumanizes us. It lies to us, convinces us that we need to diminish others to fulfill ourselves, that what we want is the only thing that matters, no matter who gets hurt. 

Sin is a lie that tells us we won’t be happy until we amass more things for our enjoyment. Sin is the desire to turn people into possessions, objects we control. 

It’s the nature of sin to want to possess the world, to become masters, to make anything and anyone subject to our desires, without regard for the well-being of our neighbors. 

Sin is self-destruction. We damage ourselves when we injure others. 

Our lives are bound up together. There’s a wholeness to life. Whatever wounds one part will injure our part. When we hurt our neighbor, we harm our own soul. 

The parable displays how sin captures a life, how a person isolates himself in the pursuit of his desires.

Then trouble finds the young man. After wasting the inheritance, he takes a job caring for pigs. This is the low point of the story. He is a Jew who has to work with unclean animals. He’s on the edge of losing his very identity. He wants to return to his com­munity but is overwhelmed with sha­me. 

This is what the voice of shame sounds like. This is how it overwhelms. The voice of shame has convinced the young man that he deserves what has happened. He detests himself and expects others to feel the same way.  

He decides he is no longer worthy of his father’s love. That’s the voice of shame again, and we know what this voice sounds like: telling us to believe that we are nothing, that we won’t be welcomed back, that no one would ever forgive us because we can’t forgive ourselves. 

Shame tells us that we will forever be outside the embrace of someone’s forgiveness. Shame tells us we have become unlovable. 

We project our feelings onto others. We assume they see us as we see ourselves.

When the son returns home, he grovels. He starts to recite the speech he’s rehearsed, but his father ignores the self-loathing words and organizes a banquet. 

There is no lecture about the son’s sins or questions about the money he wasted. Instead, there is feasting — a celebration of the one who was lost.

This is the parable’s good news: We are loved. We are forgiven. 

God’s forgiveness is the most basic thing about who we are. God welcomes us without a lecture, without punishment or demands for repayment. God keeps no records of prodigal living. 

To have faith is to believe that the truest thing about ourselves is that we are loved. 

To have faith in God is to believe you are worthy of love. 

As Christians, we remind one another that love comes from God. We remind each other with words and deeds because we need all the help we can get, given the world we’ve made: a world full of lies about who we have to become in order to matter to anyone. 

Christians remind each other and our neighbors that the one who made us also loves us. Each of us is a beloved child of God. Even when we wander like the prodigal.  

Isaac S. Villegas

Isaac S. Villegas of Durham, N.C., is president of the North Carolina Council of Churches and an ordained Mennonite minister. Read More

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