Our Prodigal God: Luke 15.11-32

Who’s with Jesus? That’s the question we’re asking this summer at Woodland. Some people in the gospel accounts “got” Him, recognized Him, identified with Him. Others missed Him.

True then, true today.

We looked, last week, at two and a-half parables—The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and The Lost Son (Act I, 15.11-24). Three separate parables, one point: Rejoice with me!” the major figures of the three parables say together.

In the most complex of the three parables, the lost son, experiencing his father’s grace, admits his unworthiness, accepts his father’s love and enters into his father’s joy. And, through the figure of the Younger Son, we learn that God’s terms for reconciliation includes grace that preempts our efforts to establish ourselves in His favor.

Wonderful as it is, there’s still more.

Unlike the first part of the parable, Act II (:25-32) takes places in speeches. Listen to the points made, watch how the text is arranged. Jesus hasn’t even made his main point yet to His immediate audience of “sinners” and Pharisees (see Luke 15.1-2). The “smack-down” yet awaits.

Even as the Younger Son has returned from the fields, the Older Son approaches the house, likewise from the fields (:25). Notice, he comes last, like a good foreman shutting down the operation for the day, like a diligent executive, shutting off the lights. As he does, he hears symphonia (the mixed-voiced sounds of laughter and feasting). The fattened calf is slaughtered, “quickly,” we’re told earlier, in time that the workers in the fields might celebrate that evening. “Why was I not invited?” we know he asks.

The Older Son arrives at the house and asks for news (:26-27). We note, along with commentator Kenneth Bailey in Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (Eerdmans, 1983) that this is not an American farmhouse, entered through the side and the kitchen. This is a Middle Eastern house with a wall dividing the lane from a private courtyard that stands in front of the house. The invited guests would have been inside. The Older Son stands outside, along with the children and the hangers-on and “keeps on” (imperfect tense) asking for news.

When he learns all that has transpired, the Older Son responds (:28a). He becomes angry and won’t enter the feast. He doesn’t want to distribute his father’s remaining wealth that he supposes to be his. But more, and here we credit Bailey once again, there was a custom throughout the Middle East that the oldest son of a hosting nobleman would stand in the doorway barefoot. It is as though the nobleman was saying to his guests, “Even my oldest son is your servant.”

And again, what was Jesus criticized for, in the opening verses of the section (:1-2). Hosting sinners, right?

The Father leaves his dinner guests, humbling himself, to enter the courtyard, to plead with his son (:28b). The Older Son responds to the Father. “Look (you!) … ” This is hardly the way to address the paterfamilias. “For these many years I’ve served you …” This isn’t son talk at all, but slave talk.

“You never gave me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” the Older Son continues (:30, ESV).

Note the emotional distance from the family: “This son of YOURS.” And, note the Older Son’s concept of joy that includes a good time with friends and that doesn’t include the Younger Brother or the Father. He’ll have meat without family fellowship; he’ll work to take the benefits of sonship, while living on his own terms. He’ll establish himself apart from the Father. And what was the sin of the Younger Brother?

Tim Keller, in his The Prodigal God (Dutton, 2008), in which he interacts with Bailey’s work and to which I’m much indebted for this reading of the parable, remarks at this point,

The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness,  but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father (35).

The Father responds to the Older Son (:31-32). “Son,” he says, in a unique use of the word (much like I speak to my two sons when their fishing lines are tangled, but they choose to cast them anyway), “You have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

Here, the Father reminds the Older Son that he, the son, is the heir. But, the Older Son is not content. He would, like his younger brother, have the right to distribute his father’s wealth. Is he not likewise saying, “I wish you were dead!”?

“We had to celebrate and rejoice,” the Father responds (NAS reading). Or, literally from the original, “It was necessary to celebrate and rejoice.” Necessary for whom? we might ask.

” … for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (:32).

And so, the Older Son, experiencing his father’s grace, claims that which he perceives to have earned, judges his younger brother, rejects his father’s love, and—by refusing to enter the feast—demonstrates that all these years he has been lost in his father’s house.

Thus ends the parable … Or, does it?


We noted last week that a parable is much like a joke. Both have a response. To the joke, we laugh (hopefully). To the parable, there is a life response. What response would Jesus ask of His audience? And, of us?

Among Kenneth Bailey’s contributions is his structuring of the second half of this parable. He notes (191) that the scenes move from the Older Son drawing near the feast, to the reason for the feast (spoken by the servant), to the Father’s pleading, to the Older Son’s first complaint. Then, the second half unfolds in mirror image fashion—the second complaint, the continued pleading of the Father, the summary of the reason for the feast, and then …??? What would we expect? Why, we’d expect the Older Son to enter into the feast!

That would be the perfect fairy tale ending the form demands. It might go something like: the Older Son, upon experiencing his father’s grace, entered the house, reconciled with his brother, joined in the music and feasting, and so his father once again had two sons. 

But, our imagined epilogue doesn’t end that way. I’ll credit a missionary to Egypt named Mike Kuhn with another possible ending to the parable: And the Older Son, spurning his father’s grace, raised his staff and struck his father over the head. And, while the Young Son and the guests looked on, beat his father repeatedly until his father was dead. 

That’s how the parable ended in the life of Jesus. And, it was in killing Jesus that the Pharisees and other “older brothers” showed what they really thought of God’s grace.

But, there’s something else missing. How about the theme of seeking? In the The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin the hero was the shepherd and the woman who assumed the burden of restoration, until the lost one was restored. Who was to do the seeking in The Lost Son? Could it not have been the Older Son?

Philippians 2.5-8 tells us that Jesus ” … did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Jesus is the older brother that the younger brother in the parable never had. And, as such, He is our older brother. In leaving the Father’s house, He humbled Himself, united us back to the family through the cross and then dispersed the Father’s wealth.

If a parable requires a life response, what is it that the Father is asking us to do? How about imitate Christ in His humility? How about going in search of our lost brothers to invite them to the feast, through Jesus and the Gospel? How about being “prodigal” in grace?

In The Prodigal God Keller reminds us that “prodigal” means “reckless, extravagant, having spent everything”. Have we not misunderstood the word? And, in being glad that the Younger Son finally got it together and thinking that the Older Son needed to shape up, have we often misunderstood the parable?

The real hero of the parable is the Father who graciously, generously, prodigiously disperses His riches to all who would come to the feast.

And so, having come to know the heart of the Father, we must seek others with whom to share the Father’s joy. 


After spending some time with Luke 15.11-32, find some others with whom to discuss these questions:

How does this reading of the parable challenge the way you’ve always understood it? 

Where is God asking you to be “prodigal” in your understanding and display of grace? 

Who was it that came looking for you in a distant country before you knew Christ? 

Whom do you need to seek? 



Really? You want … chickens?!

This weekend, we passed the first anniversary of our first Sunday at Woodland, our interview weekend.

Previous to that memorable time, we met the search team on webcam. Dear friends all today, they were (mostly) strangers then. And, it was really something when we connected to see a roomful of people in the church’s welcome area, a place now familiar to us.

“Why could you see yourselves bringing your family to Woodland and Westboro?” the team asked us, naturally.

“Well,” we said. “We’d like to serve in a place where we could have … chickens.”

Not to make light of the process that was thorough and good, but “chickens” must have been the answer they were looking for. One lady in the foreground of our webcam screen seemed especially taken with our response. “Really? You want chickens? … We can get you chickens!”

That was Wendy Budimlija (Ba-dim-u-la). And now, one year later, Wendy (and Randy) have delivered. We have chickens!

It started with the henhouse that had to be repaired. We closed ourselves inside on a bright day, and marked the daylight. A board slapped here and another slapped there was enough to darken the innards of the place. We discovered fence nails, and a bit of chicken wire served to re-enforce any weakness, real or imagined. Randy came over to inspect my carpentry. “It’s a chicken house,” he said. “You’ve done fine.” I needed the encouragement. If I’m a mink or a weasel, I can still get in, but we’ll make the varmints prove they’re serious.

Wendy and Randy returned again to bring a heating lamp, bedding, chick feed and food and water dispensers. Then, a gift from the Budimlijas: the chicks arrived at the Rib Lake Post Office! We drove the seven miles, all in a dither, and picked up the peeping packet. Twenty minutes later, we opened our box on the lush, green lawn, right in front of our very own chicken house. We gave them their first drink. Two Barred Rocks, two Silver-Laced Wyandottes, two Red Stars, an Americana (that’s the “Easter Egger” that lays the green eggs) and one Buff Orpington.

Since then, our “girls” have become young ladies. And, they’ve gone free range. Since they remind the kids of fancy women shopping together in a fancy department store, they’ve given the ladies mature names—Matilda Mae (Tilly), Missy, Hazel, Stella, Mabel and Sable (the Red Stars), Gertrude (Trudy) and then Pepper, whom we suspect to be a rooster.

If we’d seen ourselves a year ago!

Woodland and Wendy have made good. It was a search process to remember. And, “Chickens” was the right answer.


The Joy of the Father: Luke 15.1-24

Who’s with Jesus?

This summer at Woodland we’re considering the parables of Jesus. With each spiritual lesson couched in a story from common life, there were (and are) those who “get” (understand, recognize, respond to) Jesus. And, there were those who miss Him.

Parables are like jokes. There’s the set-up, the punch line, and the smack-down. The irony of the art form (and Jesus was the best of artists) consists in getting the hearer leaning one way, and then —BOOM!—taking him down.

In Luke 15, Jesus responds to a group of Pharisees who reacted to Jesus when he “ate with,” (or, hosted) sinners. Three parables result, two and one-half of which carry the same point.

In The Lost Sheep (:1-7) A seeking shepherd restores his flock. There’s tight structure here. The little prose poem begins and ends with a flock of 100. Likewise, there’s parallel ideas of a lost sheep and a repentant sinner. At the center of the construction there’s the joy of the shepherd: Rejoice with me!

Similarly, in The Lost Coin (:8-10) a woman searches for a lost coin. Once again, the rhyming of ideas (so typical of Eastern and Hebrew thought) produces an idea at the center: Rejoice with me!

Both short parables push Jesus’ pharisaical hearers. They’re asked to compare themselves first to an (assumedly) ceremonially unclean shepherd and then a (culturally, in the day) socially-subordinate woman. There’s a cluster of themes: lostness … repentance … restoration … completion … the burden of restoration shown in the seeking. Both parables are virtually identical—except that the coin is lost, not in the wilderness, but in “the house,” a potentially significant detail.

In both parables, we must ask, Who’s the hero? Certainly not those lost, or having no need of being found, but the one doing the seeking. Hang on to that idea …

At last we arrive at the parable of the two(?) lost sons, commonly known as The Prodigal Son (:11-24). The very well-known story unfolds in five scenes:

The death wish (:11-13). Here, the younger of the two sons asks for his cut of his inheritance. New Testament commentator, Kenneth Bailey, long-time resident of the Middle East and author of Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (1983, Eerdmans), reports that in hundreds of interviews with Middle Eastern noblemen the overwhelming response to the question, “What would you do if your son were to make such a request?” was “I’d beat him!” The son wishes for nothing short of his father’s death. Notice, the older son, standing to benefit by up to two-thirds of the estate, merely sticks out his hand.

The downward spiral (:14-16). The son goes to a distant land and divests his father’s wealth. Tempted as we are to see the son’s sins as only moral, the main idea here is that he was simply a spend-thrift, seeking to win friends and influence people with his father’s estate. Rather than seeing him going off with a rock band and a Volkswagen bus, we ought to see him seeking to establish himself among sinners apart from his father. But, “when he had spent everything,” famine strikes. The son attaches himself to a well-to-do resident of the land, who (politely) attempts to get rid of him by giving him the undesirable task of feeding pigs—repulsive for a Jewish boy.

The transition: coming to self (:17-19). “When he came to himself …” (ESV), the son makes up a speech. He’ll move back to his village and work as an independent contractor. Maybe, he can live in town. He won’t have to face his older brother, and he can start paying his father back. The absence of the proper word for servant (doulos) is conspicuous. He’ll be a misthos (hired man). And, as such, he’ll be his “own man”. Important to the story is that repentance does not necessarily take place here. He’s not necessarily sorry, he’s hungry.

The grace of the Father (:17-19). We see the son approach the village and ought to imagine children throwing sticks and stones and mud. This one has squandered the estate among Gentiles. In a Palestinian ritual known as kashasha (so, Bailey), the son has been cut off from his people. But then, “while he was till far off,” his father bares his legs like a schoolboy, and runs!

The joy of the Father (:22-24). At their meeting, the son attempts his prepared speech, but is interrupted. Attempts to kiss the hands of his father are pre-empted by his father’s embrace, and the kiss of Shalom. ” … bring the fattened calf and kill it,” his father orders,”And let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to celebrate” (:24).

And here, so we contend—at their joyful meeting—repentance takes place! The son can’t be anything but a son. And, the father hosts the son and the whole village (Think of Jesus’ immediate context and his accusers.)

The parable, at this point, leaves us hanging. (There’s still a smack-down in store.) Amidst the thematic cluster of lostness, repentance, restoration, home and celebration, we have yet to answer the question, Who ought the hero to have been? Who should have done the seeking? 

Even so, there’s much to be harvested at this point. From the younger son, we learn: we may always come to God, but we must come to Him on His terms, not ours. And, if we would come, we will only be sons, not hired men. 

From the Father, we learn the lesson that stands at the center the trilogy of parables in Luke 15 (so far): God’s terms for reconciliation include grace that pre-empts our efforts to establish ourselves in His favor. 

Both lessons cut against our pre-conceived notion of our character and God’s. “We’re able to engineer our relationship with God” …  “We’re our own men” …  “We’ll come back when we’re ready,” we might think with the son. But, as we learn from the Father, God’s grace, know to us in Jesus and His cross-work, pre-empts our plans. God rejoices in the work of His first Son that brings about reconciliation with His other sons.

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2.13, ESV) … Rejoice with me!


Circle up with a small group and ask and answer these questions from Luke 15: 

How do the three parables of Luke 15, when read together,  help you understand the main point of each? 


How is this reading of The Prodigal Son different from others you’ve heard? What do you see now that you’ve missed in the past? 


How are you yet like the younger son? 


What about the response of the Father in the parable surprises you the most? 


What’s missing now? Where do you think Jesus is going with the second half of the third parable? 


Growing up, together …

And, just like that, our Northwoods winter turned to mud, and then to spring, and now to … summer!

There’s projects afoot. Raised-bed garden and hoop house, for me. Beds and beds of perennials to plant, for Amanda. Acres to mow with our old push-mower, for Katja and Jack. And then, the work in the forest that must wait for another season.

My favorite projects remain the fanciful ones deep in the timber. There’s the log cabin the boys began constructing from fallen spruces—logs cut two meters in length with my old German Meterstik (measuring stick) and my handsaw. (The boys say they’re waiting for me to buy a chainsaw before finishing the project … )

There’s Jack’s live trap—a thing of beauty, of hope and of imagination. He’s threaded a snare he learned to tie from watching internet videos. And, he’s driven a stick into the ground and spiked it with a hunk of cheese. This he’s wired to a separate tension lever, just waiting to be tripped. The mechanics of the machine are abundantly clear to a ten-year-old. The animal will position itself squarely in the middle of the snare, seize the bait, and then be flung with overwhelming force against the tree, at the base of which it will lie, stunned, till Jack finds it in the morning. What he will do with the critter, Jack doesn’t know. But, his childlike wonderment places all within the realm of probability.

Then, there’s the zip line (pictured above). Each of our older three (Gigi excluded) takes a turn in the big maple we call Friendship. A bike helmet must be strapped on in recognition of the danger of the maneuver. Then, with the other two children pulling vigorously at an ordinary rope, the thrill-seeking subject launches from the tree and ecstatically zips across the side yard. At least, in theory … The reality is what actually happened when Jack flung himself from Friendship and, obedient to some physical law, dropped like a stone where he met dirt and tree roots. Why so? The physics of it all!

And why must it be necessary to grow up, when everything seems possible in childhood?

Far-fetched as this transition might seem, Ephesians 4.15 does spring to my mind:  speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (ESV).

We’ve recently finished our series on healthy church partnership at Woodland. Now, it’s time to gather up all our sessions on membership, generosity, shameless service, and so forth, and simply love one another, … until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (4.13). That’s growing up together in our local church.

The Regier kids will grow up and (alas!) lose interest in their imaginative, timbered world. And we, as grownups, must, along with the children, grow up too. Material-world mechanics that govern live traps and zip lines won’t be ignored forever. But, neither will the “royal law” of love (James 2.8). The first, we leave behind regrettably (at least, that’s my sentiment as parent to my kids). The second, we all run toward joyfully, since our love for one another in maturity is nothing short of preparation for Christ.

And, that’s the reality we can grow up to.