Rob Bell: The Prodigal Son story

I loved Rob Bell‘s telling of the Prodigal Son story in Luke 15.  He develops it further than the portion I’ve included here, but this is well worth a read.  It is taken from Chapter 7 (The Good News is better than that), of Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

I tell you a story Jesus tells in Luke 15.  A man has two sons.  The younger one demands his share of the father’s inheritance early, and the father unexpectedly gives it to him.  He takes the money, leaves home, spends it all, and returns home hoping to be hired as a worker in his dad’s business.  His father, again unexpectedly, welcomes him home, embraces him, and throws him a homecoming party, fattened calf and all.

Which his older brother refuses to join. It’s unfair, he tells his father, because he’s never even been given a goat, so that he and his friends could have a party. The father then says to him, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

I retell this story of Jesus’s, because of the number of stories being told in this one story.

The younger brother tells a story. It is his version of his story, and as he heads home in shame after squandering his father’s money, he rehearses the speech he’ll give his father. He is convinced he’s “no longer worthy” to be called his father’s son. That’s the story he’s telling, that’s the one he’s believing. It’s stunning, then, when he gets home and his father demands that the best robe be put on him and a ring placed on his finger and sandals on his feet. Robes and rings and sandals are signs of being a son. Although he’s decided he can’t be a son anymore, his father tells a different story. One about return and reconciliation and redemption. One about his being a son again.

The younger son has to decide whose version of his story he’s going to trust: his or his father’s. One in which he is no longer worthy to be called a son or one in which he’s a robe-, ring-, and sandal-wearing son who was dead but is alive again, who was lost but has now been found.

There are two versions of his story.


And his father’s.

He has to choose which one he will live in.

Which one he will believe.

Which one he will trust.

Same, it turns out, for the older brother.

He too has his version of his story.

He tells his father, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours

(he can’t even say his brother’s name)

who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

So much in so few words. One senses he’s been saving it up for years, and now out it comes, with venom.

First, in his version of events, he’s been slaving for his father for years. That’s how he describes life in his father’s house: slaving. That directly contradicts the few details we’ve been given about the father, who appears to be anything but a slave driver.

Second, he says his father has never even given him a goat. A goat doesn’t have much meat on it, so even in conjuring up an image of celebration, it’s meager. Lean. Lame. The kind of party he envisions just isn’t that impressive. What he reveals here is what he really thinks about his father: he thinks he’s cheap.

Third, he claims that his father has dealt with his brother according to a totally different set of standards. He thinks his father is unfair. He thinks he’s been wronged, shorted, shafted. And he’s furious about it.

All with the party in full swing in the background.

The father isn’t rattled or provoked. He simply responds, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” And then he tells him that they have to celebrate.

“You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

In one sentence the father manages to tell an entirely different story about the older brother.

First, the older son hasn’t been a slave. He’s had it all the whole time. There’s been no need to work, obey orders, or slave away to earn what he’s had the whole time.

Second, the father hasn’t been cheap with him. He could have had whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it. Everything the father owns has always been his, which includes, of course, fattened calves. All he had to do was receive.

Third, the father redefines fairness. It’s not that his father hasn’t been fair with him; it’s that his father never set out to be fair in the first place. Grace and generosity aren’t fair; that’s their very essence. The father sees the younger brother’s return as one more occasion to practice unfairness. The younger son doesn’t deserve a party—that’s the point of the party. That’s how things work in the father’s world. Profound unfairness.

People get what they don’t deserve.

Parties are thrown for younger brothers who squander their inheritance.

After all,

“You are always with me,

and everything I have is yours.”

What the father does is retell the older brother’s story. Just as he did with the younger brother. The question, then, is the same question that confronted the younger brother—will he trust his version of his story or his father’s version of his story?

Who will he trust? What will he believe?

It is taken from Chapter 7 (The Good News is better than that), of Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

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