Over the last several years, the Prodigal Son story has been framed as an illustration of the younger son’s forgiven sins, the older son’s stubborn legalism, and the Prodigal Father’s lavish love. All of these interpretations are sound and true. I would, however, like to put forth another perspective. That is, that the Prodigal Son story is actually a demonstration of both sons’ distorted sense of entitlement, which manifests and eventually concludes in two different ways.
At the very beginning of the story, we see the younger brother ask his father for the inheritance to which he was rightly entitled as a son. So the Father divides up his property to both of his sons. Was it a sin for the younger son to ask for something which was rightfully his? Should we not applaud him for his recognition that it is not by his works, but by his sonship that he assumed possession of his inheritance? Some say it was merely the timing, but I would argue that it was not the request that was the issue, but what came next. For after receiving his inheritance, “the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.”
I would purport that it was not the prodigal son’s request to obtain his inheritance early OR even that he squandered it all. Rather it was that upon receiving his inheritance, the younger son went far away from his father’s house to live for himself; and by doing so, he effectively severed all relationship with his father. Therefore we see that the true sin of the prodigal son was that he quantified his sonship in terms of the sum of money to which he was entitled by birthright and failed to recognize the true value of his sonship – the relationship with his father.
Now I would like to ask you the following question: Would this story have ended differently if the son had left his father’s house not to squander his entitlement on ‘reckless living’ but to find a wife, buy a house with a white picket fence and bear two children? When the prodigal returned, instead of undeserved feast would he have found a well-deserved pat on the back from his father for having spent his inheritance so wisely in the foreign land?
Recall what happened before the prodigal son decided to repent and go home to his father:
“And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” (Luke 15, emphasis mine)
It was as he spent the last cent of his inheritance that the younger son recognized he was “no longer worthy” to be called a son of his father. But the truth is that he was never inherently worthy to be called a son of his father, for sonship is an entirely undeserved identity given to you at birth. In returning home, the Prodigal Son was forced to appeal to the one thing he had left: a relationship which he could no longer quantify in material possessions or expect based on his inherent worthiness as a son. Here we find that the prodigal son had to be emptied of every single penny of a deserved inheritance (entitlement) before he was forced to fall back upon the mercy of a now undeserved relationship (unentitlement).
When the prodigal returns home, the father’s exclamation was entirely relational: “My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” There was no words of apology or forgiveness for what his son had done with his inheritance, but a mere rejoicing that he had “received him back safe and sound.” While some say this was simply the father “overlooking” the younger son’s sins, I would argue that the mere act of the son returning home to be in right relationship with his father was the prodigal’s repentance, and thus cause for rejoice.
What about the older brother? When the servant told him about the feast, he was angry and said to his father “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” Essentially, the older son was saying “You never gave me anything in rightful exchange for all the years that I served you.”
Therefore we see two types of entitlement in this story – one based on WORKS (earned self-righteousness) and BIRTHRIGHT (inherent self-worth). The older son felt he deserved his father’s inheritance based on his merit, while the younger son based on his status as a son. Either way, both sons quantified their relationship to their father in terms of what they, by their works or birthright, stood to gain from it for themselves.
To explain how this applies to our current context, I will ask a question: Why is it that so many people today will gladly accept the salvation of Christ without any regard for a relationship with Him? I believe that it is because they see the salvation of Christ as some form of entitlement – whether gained through their works or worth – instead of the gracious gift of an undeserved relationship. And while most of us have heard the “not-by-your-works” sermon preached to death, we rarely hear warnings against the equally dangerous yet far more subtle relative — the “inherent-self-worth” syndrome that saturates our current self-centered culture.
I am not ashamed to say that I myself have wrestled with the younger prodigal’s “birthright entitlement” mentality in a valiant effort to escape the strife-ridden path of legalism. The premise of this skewed mindset is both underlying and unspoken: That is, that the moment that we “accept Jesus into our hearts,” God endows us with a big direct deposit of salvation which gives us unrestricted access to unlimited withdrawals from “Daddy’s bank account.”
This “glorious inheritance” which was given to us freely with no preconditions we are then free to use to forsake our Father’s house and venture far out into the world to live for ourselves. Whether in self-centered recklessness or responsibility, we lavishly enjoy and consume the many resources He has given us as gracious gifts – which we now see as rightfully ours to spend. Years into our faith, we find that we have built up for ourselves a life fueled by seeking the fulfillment of our own passions, dreams and desires. And in this way, we will have denied the very relationship we were meant to relish and rely upon – that of our loving Father.
God shows us through Christ that the TRUE nature and value of our inheritance is His manifest presence in relationship with us. Jesus Christ is called “Immanuel” – God with us – and in Him, we have a relational inheritance that cannot be quantified in terms of what we stand to gain from it, but rather what we are willing to give up because of it… Paul puts it this way: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
If you feel gypped in any way right now, I would like to apologize on behalf of whichever seeker-friendly or world-friendly church may have lead you to a false perception of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps this was how the Levites felt when God, after apportioning the inheritance of land amongst all of the other tribes of Israel, said to Aaron and the other descendants of Levi: “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.” They must have been thinking, “Awesome. Our cousins get vast acres of land and we get… You?”
But somehow, David felt inspired to speak in lofty terms when it came to the presence of God: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! … My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God… Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! … For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” Was he simply crazy? Or did he come to find that being with God superseded any other dwelling place he could have built with his own inherent worth or earned merit?
My final question to you is this: When you first put your faith in Christ, what did you expect to gain from it? It may have been a good life, peace of mind, a sense of self-importance or even the mere comfort of forgiven sins – anything short of an actual relationship with Jesus. Whatever it is, I urge you to 1) Surrender these entitled expectations and 2) Seek to understand why abiding in Christ is of far greater worth than anything you could ask for, hope or imagine.