Category Archives: Prodigal Project

Second Chances for Both Sons

Among the many messages in the parable of the Prodigal (Luke 15:11-32) is that God actually seeks out despicable people and gives them a second chance.

Over the past two and a half years, as I’ve been working on the Prodigal Project, I’ve gained such admiration for Jesus as a storyteller. In less than 500 words (in the NIV translation), Jesus dealt a one-two punch that drove home the truths of forgiveness, grace, and reconciliation for the “tax collectors and sinners” in his audience. And in the same stroke, Jesus challenged the Pharisees and the teachers of the law: “If God can forgive, why can’t you?”

Brett Younger drove the point home to me in a commentary he wrote a few years ago (Formations Commentary, May-August 2010, Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc.).

He was writing about the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25, but the point applies to the prodigal story, too. Younger asks, “Could it be that, according to Jesus, God seeks evil people who cause horrible tragedies and offers them grace? Could there be more joy in heaven over one terrorist repenting than over ninety-nine righteous people like us? That is hard to take.”

Forgiveness for terrorists?! Hard to take indeed.

Younger portrays Israel’s patriarch as a pretty despicable guy. He cheated his brother out of his inheritance, tricked his father out of a blessing, and never expressed a moment’s regret for any of it. Younger says, “In a world of indefensible wickedness, we should never excuse evil, but we should try to see more like God does, because the hard truth is that God loves people like Jacob.”

Not only does God love Jacob. He built a mighty nation from him. Jacob: one of the “big three” of the Hebrew narrative – Abraham, Issac and Jacob!

And then Younger’s point that hit me between the eyes: “Obviously, the thief has to stop stealing, the terrorist has to lay aside his or her bombs… and the sinners must repent. Yet the good news does not begin with our repentance. God’s love is the gospel.” (emphasis mine)

The prodigal’s father ran out to meet him. He interrupted his younger son in mid-confession to dress him in robe, ring & sandals, and to call for a party.

I’m afraid I’m more like the older son. I want to hear a full confession before I throw a party. And I want to sit at the head table, where my faithfulness and long years of service will be celebrated with equal gusto as the sinner’s repentance.

If I understand the parable correctly, there’s a second chance for me, too.

The father went out to bring his older son into the party. “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘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.’”

Thanks be to God.

Some of the books influencing my thinking about the Prodigal Project


Unchristian:  What a new generation really thinks  about Christianity…  and why it matters
by David Kinnaman (Baker Books, 2009)

Applebee’s America:  How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community
by Douglas B. Sosnik, Matthew J. Dowd and Ron Fournier  (Simon & Schuster, 2006)

They Like Jesus But Not the Church:  insights from emerging generations
by Dan Kimball (Zondervan, 2007)

What’s So Amazing About Grace?
by Philip Yancey (Zondervan, 1997)

Blue Like Jazz
by Donald Miller  (Thomas Nelson, 2003)

Tell It Slant:  a conversation on the  language of Jesus in his stories and prayers
by Eugene Peterson (Eerdmans, 2008)

Practice Resurrection:  A conversation on growing up in Christ
by Eugene Peterson (Eerdmans, 2010)

The Return of the Prodigal Son
by Henri J. M. Nouwen  (Doubleday, 1992)

The Prodigal God
by Timothy Keller (Dutton, 2008)

The Prodigal Project

A generation of people in their 20s & 30s see Christians and the church as hypocritical and judgmental.

They are aware of Jesus… in fact, many of them grew up in the church. They are comfortable with Jesus’ teachings and moral standards (although their lifestyles may not show it). But they are not aware of, nor are they comfortable with who Jesus is.

They want a life of meaning and purpose, but Jesus and the church have no part in it. They have so stereotyped Christians and the church that they are unable to open their lives to God’s grace. In fact, you might say that Christians and the church have gotten in the way of their relationship with God.

How can they be moved to embrace Jesus – his teachings and his example, as well as his God-with-us identity? Can they be moved to acknowledge the problems in the church, yet embrace it as God’s way of helping us mature as his followers?

On the other hand:

Many Christians in the United States are too comfortable with our religion. Our faith has become institutionalized.

Although some of us are faithful in attending church services… and many are involved in other acts of service to and through the institution, the healing flames of grace and forgiveness have grown cold.

Many of us are focused on the externals of religion rather than our relationship with the Heavenly Father. A daily walk with God has become a well-worn path that can be navigated with our eyes shut… which is exactly the way some of us travel.

Can we be moved to admit our self-righteousness, hypocrisy and judgementalism? Will we drop our pretenses and accept the fact that we need God’s grace on a daily basis?

Can people in both groups be moved to see that they need each other, and that God put us together in the church for that very reason?

Since January 2010, I’ve been reading, thinking, praying and working to figure out a way to answer these questions.

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 166...

I think Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, as told in Luke 15, speaks directly to the issue. Jesus, of course, was a master communicator. In a few minutes, with a few chosen words, Jesus spoke directly to heart of the Pharisees’ problems. And he did it in earshot of those “tax collectors  and sinners” who needed to know that God is welcoming and accepting of everyone, no matter what their history, race or religion.

Can this story be told in a way that speaks to our 21st Century culture with the same impact that it had when Jesus told it 2,000 years ago?

Working on it… more to come soon. Anybody have any thoughts?