Note: This article describes one of the ON’s Economic Wisdom Project Talks, designed to be used as class assignments.
At the inaugural Karam Forum, Celeste Cranston of Seattle Pacific University spoke on the Parable of the Two Sons (often known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son), drawing out how the narrative connects our attitude about work with our attitude about God. We see in the story how the gospel transforms our experience of work because it transforms our experience of God. This teaching tool is ideal for students to view and discuss in classes such as spiritual formation, ethics, New Testament studies and other settings where issues of discipleship and vocation are covered.
Beginning with a personal story, Cranston illustrates how we can feel undervalued and alone in our work, and there are moments when it seems as if there are not enough resources or time to help us complete our task well. There are many “unconscious messages [that] keep us chained” to such falsehoods, and these “deeper, default messages echo loudly” and can drown out God’s presence.
By looking at the relational economy of the Parable of the Two Sons, Cranston demonstrates how to resist and supplant the feelings of loneliness, meaninglessness and powerlessness in our work. Through the actions of the two sons and their father, Christ’s parable teaches us how to rightly understand our work, God’s presence in our work and how our work connects with God’s kingdom.
The relationship of the two sons to their father provides the heart of the story – how they wrongly view their father and the economy of the father’s household directs their misguided actions in the story. Both sons begin the parable by viewing the father as an absent and stingy slave driver. Yet by the end, through his gracious actions, we see that that the father is both loving and present, one who invites both his sons, and us, to work alongside him in a kingdom marked by abundance.
The father’s words at the end of the parable provide a sense of the theological scope and meaning of the story: “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.” God is always present with us in our good work. Indeed, the parable shows us that we are God’s children, God is always with us, and we can live into God’s gracious abundance through our work.
We have provided a few sample excerpts from his talk below. We hope you will find this a useful tool to provide your students with an understanding how God’s kingdom of abundance invites the disciples of Christ into a life of joyous work where God is always with us.
The Gospel and Work
Jesus’s parable of the Two Sons in Luke 15, also known as the parable of the Prodigal Son, portrays a dynamic connection between our work and our spiritual formation. These two sons’ stories reveal how our concepts of God impact our work. And likewise, how our narratives of work impact our relationship with God. And at the end of the story, the father’s message speaks to us today and tells us what we long to hear: that we are God’s beloved children, that we are always in God’s presence and that we can live into God’s kingdom abundance.
Two Sons, Two Views of Work
Notice the attitudes of both these sons in the parable toward work – they both despise it. The younger son despises it by brazenly demanding his inheritance and then running off to squander it in a foreign land. And the elder son’s scorn for work is more from within the ranks. He is the one that stays home, dutifully laboring in the field…but he does so with contempt. And his obedience is marked more by disdain than by a trusting relationship. And that contempt boils over when he complains to his father: “All these years I’ve been working for you like a slave!” But this firstborn is no slave. He is a beloved son, as the father clearly shows. Yet, duty bound, he perceives of his work as slavery and thus of his father as a slave driver.
Work as a Way Home
The text punctuates this misconception of the elder son when it uses the language of slavery to describe the younger son – he is the one out feeding the pigs, unclean work at best (especially for a Jew) and living in slave-like conditions. The text says, “no one gave him anything to eat.” While the older son thinks and acts like a slave but is not; the younger son while living as a slave has a significant shift in his attitudes. The text says, “when he came to himself.” The younger son comes to himself by realizing who his father is – he is no slave driver. He comes to himself by remembering his father’s care, even for the hired hands. And because he trusts the loving character of his father, he now sees work as a way home.
God’s Presence in Our Work
In our work, we are always in God’s presence. But note how the elder son operates as if in isolation. Though he’s never left his father’s home and all the relationships there, he thinks of himself as ultimately alone. One of the most gut-wrenching lines of this parable is when he gets wind of his younger brother’s return and his father’s extravagant celebration. The text says, “then the elder brother became angry and refused to go in.” Right in front of him, the festivities are underway, a place of communion and love and fellowship and joy – and he refuses to enter. He pulls back. But here we see the father’s loving heart. In the face of his son’s anger and alienation, the text says, “then the father came out and began to plead with him.” He leaves the party; he seeks out this isolated son and he begs him to come in. What a picture of God’s desire for fellowship with us. What grace-filled, seeking love. But note the contrast. The elder brother’s refusal to enter into the feast while the younger son, working alone, by himself, far from home, does what his older brother never does: he turns toward his father.
A Mentality of Scarcity in a Household of Abundance
Through our work we can live into God’s kingdom abundance. But note the older brother’s assumptions here about his father’s household economy. Though he lives and works in a world of plenty, he operates with a scarcity mentality: “You’ve never even given me a young goat,” he complains. Ironic! He’s complaining he’s never been given a young goat when he knows full well his father has just killed the prized fatted calf for his younger brother. Why doesn’t he just ask for what his heart desires? Why? Because the elder son’s narrative is based on scarcity, a shortage of resources and relationships. He dares not ask for a young goat, much less a prize fatted calf.
The Extravagant Abundance of the Kingdom Economy
While we are loved by a limitless God, we live in a world of real limits, painful limits. And all too often the brokenness of this world becomes the foundation of our identities – and that yields a poverty, a poverty of hope, a poverty of imagination, a poverty of relationships and a narrow, confining life. But the almighty God of Scripture, creator of the universe, the giver of all good gifts, lavishly kills the fatted calf for and lovingly delights in his children. In our work we can live into God’s kingdom abundance….May we trust, may we celebrate that abundance so completely that it becomes the foundation of our lives. The God of the universe proclaims: you are my beloved child, you are always with me and everything I have, is yours.