I’d bet you’re familiar with the story of the Prodigal Son, but have you ever thought about the key family legacy principle it so powerfully illustrates? Let me explain.
Even though people often link the word “legacy” to money, as with legacy gifts, the truth is that the idea of legacy encompasses everything that we pass on to the next generations. That includes stories, values, relationships, wisdom—anything that we successfully build into others. A financial inheritance can enter the picture, but in reality, money is the easiest thing to pass on, and the least valuable.
So what does the story of the Prodigal Son have to do with legacy? I’ll retell the story to bring that out.
Jesus told the story as the last of three related stories recorded in Luke 15. In each of the first two stories, something valuable is lost and then recovered, and joy breaks out as a result. But the last story is more complex.
The Younger Son: Wild and Free?
A father has a son who has the audacity to ask for his share of the inheritance. Now. While his father is living. The son is in effect saying, “Look, I don’t want you. I want your stuff. I can’t wait until you’re dead. Just give me my share of your stuff now.”
And this father goes along with his son’s demand: he liquidates assets to give the son his share of inheritance. You know the story. The son clears out of town and goes on to live large in a country far from home. He burns through his cash and hits rock bottom when the country he’s living in enters a drought-induced recession. Though he finds a job of sorts, he’s still so hungry that pig slop starts looking pretty good. And then he has a light bulb moment and realizes that even life as a hired worker on his father’s estate would be far better than his current lot. So off he goes, homeward bound.
His father spots him coming, and joy breaks out. The father runs to meet him and interrupts his son’s carefully rehearsed repentance speech to call for a welcome home feast.
The Older Son: Slaving Away
And that’s where this story takes a turn. Turns out the father has two sons. And all this time, the older son has been keeping his head down, working away on the family farm while his younger brother was off making a fool of himself.
This good boy is out in the fields when his little brother arrives home, and so doesn’t know what’s up when he gets home from work and hears the sounds of a party in full swing. And when he finds out the reason for the whole shindig is that his no-good, disgraceful, money-gobbling younger brother has come crawling home—he’s not happy. Not. One. Bit.
He refuses to go inside to the feast. His father has to come out to plead with him. And that’s when this son gives his dad a piece of his mind. And it’s not pretty.
‘Look! 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 who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
What Both Brothers Have in Common
The younger son had wished his father would hurry up and die so he could claim his inheritance. Turns out the older son’s attitude wasn’t much different. Think about it. He knows that, with his brother’s share of the inheritance already distributed, the rest of the estate is coming to him. And here he is, slaving away, waiting for the day when the father’s stuff becomes his.
He’s furious that the father would spend from his future inheritance to celebrate his despised younger brother. He doesn’t care about his father’s joy at having his lost boy back. It’s about the stuff. It’s about the injustice of it all. How dare he welcome that wastrel home!
Both sons have more in common than not. They just pursue it in different ways. Both sons cared more about getting their dad’s stuff than about having a good relationship with him. Both sons were in the grip of selfishness and greed.
(I did read one modern scholar’s take that the father was at fault for forgetting to invite his older son into the feast. It’s a thought, but I’m afraid it misses the point of the story, given the occasion and audience for the Luke 15 stories. Jesus wasn’t teaching a parenting seminar—he told these parables in response to religious leaders who grumbled about his welcoming tax collectors and sinners and eating with them.)
Grace to Them Both
The story is ultimately about God’s grace to sinners. It’s about how both younger-brother type sinners and older-brother type sinners both need to repent and return to the Father. Both those who break all the rules and those who keep all the rules can be just as far from knowing God. The story is an invitation to younger brothers and older brothers to repent and come into the feast with the Father. And it’s about God’s joy at each person who comes back into a restored relationship with him.
Did the brothers change? It’s hard to imagine the younger son not having a radical change of heart in response to the grace and love extended to him.
But the older son? The father extends grace to this son, too, affirming his place in the family and inviting him to join the celebration, but Jesus the master storyteller leaves his audience hanging. We don’t know what the older son chose. Did his heart soften toward his father and his brother, such that he joined the feast? Or did he remain caught up in the grip of his pride, greed and bitterness, missing out on the joy of his father?
(Not) All About the Stuff
Here’s the family legacy lesson. It’s not all about the stuff. Money and possessions are not the main indicator of true family success. What do we also need to focus on? A healthy family legacy involves cultivating healthy relationships, nurturing thriving individuals, pursuing meaningful occupations, and joining together to make a positive impact with the resources entrusted to us.
Photo by Kitera Dent on Unsplash
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Published November 20, 2020