This season, as we intentionally shift our hearts away from ordinary things and bend them instead toward the cross of Christ, I am taken up into the gospel story. Specifically, I think a lot of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). Today’s reading in Jeremiah brought this story into sharp focus for me.
Despite its name, the parable of the prodigal, or “lost,” son is actually about two sons, both of whom care less about the father than they do about the father’s stuff. The younger son does the unthinkable: he asks the father for his inheritance early. In the Jewish culture of the first century, such a request was essentially the same as saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead. Now give me what’s mine.” The elder son is hardly any better. Though his sins are not so pronounced, it seems he may care even less about the father than his younger brother had. At the end of the story, all he can do is recount what, in his mind, his father owes him for his service.
Just as there are two brothers in Jesus’s parable, there are two “sisters” in the book of Jeremiah—the nations of Judah and Israel. Like the younger son in Jesus’s parable, Israel’s sins are obvious. God says, “I observed that it was because unfaithful Israel had committed adultery that I had sent her away and had given her a certificate of divorce” (Jeremiah 3:8). Judah, like the older brother, sees what happened to Israel and doesn’t heed the inherent warning: “Yet in spite of all this, her treacherous sister Judah didn’t return to me with all her heart—only in pretense” (v.10). In other words, Judah is giving lip service to faithfulness, but she is just as rebellious as Israel was before her.
In Jesus’s parable, the younger son returns home, wanting nothing more than to become his father’s servant—he knows what he did was wrong. But the Father does much more than make his boy a servant; he forgives him, welcomes him with open arms, and gives him a robe and a ring, symbols of his sonship and authority in the family. In like manner, God invites Israel home here in Jeremiah, saying, “Return, unfaithful Israel…. I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt” (Jeremiah 3:12–13). But He goes further: “Return, you faithless children—this is the LORD’s declaration—for I am your master, and I will take you… and I will bring you to Zion” (v.14). Zion, of course, is a reference to Jerusalem, which is not part of the northern kingdom of Israel. It’s where the temple is, where God’s presence dwells among the people. God, then, is promising to bring these lost children fully home. He’s intent on giving them a robe and a ring, and not just servant’s rations.
When Jesus finishes the parable, the older son’s story is left unfinished. We don’t know if he will repent of his pride and enter into the party—and the father’s love—or if he will choose to remain out in the cold. At this point in the book of Jeremiah, Judah has the same choice. Even though exile is coming, this older sister will be invited back too: “In those days the house of Judah will join with the house of Israel, and they will come together from the land of the north to the land I have given your ancestors to inherit” (Jeremiah 3:18).
Our God does not change. He is a Father who welcomes home His lost children. Jeremiah showed us this truth centuries before it came from the lips of Jesus. As we examine our own lives during this season of Lent, let our hearts shout, “Here we are, coming to you, for you are the LORD our God” (Jeremiah 3:22). At the same time, let’s not underestimate the goodness of our God: “But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
Written by John Greco