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The Lost Son Takes Three Steps


By Don Umphrey

(with scriptural citations from the NIV)

To what extent do you identify with Jesus’ story of the Lost Son (sometimes called the Prodigal Son) found in Luke 15:11-32?  I identify as do many others, including those who have been addicted. 

The father in this parable represents God. He has his two sons who strayed for different reasons.

Initially, the story focuses on the younger son who demands that his father give him his inheritance.  What does it say about the attitude of a son who asks for his inheritance while his father is still alive? It is like saying, “I wish you were dead!” 

With money in hand, “the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.” (Luke 15:13).  He apparently had many “friends” until he ran out of money. 

Downward Mobility

Falling on hard times, the son got a job as a pig-feeder.  

Remember that Jesus was a Jew speaking to a Jewish audience.  The Old Testament Law to which they adhered prohibited them from not only eating pork but from even touching a pig. (See Leviticus 11:26-28 and Deuteronomy 14:3, 8.)

Therefore, when Jesus continued telling the story, “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16), the people in his audience were gagging.

When Pain Is Positive

On the verge of starving, the son experienced pain. The good thing about pain is that it is  a key ingredient necessary for a person to come out of denial and face reality.

The next verse starts off, “When he came to his senses,” he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” (Luke 15:17).  This is his moment of clarity.  It signals that he finally has an accurate assessment of where he stands in life.  

As a result, he has a new and improved attitude toward his father, the man he earlier viewed as an irrelevant old fogey, and realizes that he is no longer worthy of being called his father’s son.

He then decides to put some action behind his attitude.  “I will set out and go back to my father... “(Luke 15:18).

Roots of the 12 Steps

A century ago the Oxford Group movement was founded by Lutheran minister Frank Buchman with the idea of recapturing the ideals of First Century Christianity. 

It quickly spread throughout the country.  

The Oxford Group was not another religious denomination. Rather, it involved small groups, informality and lay leadership.  Members practiced confession and strove for high ethical standards. 

It was the goal of Oxford Group members “to achieve spiritual regeneration by making a surrender to God through rigorous self-examination, confessing their character defects to another human being, making restitution for harm done to others and giving without thought of reward.” 

Many individuals whose lives had been ruined by alcoholism found they could stay sober by attending Oxford Group meetings and seeking God’s guidance in their lives.

When the Oxford Group started taking on a political emphasis in 1937 and changed its name to Moral Rearmament, the alcoholics split off and started referring to themselves as members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).  Based on Oxford Group teachings and advice from some clergy members, the 12 steps to recovery were written in 1938. 

A Big Boost for AA

The AA program spread throughout the country following a 1941 article in the Saturday Evening Post magazine titled “Alcoholics Anonymous: Freed Slaves of Drink, Now They Free Others.” There are now about 1.4 million members of AA in the U.S. and Canada.

Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Son is evident when you look at the first three steps of the AA program below:

1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable.  (The son was facedown in the pigpen, and no one in the far country gave a hoot.) 

2) Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  (The son realized his father had the ability to help him.) 

3) Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. (The son decided to return home to get help from his father.)

Expansion to Other Addictions

Over the years some 200 groups addressing different kinds of addictions have adopted the AA’s 12 steps with slight alterations in two of the steps.  In Step One these groups change the name of the substance, behavior or pattern of thinking over which they are powerless.  Then in Step Twelve they say they will help people who suffer from their same addiction. 

A few of these groups include Codependents Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Food Addicts Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Heroin Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Neurotics Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Nicotine Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Survivors of Incest Anonymous, and Workaholics Anonymous.

A veteran member of AA once told me, “The program is like an adjustable wrench.  It will fit any size nut.”

Wondering why the same steps can address such diverse groups, I concluded that the steps take people from self-centered to God-centered.  Another way of saying this is that the steps address specific types of idolatry to God.

Sources of the information in this post relating to the Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous may be found in Journey to Through Christ: CASA’s 12-Step Study Bible. 

“New International Version” and “NIV” are registered trademarks of Biblica, Inc. Used by permission.

© 2022 by Don Umphrey

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