(This blog was first published in 2020, and will be part of my next book project, about the metaphor of servanthood and the actual roles of servants throughout the Bible. Intercession is one of those roles. Jesus said that the greatest among us are those who serve, and I believe we should take this seriously as his disciples.)
The wise preacher Oswald Chambers understood the place that intercession plays in the life of the church and the individual believer. He claimed that it is one of the purest acts of service that believers can exercise, not prone to contamination by pride or selfishness.
When we intercede with God for others, we are “brought into contact with his mind about the ones for whom we pray.” But it is more than prayer, it is a “sustained spiritual sympathy with God” in behalf of others.” This kind of pure sympathy with God is much needed in the church and in the world.
There are also times when we speak for God, interceding with people on his behalf. Paul points to this when he refers to the ministry of reconciliation. We beseech people who are still separated from God, “Be reconciled!” (2 Cor. 5:20)
This type of intercession is beautifully illustrated by the servants in the familiar parable of the return of the prodigal son.The parable, found in Luke 15, was created by Jesus and told to a very mixed audience of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and scribes. The supposedly unrighteous mixed in with the supposedly righteous.
Jesus tells of a son who demands his inheritance early and leaves his father and brother to pursue a season of “riotous living.” We can imagine the types of activities he engaged in to waste his inheritance; they are undoubtedly some form of the same activities that entangle people today—sexual perversion, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling.
Eventually the son “hits bottom” and comes to his senses while feeding pigs in a strange land. This was a new low for a Hebrew man from a good family.
This desperate son recalls how well his father always provided for his needs and the needs of his servants. He determines to return home and beg to be hired as a servant, no longer worthy to be called a son.
As the young man approaches, the father runs out to greet him joyously. What is often ignored is that his household servants are part of the welcoming committee.
It is the servants who put the robe on his back and the ring on his finger, who kill the fattened calf and host the homecoming celebration. To these servants the father exclaims, “This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Lk 15:24). All is forgiven, restored, reconciled. The presence of the servants amplifies the grace, love, and joy of the father.
But this is not the end of the story, nor the end of the servants’ role. The older brother, hearing sounds of celebration, asks the servants what the noise is about. One replies, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound” (15:27).
The self-righteous brother is disgruntled about the fuss being made over the return of his errant brother. He is angry that he has gotten no recognition for remaining faithfully at his father’s side. He hardens his heart.
It is the servants who directly confront his hard heart, reminding him of the love and goodness of his father.
Why am I calling the servants in the story intercessors? Because they were given the honor of representing the father with two types of sinners, one repentant and returning to the safety of the household, and one soured by self-righteousness and unforgiveness.
Servants rejoice with their Father and the angels of God when those, like the prodigal, come to their senses and return home to the embrace of God and his people. Simultaneously, when those like the older brother refuse to rejoice at the rescuing, redeeming grace of God, servants remind them of God’s abundant mercy.
The Father cherishes both those who have stayed close to home and those who have departed and returned. He also cherishes those called as servants in his household, those who bring unity and clarity, proclaiming the tender heart of the Father to one and all. Servants intercede for the lost and for the found.
When we come to the end of the parable, Jesus does not tell us what happens to either brother. The servants have intervened with each in the father’s behalf, but we don’t know what happens next. We don’t know if the prodigal stays home and maintains a godly life, or heads back out onto his prodigal road. We don’t know if the older brother changes his attitude and becomes more gracious or continues to stew in his arrogance.
These characters are so real to us that we forget that it’s merely a parable Jesus utilized to teach some lessons about the Father’s love and kindness. Don’t you wonder how the sinners and the religious folks felt as they each began to recognize themselves in the story?
We all know a family in which a child who has strayed comes back into the fold, only to relapse into addiction and rebellion. And don’t we also know someone who struggles, like the older brother, with legalism, resentment, and unforgiveness? Maybe it is we ourselves who strongly identify with one or both of these brothers.
If we take on the role of servant-intercessors, we will follow and support the will of the Master we serve. We pursue his just and merciful purposes. We are to continually watch with him for those children who are turning toward home, and continually encourage kindheartedness in those who have remained safely in his care.
 Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest