It’s a tale of two brothers and a father. It’s a tale of extravagance, of woe and of mercy and forgiveness.
The older brother believes that he has to be the responsible one, doing his duty towards his Father and being the good one because of what he thinks of his brother. After all, his brother is a handful! And the younger brother tries to be good but often fails in the eyes of his sternly mannered, often disapproving brother. And so to get attention, even if it is negative attention from his family, he acts out in ways that are not acceptable. He even goes as far as to say to his Father that he wants his share of the property and considers his Father as being as good as dead to him. He wants to be able to use his share while he can use it and enjoy it. The Father appears to be reckless in the giving of such assets to the younger son who goes his own way, spending lavishly all the while trying to not live up to the image that his older brother has for him.
It is telling that for all of the good that the older brother does and wants to do, his life is not any happier than that of his fun seeking younger brother. He perceives his Father’s actions to be recklessly indulgent – not a gift of generosity but of foolishness. It has the potential to wreck the family’s good name and reputation in the community. He is alone out in the fields amongst the hired hands and the flocks of his Father wondering why he has to work so hard when his brother gets away with near murder.
It is only when the younger son finds himself in the depths of pain and despair, wanting for everything and possessing nothing that he remembers the house of his Father and begins the hard and long journey home. Along the way he learns a bit about humility and contrition and so he practices what he will say to his Father when he finally sees him, “Father give me, for I have sinned against you and before heaven and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The situation and the now repentant does raise an interesting question: what does a child need to do when he or she has injured a parent baldy and knows it? Some will be critical and say that the younger son was simply self serving in his actions and in trying to save himself from the harsh realties of what he has done to himself. The son accepts that his Father will more than likely reject him but hopes to find some small hope of at least being able to serve his Father and thus in some way make amends and serve his Father.
All this makes the reaction of the Father and the welcome home of the prodigal son that much more over the top. The Father has been waiting and when he receives the news that his rebellious son has returned home, he runs to him and grabs him and hugs him for all that he is worth not waiting to hear what the young man has to say for himself. It is only after the embrace and a proper welcome that the act of contrition is made and forgiveness and adoption extended. The extravagant love of the Father both fulfills and offends our senses of right and wrong – generosity is shown willingly to the one who does not by human standards deserve it while the one who has been at home and diligent does without.
Will the older brother enter into the joy and happiness of the house and into the celebration of new life that his brother has found? Will he learn to have the joy of life and be able to teach the obedience that is necessary to live out that new life – only time will tell.
What does this tell us about God? First it ought to tell us about a heavenly Father who is more interested in giving us what we need rather than what we deserve. While we have been away from God we have been, as the song says, “looking for love in all the wrong places” God has waited and looked for and continued to love us. Second, this parable tells us that God is far more ready to forgive and forget than we often are ready to admit. And by receiving such forgiveness we are enabled to let go of those things, those hurts and pains of the past and therefore can let go of the need for punishment and revenge. Forgiveness is more than a moment – it is a habit. And if God can forgive our ways and sins, should we not be prepared to do the same for each other?
What kind of church will we be: like the younger brother who finally comes to himself and realizes that his Father is not dead and comes home alive himself or will we be the resistant older brother who has lost its joy and is worried about what he will lose now that the younger brother is alive and back in his Father’s life? Will we be too proud to try and sustained ourselves by going back out to the fields with the flock thereby depriving ourselves of the celebration of life that is rightly ourselves well? Only time will tell. I hear the music and I have my guitar. I’m going in. Are you coming?