N: What does it mean to love? Sure, we can love chocolate, or a good steak, or a bubble bath, or sitting in a favorite chair watching a favorite sports team. But I’ve been wondering about the kind of love that we talk about God having. What is that love like? Do we know it when we see it? Are we able to practice it with our loved ones? What about with strangers? It is, I think, far easier for us to talk about God’s love than to receive it and pass it on.
Today’s gospel story begins by telling us that the “Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, [Jesus] welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus launches into a well-known parable, often called the Prodigal Son. The original meaning of prodigal, by the way, is abundant, profuse, luxuriant.
So we have something to watch for – parables are often like a Chinese “finger cuffs” – you put your finger in and all seems well, until you want to pull it out – and you are caught. Parables invite us to wander in, and catch us when we find out that somehow we are the people who are being invited to see something in a new way. I think that this “something to watch for” is about the true nature of God’s love.
This parable has three main characters: a father and his two sons. The oldest son is like many oldest children – reliable, conscientious, and achievers. The younger son is like many youngest children – fun-loving, attention-seeking, and outgoing.
Younger: Why shouldn’t I ask Father for my portion of the inheritance? I’m old enough! There’s more to life than slogging away here! My older brother is all work and no play – and I need to get out from under it all, find my own way in life. Have some fun, find a nice girl, get on with living!
Older: Hmmpf! Can you believe it? Father always does what my younger brother wants. Always. With me, Father is so rigid, with such high expectations that I often think I can never please him. It’s been hard work to make a living off of this land. And I am good at it – at least father has taught me that much. I have learned how to supervise the workers, we eat well, we have what we need. I try to be satisfied.
N: Two children – two different views of life, and what life should be like. Nothing new here, is there? Let’s go forward a bit in time and hear what the brothers are up to now.
Younger: This is the life – parties, girls, good eats! I now have friends who understand me, and plenty of fun to be had. It’s the good life and I want it to go on forever. My brother has no idea about what he is missing.
Older: I am the good son, the one who is dutiful and obedient. The one who is doing what his father asks. And I am the one who will, someday, inherit all this! I will have sons, and they will take care of me when I am old, and do what is proper and expected. It is what is right! I can’t believe father chose to hand over his hard earned wealth to my brother, who has been missing for many weeks.
N: Did you notice that both sons are, each in their own way, alienated from their father? It’s easiest to see with the younger child, the one living with “strong drink and fast women.” He’s left home and is in the process of squandering his inheritance, and likely has little thought about his father. He’s making friends, friends who are likely not very good for him, and as we shall see, aren’t likely to stick around when he runs out of money.
Younger: Yikes! How did this happen? How did I get down to my last coin? Perhaps my friends will give me more money. [slight pause] No! What do they mean, no!? Oh, my – I shall have to earn my bread. I know how to tend animals, perhaps someone will hire me to do that.
N: But the older brother is alienated from his father as well. This son’s relationship with the father is one of duty, not love.
Older : Day after day – except for the occasional festival, life is quite dull. Is this all there is? Father is old, when will he die and leave all this to me? I know I can run this old farm better that he does. Just look at him – he spends his time looking out at the horizon. I think he is looking for my brother. Good riddance I say! This is all mine – my brother has his portion. When will father let that scoundrel go?
N: There comes a point at which the younger brother realizes that he would be better off working as one of his father’s hired hands, so he travels home. Let’s pick up the story here.
Younger: I’m almost home, let me practice these words once again… Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.
Please God, please let my father accept me back into his household as a servant. Please – I have been so wrong. I made such bad decisions. What I desire more than ever is my father’s love. I had it once, and so want to be held in his love again.
[slight pause] I can’t believe it – yes – it is! It’s my father, running toward me, arms open! How I long for his embrace. [slight pause] Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.
N: To the younger son’s surprise, what happened was his father calling to his servants to bring the best robe, a ring for his finger, sandals for his feet, and instructions to prepare a celebratory feast – all signs of being favored. I imagine that the younger son was surprised, and delighted in being welcomed back into the father’s embrace, the father’s love. What about the older brother?
Older: What on earth am I hearing? Music? Dancing? What is going on? Father has gone over the edge – it’s not time for a feast yet. There is work to be done in the fields. You, slave, what has happened? My brother, come home? Father ordered a feast? Gave him the finest robe?
Father, can this be? Come on – I’ve been the good son, the one fulfilling my duties! Where has my reward been? I won’t go in there – it’s just not right.
N: His father answers him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
The story stops here. We get the idea that the older brother will not accept his younger brother back into the family in the same way that the father does, don’t we?
Who was saved? Who was pulled up out of the muck? The younger son – who had squandered his part of the family fortune, and was literally working with pigs in the muck. He found his way back into his father’s love.
And the older son? What about him? He is in his own muck – the muck of thinking that being good is enough, the muck made up of self-righteousness. While his father’s love has been there all along, he has not tasted it, allowed it to be wrapped around him. He is, in some ways, lost. I am reminded of the line from the hymn Amazing Grace – ‘I once was lost but now am found.’ These words were penned by a man who captained slaving ships, was in a storm and his ship sunk and he was saved – both physically and spiritually when he realized the evil of the slave trade. The older son is lost to his father’s love.
This is the point the parable offers to the Pharisees and scribes – remember that their comment about Jesus eating with sinners is what has Jesus tell this parable in the first place.
The younger son is the one who turns his life around – another way of saying “repent.” He also is pulled up from the muck – another way of saying “saved.” These are the folk with whom Jesus eats – these are the folk who accept God’s love in ways that are life-changing. I once was blind but now I see. … how precious did that grace appear… Is Jesus telling us that the people whose lives have been lived “in the muck” (so to speak) have it easier when it comes to recognizing their need for God’s love?
The older son – the one who did his duty, who obeyed, who fulfilled what he thought the expectations were – he is the one still stuck in the muck of judgment and anger. He is busy pointing fingers at his wayward brother rather than being concerned with accepting his own father’s love. In fact, he cannot even turn toward his father’s love – he is not able to accept his father’s joy at his brother’s return, not able to join the celebration, not able to accept that his father’s love is also available to him. Is Jesus telling us that those who are “good” – who obey the rules and expectations like the Pharisees and Scribes do – have a harder time entering into God’s loving embrace?
One of the things that this parable tells me is that God’s love is something that we can’t earn. The older brother illustrates this. Another thing this parable tells me is that God’s love is deep and wide and freely given when we turn toward God. The younger brother shows us this. A third thing this parable tells me is that God so desires that we receive his love. The father in the parable demonstrates this.
One more thing that this parable tells me is that when we receive God’s love, it is like a feast – wearing our best clothes and jewelry, music and dancing, eating the richest food, the “fatted calf.”
Receiving God’s love is to be celebrated – isn’t that a story worth sharing?