“And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
I’ve got to be honest, I’ve never particularly liked the Parable of the Prodigal Son. All that business about the younger brother daring to ask for his inheritance while his father is still alive, squandering it, then hatching a plan to get back to comfort again…it just doesn’t sit well. The younger son gets off Scot free when he doesn’t really deserve it, and the older son toils away faithfully year after year. No party is thrown for him; shoot, the party for the younger son starts and nobody bothers to even tell the older son, they just leave him working away in the fields. This one never really sits well with me; there’s no sense of justice about it. It doesn’t sit well with me because I largely identify with the older son.
In our culture the prodigal son motif has come to be one with which we can all identify. Most of us know a prodigal character or two in our lives. Most every church I’ve ever served usually has one or two folks who don’t really like this parable. They get it, just how infuriating and insulting these words of Jesus can be. That’s important to remember, the Bible can, and should, infuriate and insult us from time to time…if it doesn’t you may not be reading it honestly. I’m told that once on Sunday when this parable was being read my father stood up and objected to it (he doesn’t really care for this parable). I’m fairly certain that that is family mythology but his general distaste for this parable is real. The thing about this parable is that it is still fresh, it’s real for us. So many of the parables have a safe distance from us. So many don’t live in an agricultural setting or the like anymore so the parables are safely held at arm’s length, we’re protected from them by time and space. Not with the parable of the prodigal son, this one’s in our face, it’s very real for us.
A few years ago I realized I was looking at this Parable all wrong. I was incorrectly identifying who the prodigal brother was in this story. I assumed it had to be the younger brother…but it’s the older one, he’s the prodigal. Look at how Jesus tells the story. It all kicks off at the beginning of Chapter 15. Tax Collectors and Sinners are coming near to Jesus. As we’re accustomed to hearing the Pharisees and the scribes are grumbling about this. So Jesus tells a story. He tells this story for the benefit of the Pharisees and the scribes, not for the tax collectors and sinners.
Now, it’s important to note that pharisees and scribes aren’t really the horrible folks we like to make them out to be. In all honesty they are decent folk. They work hard, trust in God, read their Bible, play by the rules, love their children, respect their elders, and seek to make the world a better place. They’re not bogey men, they’re decent folk. The problem with being decent type folk is that we fall into the double trap of believing that we’re the reason that we’re decent to begin with and that others really should be as decent as us, if only they’d try a little harder. That’s the nefarious, insidious sin of the decent folk that we all to often don’t recognize. It’s self righteousness. Or, put another way, we become the judge of what makes someone good.
There’s a lot that can be said about this parable. But it’s the ending that always fascinates me. It doesn’t end. It’s left open; it invites you to ponder the question; how would I respond? Picture the scene with me:
It’s dark outside, the day’s work is over. A cool breeze blows through the air cooling the sweat on the oldest son’s brow; it ruffles his hair. His dirty hands are shaking with anger; he’s just found out that his youngest brother, the one who cut and ran with his money to do God knows what has returned. He’s been welcomed back! This older brother is dirty, dressed in work clothes from the field. But his younger brother is clean, he’s got on a nice robe and a ring. He sits out here all alone in the darkness. Off in the distance he can hear the music and the laughter of the party. The lights from the tent glow brightly amidst the darkened world. It makes him angrier. There appears a silhouette of a man walking towards him. It’s his father. This is the second time today that this father has left all of his possessions and comforts to embrace a child. With outstretched arms he embraces his son, kisses him, and invites him in. There’s a party for the younger son going on, but it can be the older son’s party too! The younger son has a nice robe on, there’s one for the older son too! The older son doesn’t respond to the father’s embrace, only stands there stiff as a corpse. He unloads his frustration, years of anger and resentment. This is good, it’s good to be honest, to get things out into the cool night air for once. Again the father invited the son into the party. Come in from the cool darkness into the light of the celebration and revelry. The scene ends; we don’t know what happens next. It invites the question. You be the older brother; you’re in this situation. What do you do? Do you stand firm and stay outside? Or do you go into the party?
When we get down to it this is a parable for us decent folk, the present day pharisees. We’re decent people…but we have our sins too. We like to determine who’s good and who’s bad; who’s in and who’s out. We like to play God…and that’s the original sin isn’t it, to be God ourselves. Yep, desolate living, debauchery, and squandering aren’t the basis of sin as we decent folk like to believe, it’s trying to be God. God’s business again and again throughout Scripture is to welcome sinners with outstretched arms, with robe and ring and festivities. He welcomes sinners both decent and indecent. Will we lay aside our own opinions about what makes people right with God? Will we celebrate that none of us make ourselves right with God but instead that it is God who makes people, both decent and indecent, right with him? Will we stop trying to be God and, instead let God be God for us? This is a parable about just how lavish, just how messy, just how surprising, just how far reaching the love and mercy and grace of God is. Are you ready for the party? You’re invited!
Photo Credit: The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt