If you’ve been to church much, you’ve heard the basic story of the prodigal son. The younger brother essentially says, “Dad, I wish you were dead, give me my inheritance.” Surprisingly, Dad complies.
The younger brother then runs off and squanders the money. (Thus, the description “prodigal.” For a time, the younger brother lived prodigiously, spending his newfound resources as if they had no end, like the stereotypical drunken sailor on leave.)
Finding himself feeding pigs to make a living, he decides to go home and at least be Dad’s servant. Instead, Dad greets him as the child for whom he has longed, restoring the wild boy’s status as son and throwing him a party.
The final twist: The elder, loyal son, the one who never left home, is really, really angered, complaining bitterly to dear old Dad.
It’s in the exchange of complaint and response between the elder son and the father that we find some important word play. The son’s complaint: “You have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
“But we had to celebrate and rejoice,” the father says, ” because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
“This son of yours.” “This brother of yours.” The first description, certainly spoken with bitter derision, looks back in time, trying to hammer the younger brother down into the filth where he had wallowed.
The second description, straight from the lips of one who so clearly stands for God in the story, looks to the possibilities of a future where the filthy young man is bathed in love. I imagine the father’s words spoken softly, gently, but with a mild hint of correction. The elder brother is invited to join in the restoration process of the younger brother simply by recognizing the relationship that already exists.
Anyone who has enjoyed the restoring power of grace appreciates the undeserved welcome the younger son receives. Most of us in church know we once stunk of sin—that we occasionally still stink of it—and that we are dependent on that welcoming embrace when we run back home. For Jesus’ first audience hearing this story, the unquestioning welcome offered by the father was the perplexing sticking point. His listeners would have struggled to digest the message, thinking the father a weak old fool.
Nearly 2,000 years of Christianity make it easier for us to understand the grace side of this story. We know the full story of Christ’s trip to the cross, how his suffering, death and resurrection paved the path back home to God for us.
I think the key lesson for churchgoers resides in the story of the elder brother. Like him, we can get used to what we begin to think of as our cleanness, our devotion, our righteousness, sometimes forgetting it is all a gift from God. And in the process, we can begin to resent those who have yet to come home or are just returning home.
We can even find ourselves annoyed by the restoration and presence of people who still carry the marks of someone who strayed far from home: the gay man with AIDS, the biker with the devilish tattoos, the unmarried pregnant woman, the recovering meth addict with bad teeth, the neighbor fresh out of prison.
God loves them, though. We’re to do so, too, particularly once our brothers and sisters have decided to come home.