Most of us grew up calling Jesus' story about a man and his two sons the parable of the Prodigal Son, but it is not. Jesus did not begin his tale by saying, "There once was a man who had a father and an elder brother."
"There was a man who had two sons," he says, letting us know whom the story is really about-a father who loved his two children to distraction and wanted them to love each other too. This is a comforting story until you notice something odd in it: the father does not wait for a confession or a promise of better behavior in the future. Instead, he rushes out to embrace his son and kisses and forgives him before the son can even get a word out of his mouth.
While this image may be excellent news for the prodigals among us, it is also disturbing news, because forgiveness is one of those gifts of God that cuts both ways. We all need it, and when we get it from God or from one another we know what new life is all about. But forgiveness is forgiveness of sin, and sin is wrong, right? In order to be forgiven, someone has to have fallen short of the glory of God, which may be as simple as having failed to be kind to someone, but which may also be as complicated as having killed someone.
Whatever the crime, very few of us would deny the possibility of forgiveness, but most of us would insist on penance, on the sinner's heartfelt confession and willingness to pay for the wrong that has been done. Then along comes this story of instant forgiveness with no strings attached, and we cannot miss the point: that the extravagant love of God both fulfills and violates our sense of what is right.
Preachers and teachers often insult this parable by turning it into a cartoon in which a sulking, mean-spirited older brother begrudges the love a father shows for a reckless, fun-loving younger brother who has come home. But that is entirely too simple, and Jesus said nothing of the kind.
Instead, he told a darker story, a story about a younger son who was so hungry to see the world that he wished his own father dead-at least symbolically-by asking him to settle his estate early and give both brothers their share. So the father-apparently valuing his child's freedom more than his own security-divided his livelihood and said good-bye to his younger son, who went off and squandered everything, until one day he "came to himself." That was when he decided to go back home, composing a pretty calculated confession as he went, one designed to get him back with a roof over his head and food in his belly, even if it meant he had to live as a servant and not as a son.
He came home, in other words, to live off his brother's inheritance, having spent his own in loose living, and no sooner did his father see him coming down the road than the elder brother's fatted calf was killed and the celebration was on. There were no extra steps between the younger son's return and his welcome-home party, no heart-to-heart with the old man, no extra chores, no go-to-your-room-for-a-week-and-think-about-what-you-have-done, just a clean robe for his back, and a fine ring for his hand, and a pair of new sandals for his feet. The father did not even wait for his elder son to get home from work before beginning the festivities, "for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!" Then the elder brother came home from the fields, heard the music and the dancing-and I am glad that I was not the one who had to tell him what it was all about.
I am an eldest child myself. I know what it is like to break in parents, to step aside as they exercise their new and improved skills on younger siblings, and then to take the rap for the little criminals when they mess up. I remember one Saturday afternoon when I was supposed to be looking after my two sisters and my parents came home early. Within minutes they had hauled me by my elbow to the upstairs bathroom to show me my little sister, clutching a fat black crayon in her fist, putting the finishing touches on the claw-footed porcelain bathtub that had once been white. Did she get spanked? No, she was just a little baby who did not know any better. Did I get spanked? Yes, I was the older sister who should have kept her out of trouble.
Older siblings frequently get the raw end of the deal, as the elder brother apparently does in the parable at hand. My guess is that he was not incensed by his younger brother's return, or even by his father's forgiveness of him, but by the celebration. Let the penitent come home, by all means, but let him come home to penance, not a party. Where is the moral instruction in that kind of welcome? What about facing consequences? What kind of world would this be if we all made a practice of rewarding sinners while the God-fearing folk are still out in the fields?
The church thrives on its ministries to the poor, the broken, the sick, and outcast, but what about those of us who are holding our own? What about those of us who work hard to keep our jobs and stay in our relationships and take care of our health and pay our dues but never seem to get any credit for it, while the homeless and the addicted and the downtrodden get all the attention? What do you have to do to get a party around here? Do you have to go off and squander your inheritance before you can come home to be embraced, and kissed, and assured that you belong?
"Listen!" the elder son protests. "For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet 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!" God help the elder son. God help him, and God help all of us who understand his rage, who have felt so excluded and whose hurt has run so deep that we have cut ourselves off from the very ones whose love and acceptance we so desperately need.
"This son of yours," the elder brother says, excluding himself from the family-this son of yours who is no kin to me, nor am I kin to you if you are going to choose him over me.
But here is where the loving father earns his title. He does not take a swing at his firstborn, as some of us might have been tempted to do, nor even remind him to honor his father. He knows that he has lost both of his sons. He has lost the younger one to a life of recklessness, but he has lost the older one to a more serious fate, to a life of angry self-righteousness that takes him so far away from his father that he might as well be feeding pigs in a far country. He wants his father to love him as he deserves to be loved, because he has stayed put and followed orders and done the right thing.
He wants his father to love him for all of that, and his father does love him, but not for any of that, any more than he loves the younger brother for what he has done. He does not love either of his sons according to what they deserve. He just loves them, more because of who he is than because of who they are, and the elder brother cannot stand it. He cannot stand a love that transcends right and wrong, a love that throws homecoming parties for prodigal sinners and expects the hard-working righteous to rejoice. He cannot stand it, and so he stands outside-outside his father's house and outside his father's love-refusing his invitation to come inside.
But his father turns out to be prodigal too, at least as far as his love is concerned. He never seems to tire of giving it away. "Son," he says, reclaiming the boy, "you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." His love for one child does not preclude his love for the other. The younger one's recklessness cannot deflect it any more than the elder one's righteousness. They are a family; they belong to one another, and a party for one is a party for all. "We had to celebrate and rejoice," the loving father says to his elder son, "because this brother of yours"-not my son, but your brother-"was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."
It is the elder brother's invitation back into relationship not only with the loving father, but also with the wayward brother. It is an invitation to recognize his own lostness and foundness; but the parable does not tell us how it all turned out. The story ends with the elder brother standing outside the house in the yard with his father, listening to the party going on inside. Jesus leaves it that way, I think, because it is up to each one of us to finish the story. It is up to each one of us to decide whether we will stand outside all alone being right, or give up our rights and go inside to take our place at a table full of reckless and righteous saints and scoundrels, brothers and sisters united only by our relationship to one loving father, who refuses to give us the love we deserve but cannot be prevented from giving us the love we need.
Barbara Brown Taylor, author of The Preaching Life (Cowley) from which this article is adapted, teaches at Piedmont College, Demorest, Georgia.
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