My church has been focusing on the story of the Prodigal Son during Lent. They’ve even been doing a film series on Wednesday nights watching movies that explore themes of fathers and sons (Finding Nemo, Les Miserables, Legends of the Fall, etc.), though sadly I work in the evenings and have no social life so I haven’t been able to attend. So I’ve mostly experienced the story of the Prodigal Son through sermons by our rector John Newton. This Sunday we got the twist ending of the story.
If you’re not familiar with the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), it’s a parable Jesus tells about a son who decides to take an early inheritance and leave his father’s household. He goes off and squanders all he has and eventually runs out of money and finds himself destitute. When he hits rock bottom he decides to return home and ask to be a mere servant in his father’s house. But when he returns home his father welcomes him with open arms and throws a party celebrating his return. Meanwhile the older brother throws a fit, complaining that he’s been faithful and never rewarded. Oddly enough, the story ends there. Which is what the sermon focused on.
Most of the time the story of the Prodigal Son is a reminder of forgiveness. The son’s mistakes are forgiven and he’s welcomed home. It’s similar to other stories Jesus tells about rejoicing over the lost coin or the lost sheep. These stories are symbolic of how far God is willing to go to rescue and redeem those he loves. Somewhat ironically, this story is about God’s love and acceptance of the sinner, the rebel, the outcast, the down and out, yet it’s exactly those who so often receive dirty looks when they walk into a church.
Which is why Sunday’s sermon focused on the older brother and end of the story. I picked up on two interesting points:
1) The older brother had a legitimate complaint. He argued that the Prodigal Son was being rewarded for bad behavior. And it’s easy for a lot of us to go along with the older brother and see ourselves in his position. How often do we complain that a sibling is getter a better shake than we are? But he’s arguing based on moral rules. He’s concerned about good vs. bad, whereas the father is concerned about relationship. It’s not about good vs. bad for the father, it’s about dead vs. alive, lost vs. found. Relationship is not grounded on moral performance, it’s about grace. Grace is so amazing because it’s undeserved. It goes against the moral rules (though it doesn’t negate them). Grace is neither fair nor just, and that’s hard to swallow. Especially if we see ourselves as those who follow the rules.
2) But the older brother overstated his case, showing a seething resentment under the surface. He exaggerated the prodigal’s sins and overstated his own righteousness. There’s selfishness, resentment and arrogance in the older brother’s position. There’s even arrogance in seeing yourself in the older brother (I’ve been obedient, I’ve done what’s right, I’m the good son)—doh. This resentment among the just does no good for anybody. In the end the older brother’s resentment makes it hard for him to join the celebration. In fact, we don’t even know if the older brother joins the celebration and welcomes his brother home. The story ends with the older brother whining to the father.
It all serves as a reminder to me that we don’t understand love and grace. The church is perhaps best known for behavior-based judgments: Good or bad? In or out? But that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus values. Good and bad and moral judgments must have some place because the prodigal son realized he had done something wrong. But the fallout of those decisions is the farthest thing from the father’s mind.
As long as Christians are pouting along with the older brother, we don’t get it. We’ve poisoned ourselves with resentment and arrogance, proven by how much we resonate with the older brother.
I’ve probably heard this take on the Prodigal Son before. What’s amazing to me is how it doesn’t seem to sink in.
In the end, the hardest conversion is the one who stayed home.