As I’ve mentioned before about Godly Play lessons, the parables are set apart as gifts. Parables convey a special and usually simple story with a spiritual lesson for us. I say “for us” because we’re the ones hearing and reading it today, but in the gospel, Jesus shares the parable for the pharisees and scribes, who are grumbling about Jesus welcoming sinners and–God forbid–eating with them. Before the parable of the father and sons, Jesus tells two other parables: the parable of the lost sheep and of the lost coin. You already know this, but to jog your memory, the lost sheep is about the shepherd going after the one lost sheep who has strayed away from the other 99. The parable of the lost coin shares the story of the woman who searches high and low in her home to find the one lost coin. So our context is that the scribes and pharisees–law abiding, faithful men they are–are given these parables by Jesus about people looking not for what they already have, but for what is lost.
And there was a man who had two sons. The younger one decides that he needs to go ahead and get his inheritance so he can go and live the high life, doing whatever he wants for immediate satisfaction and personal pleasure. Before long, he has nothing. Not only that, but there’s famine in the land. This younger son hires himself out to a pig farmer and finds himself at the brink of starvation, imagining eating the pig feed. In a moment of clarity, he thinks about the hired hands on his father’s estate, who never wanted for food. In this “a-ha” moment, he prepares his speech to his father, where he will confess that he’s not only sinned against heaven but also before his father. He will admit he’s not worthy to be called his son and beg to be a hired hand. We can cue the scene of him walking off into the sunset with a knapsack with a renewed resolve, a much different man than the one who blew through his inheritance.
If we were the young man returning home to say all this to our father, we would have to know that this could go a couple of different ways. Jesus doesn’t leave us in suspense for long, though, because we’re told that while the younger son “was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion.” We might smile with tears in our eyes as we picture the heart-weary father, who had probably heard rumors and figured his son was as good as dead, taking his son his in his arms, kissing him and holding him, making all the noises a parent makes when showering a child with affection. As practiced, the son makes his confession, word for word: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Before he can ask to be hired on, the father calls his servants to adorn the son as royalty and to prepare a feast. And why? Because “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And like in the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, there is much rejoicing and celebration.
But unlike the other two parables, where we don’t get the perspective of the other 99 sheep or the woman’s other material items, this parable gives us the perspective of the elder son. When he approached the house, hears the festivities, and finds out from one of the servants what’s going on, what’s his response? . . . “He became angry and refused to go in,” even when his father begs him to partake in the festivities. The older son explains with a voice many of us know, especially us first-born and perfectionists. “Listen!” he begins with a voice that makes me almost cringe, because that is not a voice I’ve been taught to use with my parents or elders. The son goes on to vent his frustration. He’s worked like a slave and always obeyed, yet never has he been rewarded. His brother, on the other hand, has brought shame to their family and is now being treated like a prince. It’s not fair.
With parental excellence, the father showers this son with affection, too, though in a different way. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The father and older son have been co-existing in full relationship. Does the son not know that he is so fulfilled? “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.” Does the brother not realize what had been lost? Did he not feel the grief of losing a member of the family? I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re given a trinitarian parable here. The father and the two sons have a triune relationship. When one is missing, the fullness of the relationship is missing. We’re left without knowing how the son responds to the father’s explanation.
But if we’re the pharisees and scribes listening to this parable, how might we respond? We might resonate with the elder son. We see ourselves like the brother who works like a slave to keep the letter of the law and to uphold all righteousness, and we might grumble about not being recognized by the popular guy in town. But in the presence of the compassion of Jesus, through the voice of the father in the parable, can they hear what Jesus is saying? If they are living to the letter of the law, what are they grumbling about? They are part of the kingdom, counted among God’s chosen.
But what about those sinners? What about what the younger son did? What makes who they are or who he is okay?
This is where this parable also differs from the other two. In this parable, we’re given insight into the thought process of the one who is lost. In the first two parables, we don’t know what the sheep was thinking, and we can assume that the coin didn’t have the capacity to think. But the younger son we know made a conscious decision to get his inheritance and squander it in ways that made his position as a hired hand on a pig farm seem like the position he deserved. “But when he came to himself,” Jesus says, when the young man is in his right mind, he has a moment when he realizes who he is and who his father is. He becomes aware of what he has done and names it as sin. “I have sinned against heaven and before you,” he practices saying to his father. Just as he made a conscious decision to go on his self-indulgent spree, he now makes a conscious decision to turn back toward what is right, to return to his father, and to accept his position with all humility, unworthy as he is. The son is self-aware. The son is honest with himself and with his father. He’s penitent, repentant, and humble.
If the parable played out with an eye-for-an-eye ethic, the father could have punished the son, not with hiring him on as a field hand, which would have still been gracious, but by meeting him with a harsh consequential punishment. The father could have cast the son out of the family. You wanted to go on your own, then go. Don’t expect to be welcomed back.
But that’s not what happened.
When the kids were much smaller, I told them at night before they went to bed that I would never be far from them, that I was in their heart as much as they were in mine, with invisible heart strings connecting us. This comes to mind for me, as I imagine that even if the younger son wanted to go out on his own and turn away from his family, the heart string of the father never disconnected. As soon as the son was in proximity, that heart string was tugged, and the father reeled that son in as quickly and as closely as he could. He hadn’t lost hope, but things were looking bleak. Now the connection was restored, the bond made all the stronger by the reconciliation that took place, verbally and nonverbally. It’s a moment of grace, which is by its very nature unwarranted, undeserved.
And no matter how much we do to garner merit and increase our worthiness, we are no more nor less deserving of grace. When we’re living a righteous life, we swim in grace, be it grace we receive or grace we give–it’s just the air we breathe. But when we live a pious life for the sake of looking good, or do things so that we can increase our esteem in our eyes or in the eyes of another but not for the sake of goodness itself, we risk losing ourselves to greed or isolating ourselves from the fullness of living into relationship with others.
Our parable today gives us not only the illustration of one truly repentant and one full of compassion and grace but also of one who has yet to realize they are in need of repentance and are also worthy of compassion and grace.
We can get so caught up in doing what is right and good and expected that we do it out of obligation. We come to church on Sunday. We drive the speed limit. We pay our taxes. We follow the commandments and do good deeds. I’m convinced that obligation can breed resentment over time if we lose sight of why we do what we do, and that’s the pressure I see the elder son releasing when he goes off on his father. Think of how surprised we are when we thought someone was doing what they did because they enjoyed it, but they were just doing it to make us or someone else happy. For all the grief the younger son gets for squandering his inheritance, he fully expressed himself, his thoughts and intentions; he was honest. The older son, working like a slave, did what he did because he was supposed to. While the father still felt like the heart strings were attached, the older son had replaced the loving relationship into one of duty. Work without relationship is transactional. Work with relationship, however, is meaningful, rich, and fulfilling. It is hard, often focused on the greater good rather than personal gain, humbling in both our honesty and vulnerability inherent in authentic relationships, and surprising when the things we least expect happen. I never cease to be amazed at the true kindness and sincerity of people.
It is when I get those glimpses of sincerity, those moments of true compassion, that I feel like I get a glimpse of the presence of Christ manifest in the here and now. It can be in the compassion shown toward ourselves or the compassion shown toward another, but when those heartstrings are pulled close and reverberate with the electricity of being in relationship with one another, that’s when I think we find the frequency of Love, the pulse of God.
With this in mind, I invite you to go back and re-read Paul’s message to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 5:16-2), where the ministry of reconciliation is one of the ministries we are all called to.