Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! 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!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
So famous that it spawned a cliche’, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is unfortunately misnamed. Jesus, of course, never gives his parables titles, but over the century since its first telling the story of this wealthy father and his two very different sons has come to be identified by the reckless wastefulness of the younger. This is what the term prodigal means – it shines a focused light upon the licentious behavior of this younger son. Indeed, in my experience most people who retell this story get most of the details about the younger son right. The action of the father and the behavior of the older brother often fade into the margins or are forgotten altogether.
Maybe we could attribute that to the vivid and scandalous details of the younger son’s journey, or the maladapted title that we’ve all come to know and love, but I would suggest a different reason. Something interested is working within us when we emphasize the younger brother in the parable. We undoubtedly minimize or miss some very important details of the story, and I wonder if subconsciously we would rather those details not be there at all. In other words, might we focus on the younger brother in order to avoid the unsettling implications of the father’s celebration or the older son’s anger? When we read this most famous parable of parables, do we just see what we want to see?
What is it about the younger brother that coaxes us into making him the central feature of the story? He is a rather shrewd, selfish, and depraved individual with whom it is difficult to sympathize. Here is a son who requests boldly to his father, “give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” Considering that this property would have only been given to the son upon his father’s death, it is clear that this son may as well just say to his father, “you are dead to me.” It would have been a stinging slap to the face for this father, yet he complies with the request. The younger son then predictably squanders the whole inheritance in dissolute living, descending into such poverty that he desires the food being eaten by the pigs. To those listening to Jesus, the point would have been clear: This young man is even lower than the pig, an undeniably unclean animal in Jewish culture. He is beyond unclean.
Yet, in his state of uncleanness he does achieve some sort of epiphany. He eventually decides to return home. It’s not clear whether his “repentance” is sincere or just the rehearsal of some act meant to put food in his belly, but the traditional view of this text is that the younger son adopts a penitent attitude. He supposedly recognizes the errors of his unkempt ways and wishes to atone for himself. And therein lies our fascination with him.
We live in a culture that prizes hard work and individual merit. Here in America, we practice a system of government that has been called a “Jeffersonian Meritocracy”, meaning that we are all able to gain opportunities and rewards in life based on our own merit rather than just having the right connections. We cherish capitalism, where everyone is free to work their way to the top if they work hard enough. Regardless of social standing or personal background, those students with the best grades rise to the top. Those workers who work the hardest are given opportunities for advancement. It’s a system that sets everyone on equal footing and lets each person earn his or her own rewards based on their own merit.
There is nothing inherently wrong with our Jeffersonian Meritocracy, but there are potential disadvantages to perceiving the world solely through the lens of merit. Particularly for Christians, there is the very real possibility that we will project the ideals of our culture onto God’s kingdom, assuming that the ultimate criterion for reward and advancement – merit – is the obvious criterion for God’s blessing as well. The problem with this is that Jesus never said that the kingdom of God was like a Jeffersonian Meritocracy. God’s kingdom works by a completely different set of rules, and for us good Jeffersonians, the economics of God’s kingdom can be hard to swallow.
Consider for a moment that the younger son’s “atonement” seems to be motivated by hunger. The case can be made that he begins to rehearse his inevitable return to his father, choosing the right words and delivering them with sufficient emotion so as to increase his chances of being taken in as a servant. I realize that this interpretation doesn’t give the younger son a great deal of credit, but for someone who essentially told his father to “drop dead”, then squandered half of the family wealth in debauchery, it’s consistent with his behavior.
The point may be moot, however, as his father doesn’t wait to hear his rehearsed speech. Rather, he ignores it altogether. In a sheer outburst of joy, enthusiasm, love, forgiveness, and grace, the father runs to his wayward son and wraps him up in his arms. No extravagance is spared: Bring the best robe! Adorn him with jewelry and sandals! Kill the fatted calf and let’s celebrate as we have never celebrated before! For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!
That’s the point of the parable. This forgiving and compassionate father is the main feature of Jesus’ story. Yet, we routinely make this story about the younger son and his supposed self-atonement. We can’t bear the thought of one so lowly receiving redemption without first earning it, so we remember only the parts of the story that sound as though he did. Nevermind the fact that this parable is the third in a serious of “lost and found” narratives, the first two of which concerned a sheep and a coin, neither of which did anything to merit being found! The whole point of all three parables in this series is the one who searches, and the joy of finding that which was lost. Merit has nothing to do with it. These are parables of grace.
Grace is antithetical to our notion of how the world should work. It seems horribly unfair to us. We’ve grown up learning that you get what you’ve earned. The unmerited reward of substandard behavior is a threat to the whole system. But isn’t that – threatening the system – exactly the kind of thing that Jesus came to do? Isn’t this the one who said, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last”? Isn’t this the one who, just prior to telling three parables about divine grace, sits down to eat with tax collectors and sinners? Before Jesus ever opened his mouth to teach his followers about the grace of God, he preached a whole sermon just by sitting down at a table.
If we set aside our traditional focus on the younger brother for an instant, a powerful message of grace becomes clear. This isn’t exactly easy for us to do, however, because it generally puts us in the position of having to accept that unmerited favor is bestowed upon some loser who doesn’t even come close to deserving it. It’s horribly unfair that this father treats him so lovingly, so generously, so compassionately. It’s just not right that he would be rewarded so lavishly when he’s done something so despicable. We are left protesting that he didn’t earn it, that he doesn’t deserve it, that the loyal, hard workers are the ones who should be rewarded. We are left…
Well, truth be told, we are left playing the part of the older brother. 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! He’s a good Jeffersonian, that older brother. So are we.
How often are we jealous of someone’s unmerited blessing? How many times do we find ourselves silently protesting when someone seems to receive something they haven’t earned? More importantly, how frequently do we make God’s blessings of love, forgiveness, and salvation about what we’ve done to earn them instead of God’s own free decision to give them as gifts to undeserving sinners? How mistakenly do we emphasize our standing as repentant sinners, all of us prodigal sons and daughters, over the gracious forgiveness, love, and grace of the father who simply welcomes us home time and time again?
It’s the season of Lent, and we’ve got it all wrong. It isn’t about repentance. It isn’t about doing something to atone for our wrongdoings. It isn’t about us at all.
No, it’s about the one who atoned for us, the one who died for us while we were yet sinners, the one who rushes out to welcome us home with open arms and rejoices every time he finds us wandering down the road.
He was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!
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