Scripture: Luke 15:11-32
Once upon a time there was a man with two sons. The older son was your typical older child. He was the responsible one, the rule follower, the hard worker. He got good grades and obeyed his father and saved his money and he always went to church. It wasn’t always fun, but it was what he was supposed to do, so he did it. He knew that eventually, life would reward him for this. He was, after all, the first born and thus the primary heir to his father’s estate, which someone had to oversee and maintain and invest.
How many of you are older siblings? Do you recognize yourselves at all in this man’s older son? I do. In fact, I have a lot of sympathy for many of the Bible’s older siblings. First there is Cain. Granted he doesn’t turn out to be a great guy, but to fair, God accepted his younger brother’s offering over his for no apparent reason. Then there is Ishmael, cast out into the desert simply because God’s promise and covenant are reserved for the miracle child born late in his parents’ life. And there is Esau, tricked out of his inheritance and his father’s blessing by not just his brother but by his mom. And there are all of King David’s brothers, passed over for the role of king simply because they looked the part just a little too much.
I get it: God loves an underdog, and I think that is great – in theory. But when we hear that this man had two sons, we older siblings know to brace ourselves for what is next.
The younger son was your typical younger son. He was the baby of the family, spoiled and indulged. He was the one who could get away with anything due to his charm, so he got into trouble and relied on other people to clean up his mess. He thought that life was for living and, after all, you can’t take it with you. He thought his older brother needed to lighten up a little.
How many of you are youngest children? Does this sound familiar? Of course, stereotypes aren’t necessarily fair or even necessarily true. Even though I come across as a pretty textbook oldest child, my younger brother never got into trouble, and now he has an MBA and is very intentional about spending his money. Even if there’s sometimes a little bit of truth to the whole responsible/spoiled stereotype, this is clearly an extreme case. But in this story, the shoe does fit.
Younger siblings, the Bible loves you. So when we hear that this man had two sons, we expect things to go well for you.
But of course, it doesn’t, at first.
It seems the younger son was getting claustrophobic. Surely life had more to offer than was to be found right there on his father’s estate, where he had grown up. Surely it was time for him to spread his wings, to see the world, to go and find himself.
It’s perfectly possible that his brother felt this way, too, but of course, he would never say so. He had a duty to his father, and an inheritance to protect.
But the younger son wasn’t so concerned about that. And his father was apparently a fairly wealthy man, so there was no reason why he shouldn’t go live a little. So, somewhat boldly, he asked his father for his share of the inheritance early. And his father obligingly sold off his stocks and gave it to him.
But wait a minute. Why does the father say yes? It would be one thing if his son really needed it – if it was, for example, to go back to school, or put a down payment on a house, or pay off some medical bills. But that’s not what it was for, and presumably his father had some idea that that was the case. What kind of father just liquefies his assets and hands them over when he knows his son is going to waste them on something stupid?
Though we know this story as that of the prodigal son – prodigal meaning excessive and wasteful – is it possible, as some have suggested, that this is actually the story of a prodigal father?
Can you imagine the older brother’s brain exploding when he realizes this is how the conversation has gone down? Oh well, he must think, this will all implode soon enough, and then I’ll tell them all I told you so. Then, dutifully, if a little bitterly, he went back to work at his white collar desk job, knowing that if nothing else, the moral high ground was his.
So the younger son took his money and invested it all in a low-risk, diversified portfolio. Just kidding! That’s what his brother would have done. The younger son bought a ticket to some exotic place like let’s say Vegas, or maybe some resort town in Mexico, and proceeded to drink and gamble the rest of it away. Maybe, Mike-Tyson-style, he bought some tigers. Even then, it couldn’t have been a surprise how it all turned out. The money ran out, the tigers got sold off, and all of a sudden there he is, in an unfamiliar place without any real social connections or any sort of resume, or a work visa, and no place to turn.
One thing’s for sure, he was definitely not going to go home and see the disappointment on his father’s face. And he for sure wasn’t going to hear his brother tell him I told you so.
He managed to find an under-the-table job. It didn’t even pay minimum wage and the work conditions were terrible, but of course there was no one to report them to. Most days he fed himself with food he found in the trash outside restaurants. It was basically the worst way this story could have gone. And yet – once you’ve made that many bad decisions, sometimes it’s harder than those on the outside might think to start making good ones again.
Until you hit rock bottom, and then sometimes, you have to.
One day this son woke up and thought, “The people who work for my father have it better than this,” and all of a sudden, even showing his face at home again didn’t seem quite as bad as the hell he was living. So he quit his terrible job and hitched a ride toward home, rehearsing his speech all the way: I’m sorry I asked for my inheritance early. I’m sorry I wasted all your money. Let me make it up to you. Let me work for you.
But wait a minute. How sorry was he, really? If life had continued to go his way, do you think he ever would have stopped and thought, hey, my dad’s getting older, maybe I should be helping take care of him? Or even, wow, I’ve really been given a lot in life – and from those to whom much is given, much is expected, so time to turn it around? Was this real repentance? Or was his change of heart perhaps just a different kind of selfish? Did it matter?
Apparently not. He barely got a chance to say his speech out loud. As soon as his father saw him walking up the street from the nearest bus stop, dirty and disheveled and defeated looking, he ran out the door and wrapped him in a big, tearful hug. He didn’t need an apology. He didn’t care about what kind of repentance this was. His beloved son was home. This calls for a celebration! the father said, then he told him to go take a shower and put some clean clothes on, some nice ones that the father had bought for him, just in case. He cranked up some music and popped open the most expensive bottle of champagne he had been saving in the wine cellar, and he invited all their friends and neighbors over for dinner.
But wait a minute. Here we are back to the prodigal father. Isn’t it pretty irresponsible to take his son back just like that? Shouldn’t there at least be some setting of conditions to make sure it doesn’t happen again – just for the son’s own good, I mean? Don’t we want to make sure that he understands what he has done? Again – what kind of parent would do that?
And as for the son – did his father’s joyful welcome spur him to shape up and get it together, after he returned home? Again – did it matter?
Meanwhile, working from his office upstairs, the older brother heard the music and the sounds of friends gathering. This, in fact, I think, is my favorite part of the story: not only did the older brother not get a party thrown for him, it seems he wasn’t even invited to this one.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a fellow oldest sibling, but, one can see his point.
He’s done everything right, with the expectation that life – and surely his father, especially – would reward him for it. It’s not that he’s asking for special treatment. He’s just asking for the same treatment. After all, that’s only fair, right?
But does it matter?
His father, though, won’t be deterred by his complaining. Your brother was dead, he said, but is alive again! He was lost, but now is found!
His father must know more than we’d think about what went down in the far country. But since the father or landowner often represents God in the stories Jesus tells, that is maybe not a surprise.
So we have the story of the Prodigal Son, an irresponsible and wasteful son welcomed home by a wastefully generous and loving father. But wait a minute. As Luke tells it, this parable is actually the third in a set of three. The first is the story of a shepherd tending a hundred sheep who lost one and left the other ninety-nine to go find it. The second is of a woman who lost a silver coin and scoured and cleaned and searched her whole house until she found it. In both stories, there is much rejoicing. Lost sheep, lost coin – maybe this third story is better called the Lost Son, and if so – are we really sure which son is lost?
Is it the one who takes his inheritance and throws it away on things that would make respectable people raise their eyebrows and ends up hitting rock bottom in a very recognizable way?
Or is it the one who did what everyone expected of him, but didn’t find any joy in it? The one who would rather say “I told you so” than “Welcome home?”
Is it the one who needed forgiveness, or the one who begrudged it?
The line in this story that most speaks to me is the one I skipped over as I told it before: where, after the older son complains that he never got a party, his father responds, “My son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.”
All that I have is yours.
Isn’t that enough?
The older son isn’t the one who lacked his father’s blessing – he just never missed out on it in the first place.
Maybe he felt like he missed out on something. He didn’t get to have that carefree youth. He didn’t have any good stories to tell. He didn’t get to shirk his duty and just worry about himself for a while.
I had a good friend in seminary who had a bit of a past and he would tell us stories sometimes, including one of a night that began in Atlanta and ended up unintentionally in Tijuana, Mexico. I told him one time, “I wish I had a story like that.”
He just said, “No, you don’t.”
He didn’t win anything by having a past like that, and I didn’t lose anything by not.
The point is not, of course, simply that virtue is its own reward, which sounds exactly like the kind of story that the religious leaders Jesus always looked askance at would tell. The point is, or at least may be – since parables are better left as stories for us to chew on than reduced to a simple moral- that a life lived in an economy of grace is its own reward – whether we are the father, welcoming someone back into our lives without calling them to account for how they have wronged us, or the younger son, so clearly in need of a second chance – or the older son, grateful for the blessings that have always been his and happy his brother can share in them once again.
“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” Jesus tells us in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, “than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”
But wait a minute. Who is righteous? Who is in need of repentance? Is it the one everyone recognizes as sinful, or the one no one does?
Or does it matter?
Younger son, older son; wise or not wise, fair or not fair – the story is the same; our father’s house of grace and blessing is open to all of us.