The story begins rather harmless. A man had two sons prepares us for a familiar story pattern, one that usually ends with the audience nodding in agreement: this one’s the good son, that one is not. This one did the right thing, that one did not. Such a story might go something like this:
A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, I want you to mow the yard today.” He answered, “I don’t think so,” but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “Sure, Dad,” but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?
We may think about it for a moment, perhaps we discuss it briefly, but in the end we will agree that actions speak louder than words, and so the first one gets the blue ribbon for being the good son.
Jesus’ story begins in the familiar way, but then it leaves us scratching our heads, “Which one’s the good child?” The younger is disrespectful, selfish, and reckless, the older is jealous, bitter, and self-righteous. Neither is a particularly attractive character, but we can also identify with them, and that complicates things even more.
There’s a part of us that can relate to the younger one who wants to leave home and see the world. Sure, he is reckless, but he is young and we admire his adventurous spirit. We identify with him, because once we were just like him, or perhaps we wish we could be more like him.
And there’s the part of us that can relate to the firstborn, the responsible one who works hard and takes care of the family business, and we’re willing to excuse his anger because we too make sacrifices every day that no one seems to notice, let alone appreciate or celebrate. Is it too much to ask to be treated fairly? The property had been divided, and each one had been given a fair share, and the younger chose to cash it all in and squander it. It may be good and right to give somebody a second chance after he’s shown signs of remorse and maturity; give him work to do, food to eat, and a roof over his head—but a party? That fatted calf they killed for the BBQ – whose herd did it come from? How’s that for irony?
The story begins in the familiar way, but it leaves us off balance because it doesn’t offer a simple good son / bad son moral. The father is a confusing character as well, perhaps the most confusing of all. Apparently he doesn’t consider that children who are old enough to go away should also be ready to live with the consequences of their choices. When the one who went away comes home – broke, humiliated, and hungry – dad is beside himself, acting like a fool. Forgetting all that is proper for a patriarch in that ancient culture, and ignoring most of what we would consider reasonable or wise, he runs down the road and throws his arms around the young man, shouting orders over his shoulder between kisses and hugs, “The robe—the best one—quickly—put it on him. The ring—bring it—put in on his finger. And sandals, bring sandals—only slaves go barefoot—this is my son! Kill the calf! Invite the whole town! Let us eat. Let us celebrate! This son of mine was dead and is alive again!”
Only Jesus could come up with a story like this. In our version of the story, the younger son would have some explaining to do. In our story, the father would be waiting in the house, sitting in his chair, arms folded, and with a stern expression on his face. He would listen to what the young man had to say for himself, and then, perhaps, he would look at him and say, “Well, I’m glad you’ve come to see the foolishness of your choices and the error of your ways; I hope you learned your lesson. Now I want you to go and help your brother in the field.” In our story, there wouldn’t be a party.
But it’s not our story.
Sinners felt at home in the company of Jesus; even notorious sinners who were shunned by everybody in town came near to listen to him, or just to be around him. He did not avoid them, nor did he turn them away; he even broke bread with them, openly. He didn’t mind being seen with them; he just welcomed them like he welcomed anyone who came to him, “Sit down, eat something.”
People with a deep concern for right and wrong were not pleased. They were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. Why does he show so little respect for boundaries and rules? Doesn’t he know that righteousness must be protected? Couldn’t he at least wait until they have changed their ways?” They were confused, some perhaps angry, moving back and forth between wanting to understand and demanding an explanation.
In response, Jesus told them stories about the joy of heaven, God stories that would shed some light on who he was and what he was doing. He told them about a shepherd who lost one of his one hundred sheep, and worried out of his mind, went searching for it. And when at last he found it, he was overjoyed and called together his friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep that was lost” (Luke 15:4-6).
Then Jesus told them about a woman who had 10 silver coins and one of them got lost. How she got a lamp and a broom, and swept the house from top to bottom and searched carefully until she found it. And she called together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ And he added, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:8-10).”
And then Jesus told them the story about the father and his two sons. And when he got to the end where the elder son stands outside the house, light, music and laughter pouring through the windows, and the father pleading with him to come in, they didn’t know what to say. They felt left out. I guess they felt like Jesus was squandering what was rightfully theirs. Attention, recognition, grace.
The younger son woke up when he hit rock bottom. Feeding pigs and being so hungry that you find yourself wanting to eat from their trough – it doesn’t get any lower than that. He realized just how distant, lonely, and hungry he was, but no one gave him anything. He was at the end of his rope. That’s when he started thinking about home and bread; that’s when he started rehearsing his little speech about sin and unworthiness, and wanting to work in exchange for food; but he didn’t grasp the full extent of his hunger until he was welcomed and embraced with exuberant joy.
The elder son stood outside – distant, lonely, hungry, and resentful.
“Is that what do you have to do to get a party around here? Go off and burn through a bundle of cash and then come back to be embraced, and kissed, and assured that you belong? What about me?”
He refused to go in, but again the father came outside searching for one of his children, and began to plead with him. But the elder son interrupted him, “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 – you killed the fatted calf for him!”
He couldn’t speak his name, he called his own brother “this son of yours,” and nothing in his little speech indicated that he was talking to his father. The elder son was so alienated, so starved, he may as well have been feeding pigs in a distant country. He no longer had a brother or a father, both had become strangers to him.
The story, it turns out, isn’t about morality, about who is the good child and who is not; it is about estrangement and reconciliation. The father has lost both sons, and he’s outside searching for them, not to demand explanations or hand out blue ribbons, but to restore and bring together what belongs together.
“Child,” he says to the elder 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.”
The ministry of Jesus isn’t about morality, about who is good and who is not; it is about our estrangement and God’s gift of reconciliation. Our being children of God and our being each other’s brothers and sisters are two sides of the same reality, two sides of the one life. Our lives aren’t whole until we see that.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if we got lost wandering off to a distant country or if we got lost never leaving at all. What matters is that God is not only waiting for us, but out looking for us, pleading with us, and rejoicing over each precious one being found.
“Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
These are words spoken not just to one child, but to every child of God. And every child of God has a seat at the table in the house of laughter and light. Because the joy in heaven and on earth will not be complete until the brothers embrace and the sisters kiss, and all children of God sit at the banquet.