“There was a man who had two sons…,” the story begins. It’s a story nesting inside another, and that one begins with muttered complaints about Jesus, grumbling voices, saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Yes, he does. Thank God, he does. Where would we be if he didn’t? This fellow embodies the love of God. And that’s the real story.
“There was a man who had two sons…,” the parable begins. We’re invited to find ourselves in the story, to identify with one of the brothers, the father, or perhaps the mother who is conspicuously absent throughout. We don’t know why she’s not in the picture, whether it’s for reasons of narrative economy or because of a cultural bias that sees little reason to tell stories of a mother who had two sons or a father who had two daughters.
I grew up the younger of two sons and the brother of a younger sister. I know the feeling of being second in line, I’ve worn my share of hand-me-downs. My brother, forever three years ahead of me, never tired of telling me how easy I had it compared to him, the pioneer who had to clear a path through the thickets of parental insecurity all by himself.
“I know, I know,” I used to tell him, “it’s terrible being the crown prince.” Occasionally I would remind him of our childhood photo albums: his was filled with photographs from every stage of his development, lovingly illustrated with hand-drawn images in ink and water color. Mine opened with similar parental ambition, but after two pages the album turned into a general depository for any kind of family picture. I’m just so grateful they let me have a first-day-of-school picture without insisting on having brother No. 1 stand there with me at the top of the stairs.
The coat I’m wearing in that picture, though, is the same he wore on his first day of school.
One of the first stories in the Bible is about two brothers, Cain and Abel, and we know how that one ended for the younger of the two. The book of Genesis contains the story of our deepest roots and our oldest wounds, and in every generation of Abraham’s children, we encounter the pattern of the two brothers – Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, the older sons of Jacob (who act like one) and their little brother Joseph – and in each case, it’s the little brother whose story we remember and follow. It’s almost like there is a desire at work to rewrite the story of the first brothers, that painful story of rivalry and death.
“There was a man who had two sons…,” the parable in Luke opens. At some point in the past, Bible publishers started adding section headings to the text. Stories were given titles, and titles suggest how to read. “The parable of the prodigal son” it was called and that’s how we’ve read it, leaving the older brother standing in the field as though he wasn’t really part of the story anyway. No one thought of calling it “the parable of the prodigal father” or “the parable of the lost boys.” What would you call it?
You take a look at the two sons, and you notice that neither is a particularly attractive character. The younger is disrespectful, self-absorbed and reckless, perhaps manipulative. The older comes across as heartless, resentful, and jealous. But whether we like it or not, we can identify with either, at least to a degree, men and women alike, I presume.
We wonder what it might be like to be so brave and leave home to explore life beyond the horizon. Sure, he is reckless, but he follows his dream. Perhaps you were once just like him, or perhaps you wish you had been more like him, just a little.
Or do you find it easier to relate to the firstborn, the responsible one, the one who does what he says and shows up on time and takes care of the family farm? “Doesn’t he have a point?” you say to yourself. Perhaps you know all too well what it’s like to make sacrifices every day and no one seems to notice, let alone appreciate or celebrate what you do. Is it too much to ask to be treated fairly? The property had been divided, and each 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, sure, give him work to do and food to eat, give him a roof over his head—but a party? And this was no cold chicken and potato salad picnic with the family. They killed the fatted calf – enough BBQ to invite the whole town.
And then there’s the father who apparently doesn’t believe that children who are old enough to go away should also be ready to live with the consequences of their choices. When his son comes home – broke, humiliated, and hungry – dad is beside himself, acting like a fool. Forgetting just about everything that is proper for a patriarch in his culture and what most of us today would consider reasonable or wise, he runs down the road and throws his arms around the young man, shouting orders over his shoulder between hugs, “The robe—the best one—quickly. The ring—bring me the ring. And sandals, bring sandals, size 12.5!—And the calf, kill the calf! Invite the neighbors! Let’s celebrate! It’s my son; he 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, Dad’s chair, arms folded, with a stern look 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 error of your ways; I hope you learned your lesson. Now go and help your brother in the field.”
In our story, there wouldn’t be a party. But it’s not our story. It’s Jesus’ story for us.
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. He didn’t turn them away. He didn’t mind being seen with them, and he even broke bread with them, openly.
Some people were wondering why Jesus didn’t at least wait until those sinners had changed their ways. They found his actions confusing, and they were pulled back and forth between a genuine desire to understand and loudly demanding an explanation.
In response, Jesus told stories about the joy of heaven, God stories of a shepherd who searched the hills for one lost sheep until he found it and of a woman who swept the house from the attic to the basement, searching diligently for one coin she had lost until she had found it.
Every human being, Jesus taught, first of all and last, is a beloved child of God. Jesus lived to make that reality tangible, and he died as a witness to it. Regardless of how sinful or righteous we take others or ourselves to be, God embraces us with unfathomable compassion and mercy. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. God’s love, Jesus taught us with his life, is not the special reward for the good boys and girls. God’s love is the ultimate horizon of our world. Out of love God created all things, and in love God holds all things so nothing and no one can fall deeper than into the arms of God. And when all things come to an end, love abides – and we with it.
The younger son in the parable did everything he could not to think of himself as a child of his father and a sibling to his brother. But the father never stopped thinking of him as a beloved child. Never.
We are at the end of the parable. The elder brother is standing outside the house; light, laughter and music are pouring through the windows, but he can’t move. Or is it that he doesn’t want to move? No one has asked him whether he wants to be reconciled with this good-for-nothing wastrel. No one has asked him how he feels about wearing the second best robe, since the best one apparently has been given to this wandering squanderer. He is standing outside, arms crossed, fists clenched, fury in his belly. He refuses to go inside. Why? It feels good to know who’s right and who’s not.
But then the father comes outside and pleads with him to come in. He doesn’t want this to end with one brother rejoicing and the other grumbling. He wants this to end with a feast which fairness cannot host, but which love never tires to prepare.
We all get lost, whether it’s by wandering off in loveless self-absorption or by never leaving at all – it doesn’t matter how we forgot that we are not isolated strangers, but beloved children of God. What matters is for us to know that heaven rejoices when we begin to remember that we belong – to God and therefore to each other.
The parable remains open at the end. We don’t know if the elder son will enter the house of laughter and light. We don’t know if in the end being a child and a sibling will have more weight than being right and being hurt. But we can be confident, because of the one who told the story and lived it, that the feast will not be complete without him. Life will not be complete until every child of God remembers that we are all made to be at home in love’s embrace.