When we hear the Parable of the Prodigal we usually think about it in allegorical terms. In other words, we view the father in the story as God and someone we know, or perhaps ourselves, as the prodigal come home. This parable tells us that God is forgiving, and we think about the image of God running out to meet us as I suggested last week. And we think of ourselves as repentant, having changed our hearts and lives, and that makes everything huncky-dory, right? At least that’s the way it should be.
But then there’s that older brother. A wrench in the gears of our happy ending. A fly in the ointment of a wonderful story about forgiveness. Why in the world would Jesus add this character to the story? And if this is indeed an allegory, then who’s the older brother supposed to be? And if we look at this text as something more, something beyond allegory, where might we see unforgiveness in our lives, in our world?
Well, to seek an answer to these questions, I think we need to look at the context of today text. As I read through the entire parable again this week I noticed something. I noticed a key line, an important contextual clue, that I miss last week. In verse 11 we’re told that the father divided his inheritance between the two sons. It’s not that he gave the younger son some cash and hung on to the rest. He gave it all to both sons, 50/50. What that means is, when the father calls for a celebration to be held, when the fatted calf is butchered for the feast, and when he gives the wayward son sandals, a ring, and the best robe – this stuff belonged to the older son! It was taken from his half of the inheritance! I mean, our capitalistic American brains can reasonably say at this point that the older son has a right to be angry. It was his stuff that his father was giving to this playboy of a brother of his. That’s not fair. He worked hard for it. This just isn’t right. So, what’s Jesus up to here?
Well, I think Jesus told his stories to turn our world upside-down, to shift our thinking from “a human point of view,” and to shake us up in such a way, that in our dizziness, we might come to realize that we may not have it all figured out; that in our certainty, we may have missed the point.
Like the older brother. He had it all figured out. He knew what his father’s welcome of his no-good brother was costing him. He also had in mind a pretty good picture of how his sibling wasted his share of the inheritance. He said, “…but then this son of yours comes home after wasting all your money on prostitutes,” Dad. And “you killed the fatted calf for him.” I’ve not been wasting my inheritance, I’ve been working hard, keeping this place afloat, but there is no celebration for me.
Now, the twist here is that the older brother was just as lost as his younger sibling. He just can’t see it. Furthermore, he doesn’t really know how to celebrate. You see, joy doesn’t depend upon everything fitting together as we think it should. Sometimes we can be so dutiful that we miss what’s really-real. The reality here is that what was once dead had come to life, what was once lost had been found. This story is about a fresh beginning, a second chance, a new creation – for all of us, prodigals and prodigies alike.[i] The older brother was focused on what he was losing, namely wealth, rather than seeing the really-real that was right before him.
I read a story recently about someone seeing the really-real. Millard Fuller, as many of you might already know, was a businessman who heard God’s call to share his vast wealth with those who were struggling by starting an organization called Habitat for Humanity. Now, the following story is about a visit he made to Charlotte North Carolina a number of years ago, and specifically, his introduction to the crowd.
“We decided that instead of having a professional, preacher type to introduce him, we would get a resident from a Habitat House,” said Rev. James Howell, the teller of this story. “We asked Melissa Cornet; tall, gangly, not an accomplished speaker. She was nervous. She poked around for words, but then suddenly began to speak directly to Mr. Fuller, who was sitting on the front row: ‘Millard Fuller, you are the answer to my prayer,” she said, “I grew up in a tenement, a terrible place, full of drugs, violence. I wasn’t nobody, knew I’d never be nobody. I grew up and had a little boy, and there he was, in a terrible place. I knew he wouldn’t never be nobody either. So, I got on my knees and I prayed, I prayed hard, I said, Lord, I will do anything, I will give up my life. But please, please, I just want my boy to have a chance to be somebody. Millard Fuller, when God told you to give away your money, you were the answer to my prayer. I heard about Habitat, and I got to build a house. Before we moved in, my boy had started school, but his teacher said he was slow, he would probably never catch up. He never smiled. But then we moved into our new house. He had his own room. And he began to shine that day. He got to where he played and had fun. And he started making good grades in school. Now he’s in the third grade, and he’s making straight A’s. The other day, my boy said to me, Momma, do you know what I want to be when I grow up? I said, No, what do you want to be? He said, I’m going to be a doctor. Millard Fuller, you’re the answer to my prayer.’”[ii]
My friends, this parable is about more than sibling rivalry. It’s about more than just forgiveness. It even about more than changing our hearts and lives. This parable is about grace. The grace to forgive and be forgiven, and to forgive ourselves. The grace look beyond my steady success and celebrate the return of one that was lost. This Parable of the Prodigal is about finding the grace to take what we’ve earned, our wealth, our success, and share it with those who have less; even those whom we perceive to have “squandered” all their chances. And it’s when we let the scales fall from our eyes, to use an image from Paul’s conversion; it’s then that we can truly see the lost one standing before us, the poor one in our midst, the oppressed one struggling on the margins of society. When we accept the grace that God has given to each of us; when we realize that all our success and wealth are finally a blessing from God’s grace; it’s then that we are able to embrace what’s really-real.
One final thought. Abraham Lincoln was once asked what he would do with the Confederates once the Civil War was over. He said, “I will treat them as if they had never gone away.” My friends, sometimes we find ourselves in the role of the father, sometimes we’re the younger son, the lost who’s come home, and sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, we fill the role of the unforgiving elder son. But here’s the good news! God is always gracious, always waiting for us to come around, always calling us to put our faith into action, always encouraging us to be generous, always providing opportunities for us to be compassionate and kind and grateful, and always, …always, inviting us to come home. My sibling in Christ, God says to each of us here today, and to all of humanity, “I will treat you as if you had never gone away.”
May it be so for you and for me. Amen & Amen.