I’ve come to the conclusion that most people are broken to one degree or another. Life does that in prodigal fashion. Yet, those who are most broken tend to not realize it. Like someone with an undiagnosed chronic illness, he may go through life thinking he is fully healthy. This becomes his normal. These people are to be pitied most of all; living life in a prison of self-imposed boundaries.
Almost everyone in western culture knows the parable of the Prodigal Son. It was one of Jesus’ greatest hits, along with The Good Samaritan, and Thirty Tips for Arizona Gardening. (Oops. Wrong Jesus. That last one is my landscaper. You don’t know him.)
For those of you unfamiliar with this story, there were two brothers. The older brother was dutiful and obedient. He worked for his old man; a fellow of some wealth and property. Probably a Republican. The older bro tended the flocks and supervised work in the fields.
The younger brother was a wild child. He had no interest in the agrarian lifestyle of hard work. In fact he wanted out so much that he went to his father and asked for his inheritance… while he was still alive. What’s more, the father gave it to him.
In those days the first born male child got a double portion of the inheritance, so in this case big brother was to get 2/3 and little bro 1/3. Little brother took his 1/3, presumably mostly property and animals, and sold them. We can also assume he wasn’t the sharpest business man and probably didn’t hold out for top shekel, either. Like today, these younger fellers weren’t exactly financial planning types, if you catch my drift.
As you might expect, younger brother took off for Vegas and spent his fortune on sex, drugs and rock and roll. To keep up his lifestyle, he even pawned his first century Roman denarius on Pawn Stars. (Rick had to call in his expert from the Clark County Museum, the guy with the Amish hat, aka “The Beard of Knowledge” to verify its authenticity. How younger bro lived 2000 years is just one of the many amazing things about this parable.)
As you might expect, the money ran out. Like Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, he was busted. He had no skills. He got a job busing tables at the all you can eat buffet in Circus Circus and even ate the scraps off the plates to survive. He was so broke the hookers didn’t even bother him.
Eventually he came to his senses. “I’m going back home”, he said. “Even my dad’s servants have enough to eat. Maybe he will hire me”. So, he headed home.
During the time his younger son was gone, the father daily looked for him. From his front patio he scanned the horizon. He hoped. He prayed. He wondered. Day. After. Day.
Then. In the distance, he could see a lone traveler on foot. This one he could barely make out but something looked familiar. Even in poor torn clothes this lone male figure seemed to be someone he knew.
Then he realized it! It was his son. Here’s where the story gets really freaky. “While he was far off”, Jesus said, the father ran to him. This old man, lifted up his outer robe and ran as fast as he could to meet his lost son.
The son began his prepared speech. “Father, I have sinned against God and you…”
The father would have none of it. “My son who was dead is now alive! We must celebrate!”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch (I’ve always wanted to write that. This seems like a fitting place), the older brother could sense excitement. What was going on? The servants were all in a tither. He asked them. “Your brother has returned! your father has ordered a big BBQ and party in his honor!”
Older brother, however, refused to acknowledge his sibling. His father even reminded him of his love and that all he had was his. But love, to the older brother was a zero sum game. There was only a finite supply. He couldn’t forgive.
That story tends to focus on the younger brother. In reality, he only did what young people have done for millennia. Be young and stupid. Only they didn’t have cell phones memorializing their foolishness for posterity. The focus however should be on the father and that’s really upon whom Jesus was focusing. He was embarrassed and disrespected by his younger son. Yet he welcomed him back. What’s more, he welcomed him back as his beloved son.
The older brother is oft overlooked but we need to be mindful of him as well. Too many of us are older brothers. Dutiful. Religious. But unloving. We can’t fathom a Father we claim to serve would welcome sinners and prostitutes to Him. In fact, elsewhere, Jesus says that hookers are closer to God than many religious people. I don’t claim expertise in hookers, but I have met a few strippers. I would agree with Jesus.
Both brothers were broken. Only the older brother remained so at the end of the story. I’m glad to cast my lot with the younger brother. I run away. God lets me go and then runs to meet me when I realize I have run too far. God’s like a good dad. Sometimes we dads know we must let our kids make their own eff ups. God is the same way only his forgiveness is perfect.
It’s time we stop using the rest of scripture to explain away the hard sayings of Jesus. This parable is one of the hardest. It reminds us to love unconditionally like he does. To not only wait for the broken but run to them. To not only accept them back but restore them fully.
If someone asks me why I follow Jesus. That’s my answer. I was welcomed by the God who ran to meet me.
For more on this parable, I highly recommend The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen and The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller. Both are available wherever fine books are sold. Or Amazon.