1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 11b“There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘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. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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.’ ”
Twelve-step recovery programs have a saying: you are only as sick as your secrets. This is so true! My first knee-jerk reaction when I make a mistake and am not paying attention is to bury it, deep. Somehow, I think if that I do this, no one will know that I am not perfect. And I was born believing in my gut that being perfect, presenting myself to the world as one who has all things under control, was the only possible way to be loved and accepted—the only way, in fact, to survive.
As a result of this, I spent a lot of time and energy making sure the rules were followed. And not just by me, but by you, too! You can imagine how fun I was at parties—or, if you can’t, just ask my brothers, who were quite unencumbered by my over-developed sense of obedience and order.
This is, I think, why, when I hear the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I can so easily envision myself as the elder brother in Jesus’ story. The one who stayed home. The one who followed directions, who always fulfilled his responsibilities to his father. And who found it so easy to judge the one who didn’t do these things.
The younger brother knows he’s in trouble. He knows he has made mistakes, knows he is starving, knows that he needs nothing more than to be home, on his father’s land. He is starving not only physically, but emotionally as well, and he comes home laying his brokenness before his father, asking for forgiveness and mercy he knows he does not deserve.
And all the while, although he didn’t realize it, the elder brother was just as much in need of God’s forgiveness and love as the younger. And as the elder brother insists on righteous indignation about how his father welcomed home his rebellious younger brother, insists that he has done everything right and has earned his father’s love, he is more and more blind to the abundance that is always right in front of him.
Theologian Henri Nouwen, in his book “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” says, “Often we think about lostness in terms of actions that are quite visible, even spectacular. The younger son sinned in a way that we can easily identify. His lostness is quite obvious. . . . . Then, having seen that all his wayward behavior led to nothing but misery, the younger son came to his senses, turned around, and asked for forgiveness.
The lostness of the elder son, however, is much harder to identify. After all, he did all the right things. He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hardworking. . . . Outwardly, the elder son was faultless. But when confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. . . . . Looking deeply into myself and then around me at the lives of other people, I wonder which does more damage, lust or resentment? . . . . The lostness of the resentful “saint” is so hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous.”
Nouwen goes on to say, “Can the elder son in me come home? Can I be found as the younger son was found? . . . . The father wants not only his younger son back, but his elder son as well. The elder son, too, needs to be found and led back to the house of joy.” (Nouwen, 1992)
We all need to be found and led back to the house of joy.
At times, we are the younger child, painfully aware of the ways we have harmed others, turned away from God in ways that cannot possibly be hidden or denied. And we come to God, full of shame and guilt, ready to acknowledge our guilt and take our consequences and live life on different terms.
At times, we are the elder child, trying so hard to follow the rules and carry out our responsibilities and present a good face to the world, that we forget. We forget that these things do not equal a good relationship with other people and with God. We forget that our resentment and judgement can be just as damaging as the more “blatant” sins that we so easily identify in others, that our sinfulness can even help to drive the younger siblings in our lives away. We forget that love and mercy and grace cannot be earned, but are given to us for free. We forget that God wants us to not simply follow rules and fulfill responsibilities, but to be fully present for the joyful boundless love he surrounds us with all the time, if we can only bring ourselves to step across the threshold into God’s waiting arms. We become so sure of our own righteousness that we forget how desperately we need God!
And, sometimes we are the parent. Waiting and watching for our beloved children to return. Offering not judgement and punishment, but forgiveness and grace. Declaring that, no matter what you have done, no matter your age, no matter how long it has been, boundless love and celebration are waiting. God is waiting. And we carry in ourselves the embrace of God to welcome the lost ones home.
As we reach the halfway point of our Lenten journey, it is so important for us to hear this message. We all have worth and value, have been created to be a blessing in this world. We all fall short of that, in different ways—we all need to be found and led back to the house of joy. And we all, each one of us, have the capacity to welcome home our fellow wanderers, and extend to them the love and mercy and forgiveness of God.
We don’t know for sure what the elder son in Jesus’ parable decided to do—maybe he joined the feast, and maybe he decided to return to the field. Whether we see ourselves as the elder child or the younger, that is the choice given to us each day. For this day, let’s go together into God’s house of joy, and invite everyone to join us. Thanks be to God!
Nouwen, H. (1992). The Return of the Prodigal Son. New York: Doubleday.