Someone has called Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son “the Gospel within the Gospels” as in it Jesus tells us the story of us all, and the story of God’s love.
You know the story.
A father has two sons. The younger son — immature, rebellious, and headstrong — impetuously demands his inheritance, takes off to a “far country,” and proceeds to heartily party until his dad’s shekels are spent and the party plays out. In the midst of a post-party famine, he finds himself starving and in such bad shape that he’s glad to land a job feeding pigs. One dark day he catches himself envying the porkers who are eating better than he is.
That’s when the prepositions start improving. Once full OF himself, the younger son “comes TO his senses” and realizes he needs to go home TO his father and beg to be taken back not as a son but as a hired hand. Hired hands eat better than pigs.
His father sees him coming while he’s still a long way off, and from then on in the parable, the predominant note is JOY as the father runs to throw his arms around his son, his “lost” son who is found.
Before the now-much-wiser lad can finish his “just make me a hired hand” speech, the father orders up a robe and sandals and a signet ring, and he calls for a feast and the best of parties.
Joy abounds! Except …
Except in the heart of the older son who never left home but instead, as he puts it, stayed at home to “slave away” for the father. “And,” pious Pete whines, “you never threw me a party!”
Wonder why! This sad-sack is one of those folks who can put a damper on any party and lower the temperature in any room just by showing up.
The guy probably has some good qualities, but he’s the sort that makes you wonder, “Ya know, if heaven’s full of folks like him, . . .” Don’t worry. It’s not.
I admit it: I don’t like him, not least because all too often, I’m afraid I look way too much like him. He’s long on the kind of “virtues” that give the term a bad name, and I suspect he’s a bit short on vices. Vices are bad in many ways, but they do have the worthwhile effect of reminding us that we’re human.
Good Puritans and genuinely good human beings are not, thank the Lord, the same cats.
The young son? Him, I like. Once he’s come to his senses. At one time, yes, he had a mistaken view of real fun and real life. Early on, he had a warped view of joy and looked for it in all the wrong ways and places.
But at least he was looking for it. At least he knew life was something to be loved. Now he knows why. Now he knows where love and life come from: His father. Now he smiles more, laughs more, and drinks more deeply from real joy. He’s found the real party, and his father is the one throwing it!
Henri Nouwen is right when he says that it’s a lot harder to come home when you’ve convinced yourself that you’re the good son, and you’ve never left.
The younger son made lots of mistakes. The older son is living a mistake. And he’s missing the party.
Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at: