This morning’s Gospel reading is the well-worn parable of the prodigal son. It is a homecoming tale between a father and his younger son, the black sheep of the family who assumes his inheritance early, then fritters it away. After becoming destitute, he recognizes the error of his ways, repents and returns to his father’s forgiving embrace. This parable rubs a lot of people the wrong way. This “bad” son did not play by the script. Didn’t get his proper comeuppance. Didn’t suffer enough. They side with the older brother, who paid his dues, who earned the good graces of his father by the sweat of his own brow.
Now, this parable begins at the 11th verse of chapter 15 in Luke’s gospel. The first two verses provide some crucial context: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus responds to their criticism by telling the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son.
It really is a momentous story, one that sets two spiritual paradigms against one another. One is what you might call the “moralistic” or “traditional-values” model. This model holds that morality resides in rules, and that these rules are absolute. These rules aren’t mysterious or hidden, and anyone with an adequate mind and an adequate will can follow them. Just like the elder brother in today’s parable, who strives in earnest to find and follow God’s will for him. This is an intellectual model. We know what salvation takes—we’ve got it all up here.
The second spiritual model is what you might call a “relativistic” model. A “live-and-let-live” model. It breezily dismisses any notion of absolutes when it comes to morality—even the absoluteness of God. This is a “heart” model, and a hedonistic one, more interested in what feels good than in what feels right. It is unconcerned with consequences.
As he tells this parable, some might think Jesus is setting up a straw man: Of course the dutiful older son, crossing all his t’s and dotting all his i’s, is to be admired and emulated. And of course the younger son, wasting his fortune and wine and women, is to be scorned and shunned…right?
Well, not quite. As is often the case, Jesus is setting up his listeners for an intellectual and spiritual sucker-punch. Because what he’s telling the Pharisees and scribes (meaning: you and me) is that both spiritualities can easily fall off the mark. Both can easily become barriers to life with God.
Think of it. Both sons are stunned by the generosity of the father—but for different reasons. The younger son repents. He says, “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands.” But it is this son who is honored with a feast. The Bible then says that the elder son becomes angry and refuses to go to his brother’s homecoming. The father has to go out to him and plead with him to join them. The elder son responds in anger, “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.”
With this story, Jesus is subtly pointing a finger at Pharisees and scribes by showing that it is the good son who is the one most trapped by his “right” religion. The elder son thinks he’s closer to God than he actually is. He thinks that because he has followed all the rules and towed the line with good works that he’s the one who should have his feast day. Jesus is saying—quite radically—that the ultimate barrier to his receiving the Gospel is not his sins but his good works. The letter of the law has blinded him to the spirit of God’s grace. He must repent of his own righteousness.
And, yes, Jesus is also condemning the younger brother’s spirituality, telling us that we must repent our sins, those of commission and those of omission.
This parable offers us a deeper understanding of sin. Of its location. It is not to be found in the sinful things we do and don’t do, but in the alienation from God that they signify. The running away, the avoidance, the escapism. We can run from Jesus by breaking the rules. But we can also run from Jesus by keeping the rules, if it is the rules themselves that we deify—if we regard our communion with God as a contract, a quid pro quo. Something, in other words, that isn’t an end in itself, but is instead a means to acquire some other…thing.
And so we must ask ourselves: Do we love and worship God purely for the sake of the unadulterated joy it can bring? Or is our love of God conditional? If so, is our obedience to Christ blind for all the wrong reasons?
To be intimate with Jesus, we have to cast out the stuff that creates distance between us: our need to control, our perfectionism, our fastidiousness, our judgment of others.
Perhaps the most tragic part of this parable is the way the elder brother never feels the assurance of the father’s love, never understanding the enormity of forgiveness—forgiveness of himself and for others. He says to his father, “You have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” You see, the good brother thought he was on his way to earning salvation, to earning his feast day. The moralistic grounding of his religion told him that he had to earn his father’s love. He didn’t understand that his salvation was by grace and that it was free and that there was nothing he could do to earn it.
I once was lost, but now am found/Was blind, but now I see…T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far/And Grace will lead us home…
How do we find our way home? God will come and greet us before we even know we have arrived. It’s right there in the parable: The younger son, realizing his error, his own alienation, repents—the word “repent” actually means “to turn around”—and returns to make amends with his father. Verse 20 says, “So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
And how did the elder son find his way home? The father had to go to him and plead with him to understand that God’s love is infinite, that there is enough and more for everyone. As the father put it: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”