“There was a man who had two sons.”
Thus begins what is probably the best known of all of Jesus’ stories, usually known as the parable of the prodigal son.
This tale of the son who takes his inheritance, squanders it, then comes home to be greeted with joy by his father is so well known that it is a challenge to find something new and fresh to say about it.
As I reflected on this story this week, my thoughts kept going to the person most would consider the parable’s least significant character, the oldest son, and I began to imagine how these events might be told through his eyes. I think there may be more of him in us than we’d like to admit. Or maybe it’s just that I can relate because I, too, am the oldest child.
So here it is.
* * *
“There was a man who had two sons.”
Yes, I’ve heard this story before. A man had two sons, but the focus is always on the younger one, my younger brother.
It has been that way ever since he was born.
“What a cute baby,” everyone would gush. Then they’d look at me and say, “Aren’t you lucky to have such a cute little brother?”
From the moment he was born he was the golden child, the apple of my parents’ eyes. And he knew it and manipulated it for all he was worth.
In school, I was the one who worked hard, made good grades, never got in trouble. He skated along on his charm, making ridiculous excuses for not doing work, always on the edge of trouble.
The teachers loved him. So did his classmates. I’d be doing homework and see him outside surrounded by his friends, laughing, carefree. Nothing was more important to him than laughing and having a good time.
That pattern continued when we both left school to work for our father. He’s an important man in this village, and it’s important for us to represent him well. I knew that one day I would be the person in charge and so I worked hard to learn all I could about the farm, and life in the village.
I know that my father depends on me.
Day after day I’d come in from the fields after working as hard as I could. No slave ever worked harder than I did.
My father never seemed to notice. No words of praise for me, no thanks. He just takes it for granted that I will work hard and do the right thing. And I always do.
My precious baby brother, on the other hand, slipped away from work whenever he could. He liked to stay out late, come home drunk, then laugh about it.
And my father laughed with him. I often had to leave the room it made me so angry.
Then came the day when I thought things would change. My ne’er-do-well brother had the audacity to ask my father for his inheritance.
It was an enormous insult, like wishing our father was dead. It was unheard of to make such a request.
I couldn’t wait to hear my father’s reply. Now he would see my brother for what he really was.
But instead of being enraged, as he should have been, my father granted my brother’s request. He was sad, but he did it.
And my brother left, selfishly carrying the fruits of my father’s labors with him.
I have to admit I wasn’t sad to see him go. It was more work for me to do the little bit that my brother used to do. But the peace was worth it. And now maybe my father would notice all that I did.
But he didn’t notice. All he did was sit and stare out the window, grieving for my brother. Day after day the same.
I began to hear stories about my brother. Friends who traveled would come back with reports on how he was wasting his money, my father’s money.
I tried to tell my father, but he didn’t want to hear. He just stared out the window.
Then one day when I was out in the fields, working as usual, I heard music and laughing, the sound of a joy which had not been heard in our house since my brother left.
I ran to see what was happening, and then stopped. I couldn’t believe it.
My brother had returned. He looked awful – thin, dirty and unkempt, clothes torn. Even from far away he smelled like pigs. How had he dared show himself here like that?
And my father! He should be enraged, but he’s laughing, calling for new clothes, and shoes, and even a valuable ring for my brother. He’s ordering a fatted calf to be killed for the celebration. Music is already playing.
A celebration! For someone who has squandered his riches. How about a celebration for the one who has worked hard all his life, who has always done the right thing. No one has ever celebrated me.
I told my father that, too. I have never spoken to him so angrily. I refused to join that celebration for my no-good brother.
My father was unapologetic.
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” he said. “But 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.”
* * *
Of course, we don’t know the rest of the story.
Does the younger brother repent? Does he change his life or does he go back to his old ways, back to that far country of hopelessness and greed? We don’t know.
And the older brother, who is so often seen as the villain in this story, does he change his life? Is he freed from his prison of resentment and envy? Does he learn to appreciate his brother’s gift of joy? We don’t know that either.
What we do know is that whether or not the sons change, their father still loves them.
Biblical commentaries make much of the fact that the father runs and meets his younger son as soon as he sees him approaching.
But when the father notices his oldest son has not joined the celebration he also goes to him, seeks him out, and invites him in.
Although we commonly call this parable the story of the prodigal son, it is really the father who is the prodigal one. Prodigal means extravagantly wasteful.
That describes the father’s love for his sons. He gives it in abundance, lavishes it out profusely, knowing that it will never be depleted.
So is God’s love for us – prodigal, lavish, abundant, profuse, more than enough for everyone.
We do not need to fear being excluded from the divine banquet. And we do not need to fear including all God’s children in the feast. We must not think of winners and losers, those who deserve God’s love and those who don’t, those invited in and those left out.
Like the father in the story, God will never rest, will never come in from the wilderness, until all of God’s children have joined the celebration that has been prepared for all of us.