All families are complicated and there is little doubt that birth order plays some part in shaping who we are. It is so easy for petty sibling rivalries and jealousies to push aside the love and force us into roles that leave less of who God means for us to truly become. If we hear too often at a young age: “he’s my shy one” it can get harder and harder for us to come out of that shell. Or if “she’s the responsible one” it may be more difficult to let go and relax. Or “he’s the one who can’t sit still,” or “she’s the one who is going to give me gray hair...” Those labels can stick in ways that last beyond a phase, if we aren’t careful. They can literally box us in. But being human is never about simple stereotypes, and if we forget that it can leave us feeling pretty lost. They may convey truth but they cannot define who we are. And yet these "labels" so often stay with us long past their expiration dates.
The parable of "the prodigal son" is a complex one to be sure. But even in calling it by that name we move not only toward meaning, but away from it. How many times did that younger brother hear in his life, "oh, this is my problem child?" Jesus doesn't call him by this name. He simply speaks of the two brothers in terms of their ages: one older, one younger. As the third of three "lost and found" parables, it seems pretty clear in Luke's Gospel that this one is the most complex: that when you move from coins and sheep to people, being lost becomes a far more relative term.
By the end of this story the younger brother has been found and he is
celebrating. His story is like the hymn, “Amazing Grace,”—he once was lost, but
now he’s found; he was blind, but now he sees. He is the recipient of an
abundant outpouring of love that helps him to see the wideness of God’s mercy—as
he encounters not only a father but a God
with open arms, who welcomes back all the lost, all who are afraid and are
the jury is still out on the elder brother as the story ends. Will he uncross
his arms and join the party or not? Even if he does, will he be able to let go
of his anger and hear the words of his father? The fatted calf awaits him, too,
after all—there’s more than enough for everyone. No one has excluded him from
the party. But he seems to have lost his way too, and it is not at all clear whether or not he is going to allow himself to be found.
It seems at the very least that he will need to let go of that sense that his brother is undeserving and that he is "righteous." Like
the scribes and Pharisees who first listened to Jesus tell the story, he will need to let
go of the false notion that he’s “holier than thou” and risk embrace if he is going to be found. He has to let go of that role that has defined him for so long - chosen or imposed - in order to be embraced by the God who loves him for who he truly is.
or not we know how lost we are, Christ desires to find us all. We are all
beloved of the One whom Jesus calls "daddy" - and there is room enough at the Table for all of us. If we are more like the younger brother, we
may need to “come to ourselves” by getting up out of the pig pen and making our way
back home again. If we are more like the older brother, then we need to “come
to ourselves” by letting go of our resentments and grievances.
truth is that like so many siblings, these two brothers have way more in common than either
realizes—not just because each is lost in his own way or because they are "blood brothers," but also because both are children
of a compassionate God. Both are equally and utterly reliant on mercy and grace, as we all are.
of these brothers are in need of grace, and of healing, and of love. But as the
story ends, only one of them has recognized that fact and received that gift.
Only one has allowed love to heal and transform him by unleashing the peace
that passes all understanding.
I admit that I may be overly optimistic about this; but I like to believe that
while it may have taken him a while longer, eventually the older brother joined
the party. He, too, “came to himself.” Maybe he tentatively walked toward the
party, hesitating at the door. His younger brother sees him, and runs to
embrace him, mimicking the role that the father played for him. And the tears
began to flow. That is how the world will truly be made new: when the brothers can both begin to live with the same kind of reckless abandon as their father, when it comes
to his capacity to love. I’m hopeful that the two brothers did embrace. Even
if it didn’t happen that day, even if it took years for them to see how much more aike than different they were.
of course, we cannot know that for sure. And because the story does end where it
does, it forces us to consider the possibility that the two never
reconcile, and that the betrayal the older brother feels causes a permanent
rift with his father and his brother. Perhaps he leaves home in disgust, never again to speak
to his family and sure that in so doing he was totally justified. We must consider that ending, because all of
us know that it can happen that way, as sad as it is to admit. We
are free—each of us—to refuse love; and even to convince ourselves that being
right is more important to us than to love or to be loved.
course it’s just a story. But it is a story that leaves so many questions
hanging in the air, stories those first hearers took home with them—sinners,
tax collectors, scribes and Pharisees. What kind of lives would they live,
after hearing such a story? And so, as it echos across the centuries it still haunts and calls to us: what kind of lives will we live after hearing such a story?