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The younger child in this story often gets all the attention. And I know there are a bunch of you sitting there wondering about the elder son. What his story? Why doesn’t he get any attention? Isn’t he good enough?
When we read the fathers response to the elder son’s anger we hear a little bit of sympathy, but at least when I read it, I hear this parent continuing to take this child for grated.
Yes, the return of the wayward child is worth celebrating and probably in that moment of return, it makes the most sense to celebrate that child’s repentance and change in ways.
But, the feelings of the eldest child linger in my mind, because I was the child who stayed. I have two older sisters, both of whom rebelled against my parents in different ways during our tumultuous teenage years. I won’t get into their stories, they’re not mine to tell, but as the youngest and last to demand independence from my family I was witness my parents stress, fear and anxiety when my sisters missed curfew, were unreachable, or caught in a lie of who they were with or where they were or what they were doing.
If I had a rebellious streak in me, it was dampened by not wanting to inflict the same fear and anxiety on my parents and so I did not rebel in the ways my sisters did. And I felt the same anger the elder child does in this parable when my parents celebrated my sisters return. An anger the deepened every time my sisters missed curfew again. And again and again.
We all know people who act the way the younger child does. Making poor choices, willfully spending money they don’t have, partying, being selfish or thought. We also know how hard it is for people like this to change. We can assume that this is not the first time the family in the parable as experienced the this son’s behaviour and we also can assume it won’t be the last.
How many times to we give the benefit of the doubt? How many times to we forgive and welcome them back with open arms?
The answer is always. Every time.
And this is hard to hear when you’re the child that stayed. When you’re the one who did the right things, behaved, worked responsibly and still that wasn’t ‘good enough’. It seems grossly unfair and infuriating, to be taken for granted in this way.
I’m a parent now and so my perspective has changed. Rather than just being a witness to my parent’s stress and fear of a child out well past curfew, I am the parent filled with stress and fear when my child is out past curfew. And I am the parent who worries about the proverbial – dead in a ditch somewhere – when my child doesn’t respond to texts at 1am.
And I am the parent who experiences the unbelievably intense relief when the way ward child returns. (along with quite a lot of anger at making me worry so much!) As the parent in the parable says – they were dead and are now alive again!
When I think about how much I love and want for the safety of my children, I can understand how much God must love and want safety for us. Every time we are the youngest son, every time we mess up, make mistakes, run from our responsibilities, make unsafe choices, or find ourselves in untenable positions God is there is welcome us home. “We often believe we are the problem.” but We are always good enough for God. And that is an unbelievably intense relief.
But what of the child who stays? The one who doesn’t screw up (as much, lets face it we all do), sticks to responsibilities, makes safe choices and lives as best they can – present and here? How is it that they too find themselves not being good enough either?
In the parable the parent say, My child you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. Which is beautiful and comforting and yet, is it good enough?
Is this where the parable goes off the rails a little so to speak?
When we relate more to the taken for granted elder child, how do we come to terms with this parable and what God is saying to us through it?
To find these answers, we need to look at The bigger picture of Luke’s Gospel.
Chapter 15 begins with the Pharisees grumbling about Jesus welcoming sinners and tax collectors. These people are the riffraff and undesirables of society and Jesus eats with! These are people are not Good Enough to be seen in the company of the Pharisees, let alone eat with them.
Jesus then tells 3 parables, first a story about a shepherd who leaves his flock of 99 sheep to search for one who is lost. The second is about a woman who loses a single coin and turns her house upside-down to find it. When this single lost item is found – everyone celebrates with a disproportionate extravagance.
Jesus uses patterns and these repeated concepts to really make his point. In each story the main character loses something of value (tho seemingly small in comparison to what they have) and frantically searches to find it. When the item is found there is excessive celebration.
And it appears from these stories, the finding of the single sheep, the single coin, the repentance of one riffraff or undesirable person is more valuable than those who did not get lost.
The anger of the elder child not only seems relatable it suddenly becomes a lot more justified.
How is this fair? Why would God value one over 99?
Another look at this third parable is warranted. It follows mostly the same patterns as the previous two. The main character loses something of value. A parent loses a child. The parent searches the child. The child returns – celebrations ensue.
But then the pattern is broken by the elder son. The one that is hurt. The one who is angry. It becomes easy for us to miss that this anger is making them just as lost as their sibling.
The elder child feels self-righteous in his desire to reject his wayward sibling, just as the pharisees wanted to reject Jesus’ insistence on welcoming the sinners and tax collectors.
The parables tell us though that — for as long as there are people in the world, our siblings by blood or by shared humanity, who are considered riffraff, undesirable, sinners and unwelcome because they are not good enough — then we too are lost.
And suddenly I don’t really want to be associated with the elder son quite so much. I’m not a pharisee, I’m not self-righteous or judgemental.
But the reality is. I can be. I’ll happily complain about those who seem to get away with things. Those people who cut in line for the bridge at the last second, while I’ve waited in line for 20 minutes. It will probably continue to hurt a little every time I think of how forgiving my parents were of my sister’s screw-ups.
And it will continue to annoy me that I felt taken-for-granted as the one stayed home. I can admit to being jealous, like the elder child, of not getting recognition I think I deserve for being the one who stayed. I’m not perfect.
I am not perfect. Like the elder child I can get lost in my expectations, my jealousies, my judgements of others, my self-righteousness.
And then I am like the younger son – realizing these things, wishing I could be different, wanting to be different and struggling every bit as much at the younger son in the parable. I seek forgiveness and a desire to change. “We often believe we are the problem.”
And the father see that. Sees all of it. See both of his sons with their struggles and their difficulties and both welcomes them home and gives them all that he has.
This parable is often called the Prodigal Son and we think it’s about the younger son. Yet, when we understand what the word prodigal means we realize every single person in this story is a prodigal child of a prodigal God.
Prodigal as an adjective means Excessive extravagance.
We can take that to mean – wasteful and reckless spending of money and resources and it can mean the excessive extravagance of bountiful sharing and giving.
The youngest child is an over-the-top example of wastefulness and recklessness. And the eldest is just as reckless with his father’s bountiful love. And the father expresses his prodigiousness with excessive unconditional love.
And so we see in this parable that no matter who we identify with, God will always search for us. God will always search for us. Will always look for us and will always rejoice when we are found and celebrate with abandon. God will always be excessively extravagant, even when I believe I am the problem with all of my expectations, jealousies, and judgements I am good enough for God to always love me.
(My sisters, well that’s another story)