Then he said, "There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, 'Father, I want right now what's coming to me.'
"So the father divided the property between them. It wasn't long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.
"That brought him to his senses. He said, 'All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I'm going back to my father. I'll say to him, Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; I don't deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.' He got right up and went home to his father.
"When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: 'Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; I don't deserve to be called your son ever again.'
"But the father wasn't listening. He was calling to the servants, 'Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We're going to feast! We're going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!' And they began to have a wonderful time.
"All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day's work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, 'Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.'
"The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn't listen. The son said, 'Look how many years I've stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!'
"His father said, 'Son, you don't understand. You're with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours— but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he's alive! He was lost, and he's found!'"
This parable more than just about any other passage of Scripture has captured my imagination. I think in just about every conversation about faith or religion it comes up. In my mind, this parable captures the heart of the Christian faith in all its beauty and agony.
First, we have the younger brother. He decides to tell his father that he wishes him dead and give him his inheritance. We have no reason to think that the Father was unusually cruel or mean. All we know is that the younger son demanded his inheritance and left out to live as he saw fit. By living in a way that was isolated and disconnected from his father he found himself alone, destitute, and in a place of weeping.
Second, we have the father. He graciously gave his younger son the freedom to go. There was no guilt heaped on him nor shaming. He cashed out his inheritance and let him go. Yet, his heart was in anguish desiring so much more for the younger son. He would look for him and expectantly awaited his return. All the while, he was with the older son, ready to give him all that was his.
Finally, we have the older brother. He never left. He did what was right and good. The older brother worked hard for his father, never asking for anything. But, when his younger brother returned home we discover that he was just as isolated and disconnected from the father as the younger brother. While he was physically present with the father and was trying to be “good” he was angry and bitter. At the end we find that the older brother chooses to stand outside the party in bitterness.
In different seasons of life we identity with each of these characters. My hunch is that most of us want to identify with the younger brother. He experiences the grace and redemption of the gospel. If you’re a parent you find many times where you watch your children go their own way and you wait expectantly for them to “come home,” so to speak and when they do, you rejoice.
Most of us absolutely do not want to identify with the older brother. Yet, if we are truly honest with ourselves he is us and we are him. He wanted punishment for the younger brother not grace. There was no joy for him at the return of his younger brother. His heart and the father’s heart were not in sync. This lead to the older brother standing outside the party looking in. He was experiencing a veritable hell on Earth.
When we desire revenge and judgment over grace and mercy we find ourselves on the outside looking in at the party. Too often we think of heaven and hell only as after death experiences. The reality is that Jesus was very much concerned about the here and now. What are we experiencing today. Heaven and hell, inclusion and separation, are not just future issues. They are right here, right now.
The story of the prodigal son invites us to ask this question of ourselves: Will I celebrate when “that” person experiences grace and mercy or will I harbor anger and resentment in my heart? Will I go into the party or will I stand outside separated and isolated?