A man has two sons. The younger asks for his share of inheritance – as the younger son it would have been 1/3 of the estate. The father completely ignores the wisdom of the sages not to give another your property while you are still alive, and complies with his son’s request, who then goes off to a far country where he squanders it all. When famine comes to the land, the young man winds up tending pigs – dirty and disgusting work, especially for a Jewish lad. He’s so hungry, he would have eaten the pig slop. He comes to himself, decides to go back home, beg forgiveness and ask to be taken in as a hired hand. This son provides the name traditionally given to the story – the prodigal son.
In it we may recognize ourselves. Perhaps there was a time when you too longed to escape your parent’s home with their rules and expectations. Some were bold in their rebelliousness while other waited patiently until the freedom of the far country of college. Either way risks were taken and whether or not we actually wound up in pig sty was only a matter of degrees.
The truth is we all know this prodigal. Just few minutes ago we confessed that we have wandered far from God’s home and that again and again, we lose our way. We have taken our inheritance as God’s children and done what we please. We’re prodigals, everyone, down on our knees begging for forgiveness.
What happens next is absolutely amazing. The father sees the lost son way down the road and instead of waiting for an apology, he runs to meet him, swoops his child up in a whirlwind of hugs and kisses. Ignoring his son’s practiced confession, the Father calls for a ring, robe and sandals and shouts it’s “Time to party!” The lost son comes home expecting the worst and receives the best.
I saw such homecoming once. My sister Amy was coming home from Oregon after a long time away. Not so much because of a disagreement, but gradual estrangement. I was going home from seminary in Chicago to take my ordination exam – one of the most important tests in my life. Dad made travel arrangements for both of us – Amy would fly into O’Hara and then together we’d take a late afternoon flight to the Allentown airport. We made the connections and even got seats next to each other. Soon we were landing in Allentown and making our way out of the plane. Walking in front of Amy, I wasn’t halfway down the exit ramp before I caught sight of the first sign – a huge one with bright red letters exclaiming, “Welcome Home Amy!” A second reinforced the first with “We love you Amy!” A third, “We missed you Amy!” Not only signs but family, relatives, friends and neighbors all shouting for joy, hugging and kissing Amy. Whatever caused the estrangement was forgotten. Amy was home, that’s all that mattered.
Maybe that’s how we ought to announce the forgiveness of sins: with signs and cheers welcoming us home. The lost ones are back. It’s time to party! But I suspect that like the good religious people Jesus first told this story to, many of us are preoccupied with being the elder brother. Beside elder brothers and sisters don’t cheer and shout in church. They behave. They’re the respectful, responsible ones and even though their sins were forgiven, compared to the prodigal’s that’s a mere trifling. After all, we do our part, support the church, volunteer, pay taxes, we’re the good people. God owes us forgiveness.
I suspect it was the party that annoyed the elder son the most. He knew how sad his father was. He watched him sitting in the porch rocker staring down the road day after day. And if truth be told, he missed his brother too – his easy-going ways, his laughter and jokes. But what lesson was to be learned when instead of punishment for squandering a third of the family’s estate, his brother’s given a party? And even worst the elder brother learns of the homecoming because of the music he heard as he came in from work! There was enough time to kill a fatted calf, hire musicians and send invitations to the neighbors – but not enough time to let him know his long-lost brother has come home.
I think it’s the pure grace of the party that grates on elder-brother types the most. I was happy Amy decided to come home. I knew my parents missed her and were worried about her. I figure Mom might cook Amy’s favorite meal – chicken with homemade dumplings. But I never imagined the scene at the airport – the shouts and cheers, the whole assortment of friends and family crowding around my sister. She was crying. They were crying. I was being ignored. My mother finally noticed I was there when we were half-way to the baggage claim area. I was the good daughter, the one studying to be a pastor. I worked hard for their love, always remembering to call them each week and never calling collect. But there wasn’t one sign that said, “Welcome Home Cindy!” I played out the scene just as the elder brother did, staying in the background, watching the party from the outside.
The man had two sons. One who was lost has been found. It is time to celebrate! But in the midst of the party the man looked around and now the son who had always been there is the lost one. It’s a parenting dilemma — praise one child and the other feels slighted. Rejoice in that child’s achievements and the first sulks away. How do you love them both equally? Can you? Doesn’t one hold onto a piece of your heart in a way that the other doesn’t? And doesn’t that one sometimes feel they’re taken for granted? And if one turns away from you, don’t you offer a little extra love hoping they’ll return? But then what of the one who is always there? Won’t that child become jealous, envious, maybe even angry? “For all these years I worked, never disobeyed your command, and you never threw me a party, not even a small one, but when this son of yours came back you killed the fatted calf for him!” The father heard the stinging accusation and knew he lost this son. He responds with the only thing worth saying, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
We can take this relationship for granted – this one with our Father, our God. Baptized and raised in the Church, some of us can’t remember a time when we weren’t at home here. God’s love has been so constant in our lives we hardly recognize it for the amazing gift it is. Our faithfulness is day to day, year to year, over a lifetime. The danger is we forget we’re always with the Father. So, when a lavish party is thrown for the lost son, we stand on the outside and sulk. “Let’s see if he’s for real,” we say to ourselves. Forgetting all the while that our brother who was dead has come to life; our sister who was lost has been found. We saw our Father throw off his sadness dance a jig. But now he stands before us, inviting us to join the party because then his whole family including you and me will be home. Amen.