Sometimes I think we are looking at all the wrong things when we read the story Jesus told about the two brothers and their father. Even the title is indicative of our slant– the name prodigal son is wasted on the younger brother, because although he certainly was all about wasting his inheritance, that is hardly the point of the story. I mean, as long as we go on seeing him only as disrespectful and irresponsible we can shake our heads and agree that it is hard to forgive people who make a mess of everyone’s lives and come back looking for grace. Call the older brother offended (as we would certainly be at our sibling’s behavior)…even call him unforgiving or jealous; better yet, point out that the father best deserves the name prodigal as he pours out his love and grace– wastes it without regard for justice on the one who has wronged him. But let the boy’s situation hit our hearts squarely in all its raw need: “So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” (Luke 15:15-16)
The younger brother is better understood in the context of the other two stories Jesus told to the crowds. His is the third– the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son– and in the first two we are hearing it from the perspective of those who have lost something of value, so it is right when we come to the third to see the grief of the Father over everything that has been destroyed by his son’s bad choices. After all, these are parables, simple memorable stories intended to teach a moral lesson to those who listen. But this time we get a window into what it is like to be the one lost. And we see a boy who is desperate, alone, hear how broken is his pride and how ready to admit that he needs his father’s love and forgiveness, even if he doesn’t deserve it. If we are going to understand forgiveness, we need to see things from the younger son’s perspective, and feel his pain when he cries out, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” (Luke 15:18-19)
Because I suspect that you can’t really understand forgiving someone else until you know what it means to long for forgiveness yourself, to hunger and thirst for that righteousness that wipes away shame and guilt…until you can weep with King David: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51:1) Any concept you have of forgiveness is likely to be more intellectual (and pretty anemic) until you have seen the blood on your own hands, and faced the dark closets in your own soul, prostrated yourself before God: “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:7) You can be sure that David was not reciting any formula or just doing what was expected of him when he pleaded “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.” (Psalm 51:8-9) on the deathbed of his infant son. Only such a gifted musician could have written melody for the agony of a father bearing the guilt of his son’s death. And only those who have received grace know its life-giving power to people lost in the dark.
The parable of the two brothers and their father is above all a story to teach God’s prodigal grace. And although we might be tempted to look at the two brother’s achievements and name one more deserving than the other, the Father’s love and grace pours out on both in extravagantly, unhindered by our measurements and unconcerned by our ideas of fairness. Grace isn’t grace unless it is undeserved, and grace is never wasted– just ask anyone who knows their need. “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
“You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek You; I thirst for You, my whole being longs for You, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen You in the sanctuary and beheld Your power and Your glory. Because Your love is better than life, my lips will glorify You.” (Psalm 63:1-3)
Where my heart has peace with God
Comes like a flood,
Comes flowing down.
I surrender my life–
I’m in awe of You…”