The Prodigal Son story keeps circling back into my world.
Two of my blog posts last week were in conversation with things I had read or heard that used the story as a definitive picture of God.
And, I got roped into teaching the kids during the sermon at church last night, and the Prodigal Son was the topic for our lesson.
Here’s my hang-up with most tellings of the story (though not with those I’ve heard in the last week): in Luke 15 the set-up is grumpy Pharisees who are not happy–At. All.–with Jesus’ welcoming sinners and eating with them. So any interpretation of the parable that doesn’t leave the “insiders” wrestling with their posture toward others, the “wrong people” who have been embraced (any interpretation that does not end with the spotlight squarely on the Pharisees who are questioning Jesus’ choice of party people) won’t do it for me.
Jesus is partying with the wrong people.
This, of course, is just how the story of the Prodigal Son doesn’t end. While the stories of the lost coin and of the lost sheep each end with the party, the Prodigal story ends differently.
It ends with dad outside the party, attempting to cajole older brother to join in the celebration. The story ends not with the accepting father nor with the accepted son, but with the faithful, loyal, grumpy older brother who will not join the party for this fraud who has just come home.
Both brothers, in fact, come to the father with the same, wrong narrative about their life in relation to him. And the father attempts to rewrite their stories.
They tell, or offer, stories of servitude, but the father narrates their lives as those of beloved children.
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and earth and am no longer worthy to be called your son. Take me back as one of your servants.”
But no, the father doesn’t even let him get to the “let me be your servant” part. Family ring. Fine robe. New shoes. And this “son of mine” is back!
There is rejoicing in heaven over one lost sinner who repents. And a feast on earth, apparently.
But as beautiful as that story is, most of the people I hang out with need the second one a bit more.
It’s the “faithfully slaving away” story. The story of the faithful ones who just do everything we’re supposed to. And always have. And always will.
And in the doing have forgotten who we are.
“Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction” (Luke 15:29, CEB). Behold the good and faithful slave! Laboring away under the yoke of his master!
No, says the father, not slave.
This is family. This is not servitude.
“Son, you are always with me.”
So why are you apart from me now at this moment of celebration? You are always with me.
“Everything I have is yours.”
Including this family of mine–with its lost son back from the dead.
And there we’re left. Outside the party. With the Pharisees who will not join the heavenly party of the faithless who have repented.
For all the shame and embarrassment and guilt that the younger brother felt, he was willing to have his story retold as a story of life out of death, of sonship rather than slavery.
How much harder to have our narrative transformed when we’ve done everything right. How much harder to have our story retold when our go-to narrative is one in which we’ve earned the party by working our fingers to the bone.
How much harder, also, to celebrate the miscreant.