Narrative Lectionary Reflection
March 19, 2017
Being an only child, it’s not easy to understand the sibling dynamics taking place in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. That said, I do have sympathy for the older brother. He was the good one. He followed the rules. He stayed at his father’s side. He did everything right.
I understand this because I’ve always been the Good One. I was always the kid that people would say is so well-behaved and mature. I was the kid that didn’t rebel.
So, I can understand why the older brother is livid at how his father is treating his younger brother who humiliated his father by taking his inheritance early and then going off to spend it all. Why should he be welcomed with open arms after what he did to the father?
In the wake of the 2008 housing crisis, there was debate on whether or not to bail out homeowners who were in danger of losing their home. Some believed that they should and others were dead set against. They brought houses with questionable loans and bought more house than they had money. Because of this, some said that it was the homeowner’s fault for being foolish with their money. Let them suffer the consequences.
I tended to side with the later argument. Why? Because I was the Good One. Fools should suffer their fate.
This all explains why this story is so necessary. Jesus told this story to a crowd including a number of Pharisees that Jesus heard grumbling because he shared meals with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus hits these leaders, who were the Good Ones, right where it hurts in this parable. We see the older son seething in anger. The father comes out to meet his “faithful” son, in the same way that he came to greet his youngest son. In each case we see a father full of love for his sons, even though they don’t really deserve it.
This story is a study in grace, and what we learn from it is how “scandalous” grace is. The father receives the younger son with open arms and has a party. He did this because his son that he feared would never come back has arrived. This sort of lavish joy is almost embarrassing and certainly not deserved. But that’s how God is when a sinner comes home. God meets them with open arms.
But God also greets the older sons, the Good Ones who in the end aren’t so good. He reminds them that they are loved with this same grace. The older son probably did the hard work to please his father. But the father didn’t care about that. He loved this son, even when he was acting like a jerk.
Did the older son ever “get it?” We will never know. I would like to think he did, that he was willing to stop trying to please his father and just enjoy life knowing he is loved by his father all the time.
And maybe he will understand that being a Good One isn’t about doing the right things, but knowing you are loved with an endless love.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.