"return of the prodigal son"
i've been spending some time thinking about my sermon this coming sunday. the text is the famous story of the return of the prodigal son from luke 15. we all know this story as an almost unbelievable story of the grace and mercy of God. i mean, that the father in this story would run to his returning son and throw his arms around him is extravagant. it is non-sensical really, when you look at it from a human point of view. and so we are used to looking at it as this incredible story of God's amazing grace.
but there is another angle to the story. its a tragedy, too. while we may identify with the younger brother because, we, too, have run off and pursued our own desires and pleasures and felt the embrace of God welcoming us home, we might also look to see if we don't see ourselves in the older brother. do you remember the older brother? that's him there on the right of rembrandt's famous painting. actually, he shouldn't be there because the bible tells us that he was still in the fields working. when he finally comes home the family is already celebrating the brother's return. he got angry. he wouldn't go in. so his father comes out, and the new revised standard version says that "he began to plead with him."
don't go any further without letting the radical truth of this story wake you up from your cozy comfort with its amazing grace, warm embraces and festive celebrations. i don't know about you, but i've been the older brother sometimes. i've been the one saying, "come on, i'm working my butt off here. i am righteous. i am right. is there no justice? why is life so unfair? there is no way i am going into that party, what a waste of time and energy. he's a brat, that kid. he'll just do it again. a leopard doesn't change its spots. "
have you ever said this or something like it? its more subtle than you think. it disguises itself in you as a kind of self-assurance. i think it is self-righteousness disguised as rightness, that is, you think you are right. now, come on, don't tell me you haven't thought you were right. i am famous for thinking i am right. it is older brother syndrome. believe me, i know what i'm talking about here (i'm right...oh, the irony).
but what does being right matter here? i mean, yeah, the older brother was right. he was better behaved. he was faithful and true. he never wandered. he never squandered. he toed the line. that is awesome! really, it is. but it turns into something absolutely tragic when he won't celebrate his brother's redemption. unfortunately the older brother is so blinded by his right-ness that he can't see the joy of his brother's return.
what about us? are we like this? do we get settled into a belief system and insulated by a sub-culture that reinforces that belief system over and over again? do we convince ourselves that we are right? and if we do, at what cost? what do we miss when we refuse to go certain places and do certain things because of our rightness or righteousness?
but its more than that. its more than just that, in our arrogance, we miss joy. jesus tells us that the father is pleading that we come into the celebration. the father is begging that we celebrate the hope and redemption that others are experiencing. the father is pleading.
God is offering mercy and love and joy and hope to so many in our world. and there are those who are coming home to this love in so many ways. but, i fear, too often we who are in the church are outside these moments of celebration because we are locked into our rightness. we are committed to a systematic theology or an orthodoxy or an economic system or whatever that robs us of our capacity to be free. and that's a tragedy.