This was the reading for 4th Sunday of Lent. Luke 15:11-32.
The message is strong, obvious and profound. As with all parables there are characters that can get missed or downgraded in their importance. The older brother is one.
God, clearly the Father, welcomes the errant son: me, you, sinners, fools; and the older brother: who is he? The jealous, the noses out of joint, the pharisees? The church? He gets really fed up because all that good and righteous living he has done seems to have come to naught. What was the point?
The older brother is often seen quite two dimensionally, with little to offer other than the obvious “it’s not fair” argument. But in The Word on the Street the message emerges about reputation also. He says, “I’ve slogged my guts out. Slaving over your accounts. Doing exactly what you told me to do – I’ve not even taken sick time when I fancied a day down the beach – and did you ever, ever throw a party for me and my mates? No! But when this waster comes crawling back, oh yes, he gets the full treatment. Well, thanks for nothing!” Poor old church. Never gets recognised for just getting on with the day to day things.
The older brother complains that letting the prodigal one back in gives the wrong message to the world. He seems to suggest that, if as the older son he has lived the Mosaic way, and that the Mosaic way is a way prescribed by God, how can God then simply ignore all that and celebrate the errant one?
The Older Brother is the Church: he doesn’t like the way that such behaviour seems to go unpunished. But, the story shows the awfulness of the prodigals son’s life before he turned. It was in the darkness of the emptiness of his stinking life, brought about by his own stupidity, that he saw the need to return, even to a lowly role, with his father. He wasn’t expecting celebration. He came in humility and guilt, shame and regret were steeped in his soul, and no doubt he was utterly humbled by his father’s reception. He was ready to fall at his mercy, but the father had other ideas. This wasn’t a simple, “Good to see you son, so glad you could make it…” party. It was a resurrection, a new life. It was the fundament of the Gospel message.
We have individualized (again! we do so easily and shouldn’t) the parables. We make them about ourselves and our own personal relationship with God, but the parables can often be as much about societal, cultural and organisational responses to people’s collective stupidity. When they turn, when they rise up from the bottom of a pit, too deep for words, then we must welcome them, not prohibit, collectively. Continuing to prohibit is exactly what reinforces the wayward interpretations of the Law that so upset God. Jesus came to fulfil not to abolish, but the fulfilment was through is through grace, not prohibition. It was through release and celebration rather than through punishment and retribution. When someone realises their stupid failures, and then seeks out the very one to whom the stupidity was most damaging, isn’t that a time for celebration, openness and love?
Our society journeys with God as much as we do individually. If a single person errs, then the whole community can welcome them back. This isn’t on behalf of God, but with God. The welcoming back is the release we need to be able to move on and continue to live our lives as costly disciples: those who matter to God because God is part of the cost.
The cost of living is found in the effort required to celebrate and put aside the horror, darkness and squalour of our own regrets and stupidity.