The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most familiar stories in the bible. The youngest son decides he’s fed up living under his father’s roof, working in the family business and asks his father for his share of the inheritance so he can go out and experience life.
And he does. He squanders all of his money in profligate (great word) living. He ends up homeless and scrounging out of dumpsters (well, pig styes actually, but most of us aren’t acquainted with pigs nor styles). He wakes up out of his drunken stupor with a realization that his father’s minimum wage employees are WAY better off than he will ever be at this point. He devises a new plan: he’ll go home, beg forgiveness, and ask to be hired on as the janitor.
He’s dragging his emaciated, disgusting self home when his father notices him in the distance. He is so overjoyed to know that his son, whom he feared for dead, is alive and coming home, that he calls for the fatted calf to be slaughtered (I’m thinking prime rib and lobster) for the party he’s going to throw to celebrate his wayward son’s return.
Now the big brother, who remained and picked up the slack in his brother’s absence, is not delighted one bit. In fact, he’s furious and tells his father how unfair it is to reward his brother’s slacking lifestyle with anything, much less a party!
If you’ve spent any time in Sunday School or church, you know that the father is God and the prodigal son is us and God, in God’s infinite, unconditional love, will always welcome us back no matter what.
But what if God is the prodigal one and we’re asked to be the father? What does that do to your neat and tidy faith?
It makes me recoil in terror! I don’t want to be the father. It’s so much easier to imagine God loving unconditionally and opening God’s arms to welcome me back. Even if being a slacker is too much for me to consider, I’d rather be left alone to wander back when it suits me or when all else fails. Besides, most of us sympathize with the older brother’s indignation anyway. When the characters play their prescribed, predictable roles, I can let the story roll over me without getting too invested in my role.
But, what if it’s God coming to me as the prodigal? What if God is in the guise of the guy who’s been living beyond his means, leaving a wake of unpaid debts and foreclosed properties? What if God comes back as the alcoholic daughter who failed out of college? What if God is the neighborhood young man just released from prison and on your doorstep asking if there are some small projects he can do for you around the house?
And if God comes in the disguise of someone I fear or despise, how will I respond? Will I respond as the father who is willing to turn upside down the acceptable social norms and traditions, inviting chaos into my life? Or, will I be more like the older brother maintaining society’s status quo and closing myself off, refusing to see anything differently?
Here’s the thing about God: God does not always come to us in ways that are acceptable to us.
The religious leaders completely missed Jesus because he didn’t fit their expectations of a prophet, holy man, or someone with whom anyone with any sense of their reputation would associate. They remained insulated and removed because they would never entertain the possibility of associated with lesser, flawed mortals.
The question for us to ask ourselves is this: who am I? Am I the grudging older brother, disgusted by my prodigal kin and disappointed in the loving parent? Or will I accept him when he appears?