Thursday, June 4, 2009

There was a man who had two sons

Jesus had a strange way of answering criticism. He told stories. In fact, he told stories in response to many situations. When a lawyer wanted to debate the meaning of a single word, “neighbor,” Jesus answered with a story (Luke 10: 25 – 37). When he wanted to open our minds toward God’s Kingdom, he told stories (Matthew 13). And when he faced criticism, he told the story we call “The Prodigal Son.”

He didn’t give the story that name. He just told it. What a strange way to answer criticism (Luke 15:2). He simply talked about lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children. Could you imagine a politician or a pastor faced with criticism today? “The charges against me have not been proven!” one might say. Another might respond, “I won’t dignify that accusation with a response.” But what modern figure, when faced with an attack, would respond: “The was a man who had two sons.” You can read it in Luke 15: 11 – 32.

I don’t particularly like the name, “The Prodigal Son.” The story could just as easily carry the father’s name. Or we could take our cue from Jesus’ first line: it’s the story of a father and two sons. I’ve been thinking lately about both sons. They had so much in common. Perhaps more than you think. Families are funny. Two boys can grow up in the same house, eat the same good, go to the same schools, have the same parents and still turn out so differently. And yet when others look at the family from the outside they will notice first the similarities. Take these two young men.

The “prodigal son” is infamous. He wished his father dead, and said so! The fool was soon parted from his money (was it ever really his money?). Finally, with his back to the pigpen, he devised a humble return to the family farm, even if it was only as a hired hand.

Of course, the father would have none of it. He was watching for his boy all along. He wouldn’t even listen to the elaborate “deal” the younger son proposed. The father celebrated his return and invited everyone to do the same. This much we know.

The older brother is not as famous, but he’s gotten his share of recognition over the centuries as well. He wasn’t happy about the return of his brother. He used the father’s extravagance as fuel for criticism of his Dad.

Like many families today, both boys would be surprised to hear what others saw they had in common. I’d like to point out some of the family resemblance if I may:

Both sons failed to grasp their identity: the younger son rejected his role as a son. He tried to “hire on” when he returned, which means he still didn’t see himself as the father’s son. But neither did the older brother. He said to his father “all these years I slaved for you.” (verse 29) Apparently he saw his role as a slave, not a son. Whether this slavery resulted from the expectations of his culture or a poor relationship with the father, we can only guess. Both sons had the unspeakable privilege a blood-bond, but neither could grasp their identity.

Both sons separated themselves from the father: the younger son famously flew the coup, but he older brother was left in the outer darkness beyond the house, hearing only the faint music of celebration in the father’s house. Both did so by their own choice, and both missed out on abundance, feasting, and joy.

Both sons experienced the father’s loving pursuit: while the younger brother was still a long way off the father dropped everything and ran to him. Never was a boy so willingly captured. The older brother saw the silhouette of someone coming out from the house. It was the father, looking for a missing son. He was the kind of father who never forgot either of his boys, even when the party was in full swing. The father would go to nearly any length to welcome them both.

Both sons got to hear the father’s view of their relationship: the younger son was not allowed to demote himself to hired hand. He was a son, and he would always remain so. The older brother got to hear these exquisite words, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” Apparently the father never thought in terms of “inheritance.” He had always viewed everything as belonging to his boys.

If I had the chance to change popular perception of the parable, I would rename it “The Father’s Love.” There is no identity apart from the Father. Separation from the Father means darkness for all who choose to distance themselves. The Father’s love breaks every barrier. And finally, the Father’s heart determines who we are even if we don’t have it quite right.

Jesus told the story to a critic. I wonder if the critic heard the invitation to join the party?

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