A certain man had two sons.
It’s the way Jesus started a lot of the parables, including the one we call the Prodigal Son, which, I might add, is named for the younger sibling. It’s one of those stories I’ve heard so many times I can picture it without even having to think to hard, though I must say in my mind’s movie the story somehow fits better in West Texas than in Palestine. Maybe it’s just imagining the father staring down the dusty road day after day, and that he was able to see the boy walking way down the road, that makes it feel like his ranch was somewhere between Lubbock and Amarillo, or that barbecue was the celebratory food, but that’s how it feels to me.
Either way, the youngest son’s rebellion and repentance is the stuff of movies and novels, the kind of story that tugs at your heartstrings and lets the tears swell up with the violins in the background. It is a wonderful picture of grace. The boy demanded his inheritance, essentially telling his father he wished he were dead and disgracing the family, and headed off to the bright lights of the big city, losing both all the money and himself. When he bottom, he was slopping pigs and thinking their food looked good. Even going home as a total failure would be better than the way he was living. So he walked home, practicing his plea for forgiveness over and over and over. But while he was still way down the road, his father saw him and ran to meet him because the father had been waiting for him to come home. Forgiveness flooded in before any sort of confession took place, love conquered shame and sin, and all that mattered was the boy who had lost himself had been found.
But Jesus didn’t know when to quit. Even though there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, he kept going. There were two sons, remember? The eldest brother was coming in from a hard day at work, as he had done most all of his life, and was surprised to find a party going on in the middle of a workday. That never happened. When his father told him they were celebrating his younger brother’s return, the eldest son was not up for joining in. All he could see was he had been dutiful and compliant and dutiful and it hadn’t gotten him either the inheritance or a party. As Hoyt Axton used to sing,
work your fingers to the bone
and what do you get?
bony fingers bony fingers.
When the father tried to explain his extravagance, the oldest brother was incredulous: I did everything you told me to do and you’ve never even given me a goat to cook with my friends; doesn’t being dutiful deserve to be rewarded? In the economy of God’s grace, it seems, the answer to that question is, “No.” Love and forgiveness are not earnable. They are gifts – painfully free gifts. If we are being dutiful and diligent because we think it’s going to pay off, we’ve missed the point.
And the point is made well in a story from a book I picked up years ago called The Song of the Bird by Anthony de Mello. It is a collection of stories and parables from different faith perspectives. The story Is simply called, “Good News.”
Jesus began to teach in parables. He said:
The kingdom of God is like two brothers who were called by God to give up all they had and serve humanity. The older responded to the call though he had to tear himself away from his fiancée and his family and go oft to a distant land to spend himself in the service of the poor. Years later he was imprisoned for his work tortured and put to death.
And the Lord said, “Well done my good and faithful servant! You gave me a thousand measures of service. I shall now give you a thousand million measures of beatitude. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
The younger boy ignored the call. He married the girl he loved and prospered in his business. He was kind to his wife and children and gave occasional alms to the poor.
And when he came to die, the Lord said, “Well done my good and faithful servant! You gave me twenty measures of service. I shall now give you a thousand million measures of beatitude. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
When the older boy was told that his brother was to get the same reward as he, he was surprised. And he rejoiced. “Lord,” he said, “had I known this at the time you called me I know I would have done exactly what I did for love of you.
We don’t have to go to the far country or lose everything or be baptized in shame to understand the extravagant love of God, but we do have to understand extravagance. We do have to come to terms with a love that cannot be earned. Both the brothers thought they knew how to make life pay off. Both of them were wrong. One came home asking forgiveness, and the other . . .
Well, Jesus quit telling the story before the older brother responded to his father’s explanation. I wonder if the point of the ending was for those of us who hear the story to realize we are more like the eldest brother than the youngest when it comes to understanding that God loves everyone: the people who make more money than we do, the people who get the jobs we want and are less qualified, the people who appear to be president of the Dumb Luck Club, the people who do damage to others without apparent punishment, the people who disagree with us, the people who take advantage of us, the people who have no idea what real love is.
Yes, them. All of them. And us, too.
How do we respond to love like that?