By Richard Pelfrey
Before I even knew the story behind it, I thought it was a cool line : “the prodigal son returns”. I’d get the image of this weary dude coming back home dusty from the road and receiving all sorts of glory. In a way I was right. The son did return, and he did receive glory, gifts, and even praise. But it wasn’t till recently that I knew what he was returning from. And it’s been problematic for me recently.
Come to find out, prodigal means wasteful or “wastefully extravagant”. So here’s a guy who grew up privileged. He has one older brother and their father is successful. He, in the arrogance and delusion of his youth, decides to take his inheritance early and lite out for the territories. He’s gonna see the world, do it his way, and make it. Take life by the horns, do it his way, and return successful. But, alas, it turns out he knows a lot less about the world and himself than he thought, and after an introduction to the harsh reality of the world he returns broken, ashamed, hungry and penniless. He has wasted his inheritance and returns home not triumphant, but defeated. He plans to beg for a job and instead is given the seat of honor.
This sounds like a pretty good deal, doesn’t it? Jesus seems to say I can go out and waste time, money, integrity, values, whatever…I can go out and blow everything I’ve got, go have a blast, and then be praised when I return broke. But what about dude’s brother? He stayed at home, probably working double to pick up his sibling’s slack. He didn’t have any of the extravagant fun that his brother must have had. He was stuck with Dad while brother was partying with prostitutes. And then he just wanders back onto the ranch and is welcomed with a feast and nice stuff?
But, Jesus explains through this parable, it’s OK. You see, the kid’s father has unconditional love for him. The father doesn’t care about the wasted money or the terrible decisions, he cares about his boy’s life. And so, our prodigal child is greeted with cries of exaltation and tears of joy. Welcomed back with open arms and even given the seat of honor.
It makes me wonder how my Sister must feel when I, having wasted years and causing stress and heartache to our parents and squandering all my stuff, reappear. In the past they’ve been like the Dad in this story, welcoming me back with open arms. Oblivious to where I’ve been or what I’ve been doing because of their simple joy to see me at home.
I wonder what it feels like for “Church people”?. To grow up in church, follow all the rules, not get trapped in worldly pleasures, etc…to try hard all your life to be righteous and then be expected to welcome in with hugs and excitement and honor people who’ve been prodigal for ten, twenty, thirty years. People like me, who turned their backs and lived it up out in the world for years until, after they had nothing left, came back begging. I’d be upset, not happy. It’s not fair. I wonder if my little sister is angry at me for being so selfish all those years? I wonder how many people in our Church today justifiably resent those who get saved from years of deliberate sinfulness and are welcomed into the kingdom just the same, but with pomp and praise?
I know that the moral of God’s prodigal son story isn’t “life is unfair, deal with it”. He left that lesson for my earthly father to teach me – over and over again. No, I think it’s got a different meaning depending on what side of the deal you are on. So really for me the lesson has changed since I first read it.
At first, as a man who had wasted all his blessings and had nothing left but stories – it gave me the hope that I could come back and be loved no matter how far down I had sunk or for how long. God, like the father in the story, isn’t very concerned with what we’ve done. He’s only joyous that we’ve lived through our wastefullness and decided to come into relationship with Him. There’s nothing too nasty that we can do, there’s no “point of no return”. If we want the love, it is there waiting patiently, free of judgment. It is unconditional, just like my parents’ love.
Now, as a traveler of the narrow road, I’m called to be accepting just as others (and God) were of me. There should not be any animosity, jealousy or resentment. Only joy. If there is, I have a chance to grow. God gives me the opportunity to love like Him, and accept anyone who has stepped off the broad road and wants to give this thing a go. It is an opportunity to live and not judge, and to share the gospel just as he commanded. Without this, our Church would stagnate and die. We are nothing without our love, unconditional and all-encompassing. This is what saves people, and what keeps the saved in the will of God.