The famous story (in Luke 15) that we call “The Prodigal Son” really has two sons who are at a distance from their father. The youngest, the guy who goes crazy with the beer and skittles, is the one who demands his inheritance, and runs off on a spending spree. When the money runs out and he comes to his senses, he makes his repentant way home. According to the story, he creates a geographical distance that has to be overcome. It’s “a long way” home.
The older son never budges. He works the farm, and does his chores. Happy as Larry, apparently. Until Larry comes home and Dad throws a party for the errant kid. “We have to celebrate!” Dad says. And then all his resentment boils over, and you realise just what has been steaming inside him all these years. “Why are you so nice to him, who has turned you grey with worry, and never take any account of me? I never had a party.” You can almost see the pout.
The father’s reply is fascinating. “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” So, in the case of the older son, the distance is purely emotional. He is there all the time, but they have “lost touch.”
And the story ends at this intriguing point. The way Jesus tells it, there is no “happy ever after” with the family reunited and enjoying the barbecue togetherWill you come in and enjoy the party?
It’s a question that continues to intrigue me. The context of the story, of course, explains its purpose. Jesus was roaming the hills and villages of first century Palestine with a swelling crowd of followers. There was a massive gush of expectation about who he was and what he was doing: there were reports of astonishing miracles and his stories must have spread like wildfire. The “common people heard him gladly” as the Bible puts it.
But there were others who heard him not so gladly. These are variously classified as “the scribes and Pharisees” or ”the religious leaders.” They saw him as a threat to their position, as someone who entirely lacked credentials and yet mocked their pretensions of authority, piety and God-fearing-ness.
And so here are the two sons. First, the disreputable rabble who have wandered far from God, are now welcomed home with a riot of noise and pleasure (like having a party for thirty five year olds in your living room). Don’t worry! Father God loves you! ENJOY! Yaay!
And the other lot. Standing at the edges with slightly sour faces. They already know all the theology and are professional religious leaders. They have standing in the community, and a role to protect these innocent and slightly foolish people from con-men and charlatans. Besides, it’s their job to teach and preach. They ask awkward questions which Jesus bats off with a grin, never losing step, never losing focus on God and his love.
So Jesus poses a question back. You already know the Father. Everything he has is yours already. But will you come in and enjoy the party? Or not?
Sadly, it seems that their very knowledge of God has turned into self-importance. Jesus said that it was if they stood at the door with the key, not going in themselves and not letting anyone else in.
Maybe this is why God has to keep doing new things. Maybe this is why there’s a million denominations. Simply because, we forget to enjoy him. We know all the words but have forgotten the song.
Or in a different metaphor, (from “Lord of the Dance”): “I am the dance and the dance goes on…” If you stop it over here, it will simply spring up over there.
I have spent most of my adult life as a pastor in various churches. So I guess I’m a professional religious leader myself. It’s a slightly worrying thought in the light of this story! And the two sons are evident in the story of my life. There is always a level of friction between outsiders and insiders, between evangelistic and pastoral ministry.
To be honest, it just feels as though nearly all my energy goes into persuading older brothers to lighten up.
Ever had that experience in a restaurant when there’s a table just over there with a bunch of people laughing at something that you can’t hear? Don’t you just want to go over and join them?