Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32
Context of the Prodigal Son is important and the lectionary today gives us a taste of it at the very beginning. It says that tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to listen to Jesus while the Pharisees and scribes were complaining. That context sets up the contrast of what we then proceed to hear in one of the most beloved stories in all of scripture and is certainly a hallmark to Luke’s Gospel. We have the sinners and tax collectors on one side of the story and the stark contrast of the Pharisees on the other, with Jesus, of course, standing in the middle, trying to pull these two sides together; that of the younger son and the elder.
Of course, we have a tendency to focus so much on the one who has been named the prodigal. He’s the one that goes off and lives a life of dissipation, for whatever that means, and a life of total filth, literally with the swine. If there was ever a character that gets caught up in the moment and without a great deal of depth, he’s our guy. He likes to have a good time until he can’t anymore. He comes off as entitled until he can’t anymore. He can come off as lazy and avoiding the family duty of work, literally wishing his father dead and living that way, running off and losing it all. For him, maybe that’s the point, and possibly the link between these two brothers. He has to get to the point where he loses it all, gives it all away, before he can be free to return home. Those of us with a few years on us can simply smile sometimes at that part of the story, of course, unless it’s still a part of our lives or the lives of our children and grandchildren that can cause great anxiety in our lives, still living in hope of their return.
But of course, for most of us, it’s the elder son that should make us a little uneasy in our seats. He’s the one that seems to have it all together. Life has been all about duty. It’s about living this honorable life, or so he thinks and tries to project to the world. Things finally fall into place for him. His brother has left. All his judgments have proven true. There is now nothing that stands between him and his father and the inheritance. Everything is just perfect. Until that moment…the brother returns and all that seems honorable and dutiful begins to seethe from within him. There is no room in this house for the two of them. Not only that, but he witnesses the father’s love, which he thought was about duty and honor, only to witness something much different. The life he tried to project onto the world was no more, a crack in the facade and what do we find? Envy, jealousy, resentment, anger, bitterness. You name it and this guy is holding onto it. Makes you wonder what their relationship was like when they were together or was it even a relationship. This young man had no space within to welcome his brother home and for that matter, his father. He had no space for love. There literally was, no room in the inn, within his heart. He fell for the trap as the Pharisees did, that what they did and their role was their identity and that defined them. When love is presented they have no space for it.
We can go on and on with this passage and there is nothing more you can than to find time to sit with it and sit with these characters. They are us and it is love that Love asks us to make room for within our hearts. Jesus doesn’t hate the Pharisees. All he does is try to move them to a place where they can see that they are something more and they can give up the facade, the image they are holding onto. However, the more we hold onto it, the more all that stuff that the elder son had within continues to grow within us. We want and desire love but we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s about something else. We want and desire relationship and reconciliation but we’ve convinced ourselves that we know better. It’s the story of the scribes and Pharisees. There was no room in the inn at the beginning of the gospel with the birth of Jesus and there still remains no room in the inn. We want to judge the other who sins without recognizing it within ourselves. Somehow their sin is greater than my own!
All these lost and found stories of Luke’s gospel have that same reality and why he says tax collectors and sinners are closer to the Kingdom of God. They’re the ones moving in on Jesus at the beginning of the story. Something within speaks and is luring them in, looking for something more in their lives, looking for love. The Pharisees, the elder son, eh, well, they have what they want and it sure isn’t love. At the center of our lives stands the Father, the Christ, welcoming us home, where there are unlimited rooms and unlimited space. The invitation is always there, but it then rests on us. Do we come running home only to find the Father already coming to meet us or turn our backs once again on the invitation, on love, for something we think will satisfy our deepest longing? Oh, it seems so easy but we know how hard it can be to get to that point of giving it all up, whether it’s the actions that have separated us or the interior muck and illusion we continue to hold onto about ourselves. No matter what, the Father awaits.