What a day it has been around the family farm! It started out with me thinking my father was acting completely foolishly. He was flippantly throwing around forgiveness, freely offering it to my younger brother who has just returned home after carelessly wasting everything my father had given him.
I mean, seriously, after the way my brother treated him, and me for that matter, you would think my father would have had him crawl back on his hands and knees begging for forgiveness. If it were up to me, I’d make him work off his debt until he paid back every last penny he has squandered away, but instead my father absolves his debt and gives him his old life back as if nothing had happened. Has Dad forgotten how much my brother’s selfishness cost this family and how difficult it was to pick up the slack in his absence? Not only was I forced to do extra work, but we actually had to hire more help, costing us even more in the long run.
What left me completely flabbergasted was that as my brother made his way down the road, tail between his legs, probably ready to admit what a fool he had been, Dad didn’t let him get halfway down the road before he dropped everything and ran out to him! Are you kidding me? And then, not only does he welcome him back with open arms—kissing him, thankful for his return—but he clothes him in the best outfit, and orders the workers to prepare a feast because we must all celebrate. That’s completely absurd! What do we have to celebrate?
Did Dad really blot out of his memory what my brother did? He asked for his portion of the inheritance—as if Dad were already dead! What a disgrace! And knowing my brother, he probably took the money and squandered it away like it was meaningless and hadn’t taken Dad a lifetime to amass. Yet now Dad welcomes him back with open arms, forgives him of his huge debt—and actually does all this with joy! How utterly ridiculous!
So the party is going on and I’m out in the barn—working. I want nothing to do with this “celebration.” What a mockery! And my dad has the audacity to come out and ask me why I’m not celebrating? I say, “Honestly, what do we have to celebrate? For years I’ve been slaving away for you and I never disobeyed your orders even once. Everything you asked me to do, I did. I never asked for anything and never received anything in return, not even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours—because honestly, I’m struggling to call him my brother—who wasted your wealth on prostitutes and frivolous living, comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him! How entirely ludicrous!”
But then Dad looks me square in the eye and calls me his son. And I can feel my heart begin to soften. He then reminds me, “I’ve always been with you, and everything that’s mine has always been yours, and because of that we have reason to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found.”
I don’t completely understand how my father can be so forgiving, and in a way I still find it very foolish, but if I was in my brother’s shoes I’d want that same grace and forgiveness extended to me.
You Have Always Been With Me
It’s easy to read the story of the prodigal son and leave out the older brother entirely. But if we do that, we don’t see the gospel fully expressed in this parable. As we explore the feelings of the older brother, we see just how undeserving the prodigal son was of his father’s forgiveness, and yet how excited and overjoyed his father was when given the opportunity to extend it to him. This level of overjoyed excitement is exactly how God looks at each of us as he offers forgiveness and the guarantee of eternal life through his grace, love, and mercy.
The older brother was fixated on whether or not his younger brother deserved or had earned back his father’s favor. So much so, that the older son had lost sight of the fact that he himself never had to earn his father’s favor either. The father reminded him of that when he said, “What’s mine has always been yours.”
Many times in our lives there will be temptation to judge people harshly, as the older brother did the younger brother, but realize when that happens, we actually become more like the prodigal son—recklessly wasting the gift of grace we have received through Jesus Christ by refusing to offer it to those in need. In moments like that, we need to be reminded again of God’s great love for us.
This is a tremendous truth: we have all fallen short, yet we are all God’s children and he desires a personal, individual, and unique relationship with each of us. Everything that is God’s is offered to us through his Son Jesus Christ. Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and his triumphant resurrection from the grave has earned us all victory over sin, death, and the devil. And we share in this amazing grace whether we’ve known it our whole lives, we were reminded of it again later in life, or we’ve only recently come to know it for the first time.
Regardless of when that took place in our lives, God our Father and a host of heavenly angels are rejoicing over the fact that we were once dead and are now alive, and that we were once lost and now have been found.
Rev. Michael Natale is Pastor of Faith Chapel: A Church of the Lutheran Brethren in Cranston, Rhode Island, and serves as chair of Cultivate New England—a partnership of congregations in the Northeast United States working together to plant more Lutheran Brethren churches in New England.