But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to celebrate. Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, 'Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!' And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.' (Luke 15:22-32, ESV)
It's a familiar story, to say the least. We've heard it in Sunday School, listened to sermons, and even read books about it. But two particular books I've read recently (one new to me, one a re-read) have caused me to look at this parable with fresh eyes. And what I see is a portrait of the biggest celebration we'll ever know.
Recently, my wife read Tim Keller's Prodigal God and asked me to read it as well. We found a cheap copy on Amazon and I took it with me on a business trip. To say I "devoured" the small book is probably an understatement. Keller brings things into focus in so many ways I hadn't really considered before (or at least for a while). And he brings the book to a point where he describes the older son's actions as being just as rebellious as the younger son's. The younger son had overtly said (in cultural terms), "Dad, I'd like to see you dead. Give me my third of your estate now." But on his return, as he is taken back into the family he abandoned, the father restores him. This causes the older son to say, "Dad, I've slaved away without a complaint and now you are giving away a third of what is mine? I don't want any part of you anymore." And so, the younger son is celebrated in the great feast and the older son stomps away in disgust, never entering the door.
Henri Nouwen wrote Return of the Prodigal many years ago after seeing the painting by Rembrandt that hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. In pouring out his heart about the parable of the prodigal and the impact this painting has on his own life, Nouwen also points to the ridiculously generous and forgiving father who throws a feast to end all feasts at the return of his previously "dead" son. The older brother is portrayed as an aloof character, watching with absolute disgust on his face. The author writes much about how the father begs him to join in the celebration, but he staunchly refuses, considering the old man as either crazy, too lenient, or both. The feast, the representation of our home with God both now and in a permanent future, goes on without him.
Both authors (Keller directly, Nouwen more subtly) talk about the unspoken older brother from the parable. In the Luke passage, this story is the "feature" told after two similar warm-up parables that both end in a celebration over recovering something that was lost. But the Teacher who is telling them is also playing a significant role, not only in the telling of the story, but in the Great Story they are all caught up in at that very moment. He is the True Older Brother who, when we younger siblings have gone off to a far land and squandered all we had, said to the Father, "Don't worry about it. I'll go bring them home again."
And that's exactly what He did. He became Heaven's Prodigal, came to us as the Perfect Older Brother, paid for our ransom, and invites us back Home to the Father's celebration feast. We have the opportunity to participate both now and, ultimately, in the biggest celebration we could ever imagine. Our invitations were delivered by hands scarred and pierced with nails yet filled with the Father's eternal love.
Don Miller (in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years) talks about a death in his family where a cousin asked where the departed relative was. Miller spoke softly and kindly about Heaven but later, as noted in the book, knew that he should have said, "He's at a celebration." As I travel my own Crooked Path, I need to check my pocket from time-to-time and pull out the invitation I hold to come celebrate with God. It is a personalized offer to join in the Eternal Dance that is going on now and will only get bigger as time rolls to an end. I have friends and family already there and my anticipation grows. There is a huge party going on … and I'm invited to join in!
- What's your view of the Father who lavishly offers a celebration on our return to His House?
- Do you see the part of the celebration that is happening even now? Does it call to you to join in, or do you find yourself standing outside for some reason?
- Are you ready to accept the freedom and joy that the current and future celebrations express? Is your perspective of God big enough to see that is what He is doing for you?