When he came to his senses, he said, "How many of my father's hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants." So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his servants, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:17-24, NIV)
Once again, my thoughts have turned to this familiar story about the Prodigal. As I'm reading it through the lenses of some great authors, I'm convinced that a central theme of the story is the huge party the father throws at the end of it. It is obviously a picture of the celebration God invites us to (both here and in the future), but this week I was struck by the different attitudes presented, specifically shown in the four characters who speak in the parable. Now, I know you all thought this was about three characters, but I assure you, if you read on, I'll point out four. Here we go …
The first one invited to the party is the younger son. I see his attitude as penitent and grateful. He had come to his senses enough to consider a job back on the farm rather than slow death in the stockyards. He is shocked when his father not only takes him in, but restores his position in the household and then cranks up the party machine. He enters the feast humbled at the lavish love given to him when he realizes that he deserves to be turned away.
The second one we see (and this is the one you may not think about) is the servant who runs into the older brother. I imagine he's been sent off on some task related to the celebration and, whether he happens to run into him or actually seeks him out, his encounter with the older brother takes place. In his words, I read pure joy at what has transpired. He seems to catch the idea that the younger son was as good as dead and now is back among the living. Perhaps he was close enough to the father to see his daily heartbreak. Maybe he accompanied the old man on his nightly trek down the lane to see when the younger son would return. But whatever has happened in the past, this man shows the joy and excitement that fits right in with the party.
The third person we encounter (through the servant) is the older brother. His attitude, right from the start, is selfish and petty. He woke up that morning as lord of the manor in waiting and now has to split his already cut share with the younger brother. All because dear old dad has let the little wretch back in the house. He is bitter in the truest sense of the word that his father has not only accepted his brother back, but is throwing a huge celebration in his honor. He wants no part of it and, I would reckon, tells the servant as much. This obviously gets conveyed to Dad as we see next.
The father, so joyful in the return of the younger son, has lavishly spread out his best in expression of his love. He holds nothing back … you probably could have heard it from a mile away. The singing, dancing, drinking, and merry laughter light up the night and fill the air. It is an unbridled joy known only to one who has expected the worst but held out hope for the best. And he continues this way until he gets news of the older son's refusal to come inside. You see, this wasn't just a slap at the younger brother. It was an affront to the father as well. And in his encounter with the older son – outside the party still – we hear the pain and loss, much the same as the man felt when he considered his younger son lost or dead. With tears, he begs the older son to come in but is met with refusal and an indignant response. I can imagine that he turns, slowly, shoulders slightly hunched over, and goes back into the feast.
The Crooked Path holds many celebrations along the way, but they pale in comparison to the one they all point to. Our Father waits, at the end of the path, ready to welcome us into His Great Celebration. He wants our attitude to be that of one who knows he is welcome, who knows he has a rightful place at this part. I do nothing on my own to earn that right - it is a free gift from a loving Father who is overjoyed at my return.
- So, what is your attitude about the party? Are you happy that it is going on for you and others who don't deserve it by worldly standards?
- Are you struggling as the "older brother", upset to see such lavish preparations made for those who, in your view, have squandered their chances to do what you think is right?
- Whatever your perspective, can you feel both the joy and pain of the Father who gives this feast for everyone to enjoy and who longs to have both the younger and older son enter and join in the celebration?