There was a man who had two sons…
It is “fiction,” of course. Or at least it is not “the truth” in the ways we are most accustomed to thinking of “truth.”
For we are told right up front that Jesus is telling stories now.
And yet, the characters, the scenario, the family dynamics, are so familiar to us, it is real.
And it is true in all the ways that matter, of course, for in one way or another we have lived this story. From one viewpoint or another, this experience is ours.
This also must have been so for Jesus’ first listeners. Only they, perhaps more than many of us, held close a whole lot of other stories passed down from generation to generation. Stories of other fathers and other sons…
Think, for instance, of Isaac and Esau and Jacob.
Remember all those sons of Jacob — especially Joseph — second to the youngest of that clan.
And surely, don’t forget David, who was the youngest of seven or eight sons of Jesse.
Again and again, the Biblical witness offers us stories of fathers and sons.
So when Jesus began to paint the picture we hear again today? It must have seemed ‘true’ to them as well. Indeed, not only could they also probably identify with the characters Jesus offers, his first listeners probably could not help but remember all those other fathers and all those other sons. Indeed, given the story lines of these legends who populated their memories and their imaginations, one might expect they immediately anticipated that the drama would play out around the story of the younger son.
As is surely so in the story before us now.
These are not perfect parallels, of course. And yet, in more than one of these instances, the younger son in the scenario strayed as well.
- We know well the story of Jacob and his need to flee his brother Esau’s wrath after having cheated him out of his birthright.
- We are well acquainted with Joseph and his tendency to lord his father’s favoritism over his older brothers.
- And oh, who can forget not only David’s profound gifts, but also his profound failures?
And we know this as well. Eventually, each and all of them found their way back home — either literally or figuratively. Just like the younger son in the story before us now. And somehow in their returning? Each and all of them were living examples of the power and the grace of God.
As again, is the case in the story before us now.
To be sure, one might expect that those who first heard Jesus tell this story would have been flooded by these memories of other fathers and sons. Especially other youngest sons.
And yet, even with this, it is still the case that many of us still identify with the older son, of course. I mean, clearly, it was at those who related to the older son that this story is targeted, for at the beginning of the chapter we are reminded of the grumbling of the faithful: the Pharisees and the scribes — who were voicing their distress that “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Oh yes, it is aimed at all of us who have forgotten it was really the power of God at work in the likes of Jacob and Joseph and David. That they, and surely we, could not by any means be called ‘righteous’ all on our own.
Over the past week I have been reading Jeanne Bishop’s story in her book, Change of Heart. In it she relays the horrific story of the murder of her sister, brother-in-law, and unborn child by a high school student named David Bier who was then just shy of his eighteenth birthday. More than that, she offers her own, now thirty year long story of movement from profound brokenness to healing.
Indeed, she speaks specifically of her own coming first to a place where forgiveness was possible and finally, towards reconciliation with the man who forever changed her life and that of her family. And it is clear that this journey is rooted and grounded in, shaped and directed by her faith. In fact, as she comes face to face with her own need for reconciliation, she draws upon the story before us now. She points to it in her first attempt to reach out to David Bier when she writes him a letter where shes says:
You and I are no different in the eyes of God. I am someone who has fallen short and hurt God’s heart; I have sinned, to use that Biblical word, just as you have. You are a child of God, created in God’s image, just as I am. God loves you every bit as much as me; nothing you have done could ever stop God from loving you. The division I have made between us — you, guilty murderer, me, innocent victims’ family member — was a false divide. I was wrong to do that.
The only thing that could possibly pay for the loss of Nancy, her husband and their baby is this nearly-impossible thing: that you would make your way home to God, the way the Prodigal Son in one of Jesus’ parables finds his way home.
It is not exactly the same, of course. There is no grisly murder in the story Jesus tells. There is, however, profound brokenness in the relationship the two brothers share as the older one feeds his own sense of self righteousness, which has been been building for probably his entire life. Oh yes, the resulting deep resentment appears to have one seeing himself as “fundamentally different from the other.” As better, somehow. As more deserving, more worthy.
Now part of what is so remarkable (and perhaps entirely unsurprising) is that Jeanne Bishop only finds some semblance of wholeness again AS she seeks to move towards reconciliation with the one who took so much from her. I know this was also the case in at least some of the other stories those first listeners must have had echoing in their memories as Jesus spoke.
Think of Joseph’s brothers whose remorse was real enough that they would do all they could to protect their youngest brother Benjamin. And whose lives were not really ‘whole again’ until they were united once more with the brother they had wronged. One could certainly argue that this was doubly the case for Joseph who clearly had nursed his resentment against his older brothers all those years — and who never even made an attempt to be in touch with his aging father.
And think of Esau, who in the end, met his brother, Jacob, on his way home — and welcomed him with open arms.
Indeed, the saddest part of the story Jesus shares today is not that the younger brother had strayed, but that the older brother is allowing himself to remain bound up in his own bitter self-righteousness, in his own bitter resentment. There is profound joy in the story when the younger son found his way home. Only the father’s joy will not be complete until his older son finds his way home as well. Home to that place where love is the first and final arbiter of all that matters.
Home. Where we all remember that God’s power is at work in all of us. All of us. And where we will only find the wholeness God intends for us when we extend that wholeness to others. Most especially, perhaps, those who have hurt us most of all.
And so it is that this familiar parable is finally incomplete. We do not know if the older brother ever finds his way inside to the party. If he ever finds his way ‘home.’ I imagine Jesus left the plot dangling right there so that all of us might somehow experience the invitation as well. As Esau did. As Joseph and his brothers did. As Jeanne Bishop did. Oh yes, I expect Jesus did not tell us the ending for that is ours to write even now.
So what shall it be?
- Shall we, shall I, set aside my own bitter pride and go to the party after all?
- Will I accept this invitation to wholeness which can only be mine if I recognize God’s love even for those who have hurt me most of all?
- Or shall I continue to deny the power, the grace, the love of God for the one(s) I have deemed to be somehow ‘fundamentally different’ from me? Shall I sacrifice my own potential wholeness to prove a point which was never God’s point at all?