Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Of all the parables Jesus tells in the gospels, this is, I believe, my favorite one. For some reason, God has captured me with this story. No matter where I am in my faith journey, God speaks to me in it.
Let me tell you what God is saying this time. This story is not about a son repenting but about how deeply the father loves him. This is not about the son coming home but about the father’s joy at feeling whole again. This is a story about the joy of a father overflowing out of himself into the whole town! He’s grieved the loss of one of his sons. He’s longed for both his children be in the house, was desperate for his love to be made complete in a relationship with both kids. And now it seems to have happened! The son who left has come back. The one who was lost is found. His family is restored! Broken relationships are whole again! They get to start anew, all is well, all is forgiven. Though the younger son has a speech all practiced, the father isn’t even listening—because the father’s deepest desire is fulfilled: his relationships with those he loves are whole again.
But there’s a new problem that develops at the end of the story. At the beginning of the parable the younger son removes himself from a relationship with the father; now at the end the older son is doing the same thing. He cannot share his father’s joy. He is separating himself.
Isn’t that the way with families, though? You kind of get one relationship doing OK and another one fractures. In spite of the love you share, something goes wrong, a misunderstanding takes place, a word is spoken carelessly, an unwise decision is made, and everyone is affected. It just seems like when one relationship is finally doing OK, there’s a new misunderstanding with someone else.
Families are complicated. They’re messy. Every family at a deep level understands itself to be somewhat dysfunctional. Quirks, weird behaviors, painful issues that aren’t talked about, unresolved resentments that can stay under the surface, situations where you kind of have to walk on eggshells to keep the peace. Families are difficult. They can sometimes be hard work.
The only thing families have going for them is love. If the basis of family relationships is everybody behaving well, then no family has a chance. It’s not good behavior, it’s just loving each other. If in some imperfect, broken way, we manage to do that, that’s the best we can do. Everything else has to fit somehow around that.
That’s expressed in this parable. A strained family with damaged relationships. Two different brothers, each with his own brokenness. One runs away to find his own life, the other thinks good behavior will give him life. But it is the father’s great love for both of his sons that is the point of the story. Simple unconditional love for his two very different sons. A love that reaches out to each one, that includes each one, that drives his relationship with each one.
If good behavior was the foundation of their relationship, the older son would be the favorite. If individuality and self-expression was the foundation of their relationship, it would be the younger son. But that’s not the case. The father just loves his children. Period. That’s all the matters, it’s the bottom line, it’s the foundational piece.
So, of course the father will welcome the prodigal son back home. Of course he’ll run out to him in a very undignified fashion, give him robes, rings, parties, fatted calves.
And, of course the father goes out to the son who has always been obedient to bring him into the party. The father doesn’t love this older son any less, doesn’t appreciate him any less. But this is a celebration of the father’s love and joy that that has been restored and simply can’t be contained. It’s spilling out everywhere! The father thinks everybody should be celebrating! A fatted calf is way more than one family can eat; the whole town is included! Everyone is invited to share in the joy of the father, because this son of his—one of the sons that was lost and that he loves so deeply—is now found.
Whether that son leaves again or not isn’t the point. Whether the other son continues comes to the party or not isn’t the point. The father loves them both, no matter what. When love wins out, that’s a cause for celebration.
This is a story of the power of a father’s love. Of God’s love.
And it’s not based on good behavior; it’s not based on obedience. It’s not based on fixing brokenness or repentance or anything else that we do or don’t do. It’s a story of God’s love for each one of you. Prodigal, obedient, reckless, faithful, inside, outside, connected, on the fringes. You cannot make God love you more with obedience or repentance, and you cannot make God love you less with disbelief or selfishness. God’s love for you simply cannot change. Period. God has a death and resurrection invested in you. God’s love isn’t going anywhere.
And here’s where it gets fun. Sometimes, we see God’s love win out. Sometimes we get to see one of God’s beloved children get a new start, experience real forgiveness, recognize that they have been touched by grace. Sometimes we even get to be part of that. But always, we are invited to celebrate. God speaks in this parable. And the point isn’t to call sinners to repentance as much as it is to invite everyone to celebrate God’s love.
If we do nothing else in worship, we should at least celebrate the reality of God’s love that has made us new. Sometimes we get to see that in real ways. Always we get to celebrate it. God’s love is for all people. God’s love wins out. You are forgiven, and we’re all invited to that celebration.