I’m OK as long as I know I’m better than somebody else

Jesus came to do some very important things, but up there in the top 3, was showing us what God is actually like.

This is very important because we all have a tendency to imagine God either in our own image, or to specs that meet our imaginings.  And our imaginings are often not quite as easy for us to figure out as we’d think.

But Jesus routinely blew the minds of the religious folks around him, in the way he talked about God – and God’s real attitude toward people.

Consider that famous parable Jesus told, the one called “The Prodigal Son.”  It’s about a father and two sons.  One son, the younger one, has grown impatient at living under his father’s thumb and so he decides to seek greener pastures.

He decides the best way to fund this, is to ask his father for his portion of the inheritance he’d get when his father died.  So excited is he about his prospects that he maybe doesn’t notice how incredibly hurtful to his father it was, to ask for his inheritance, as though his father were only worthwhile to him as a dead man.

But the father, for whatever reasons, gives this boy the money.  And he goes, Jesus says, to a “far country.”

He doesn’t handle the situation well.  He spends all the money in living without boundaries, and just at the point where he finds himself without funds, a famine hits the land where he lives.  He has no way to survive, except to hire himself out to a local farmer to feed that man’s pigs.

Pigs.  Remember, Jesus is Jewish.  Jews don’t eat, or raise, or even get very near, pigs.  In Jesus’ storytelling, this guy can hardly slip any lower.  And then, Jesus says, it dawns on him a) that the pigs are eating better than he is and b) that his dad treats HIS hired men better than he is being treated.

So this younger son decides to go home.  He knows he has blown his father/son relationship, but perhaps his dad, who is a principled and good man, will hire him on as a farmhand.  It was worth a try.  On his way home, he rehearses his speech.  “I have sinned against God and against you….let me work as one of your hired men…..”

Now if this were a soap opera you know how it would go next.  In great dramatic fashion, the father would bar the door, call the authorities and proclaim that he would never help that ungrateful son who would have to learn the hard way about hurting people and misusing money!

But that’s not what happens in Jesus’ story.  Jesus says, that while the son is on the road home, the father, who makes a habit of scanning the horizon looking to see if his boy is coming home, sees him.  And turning his back on his dignity, he picks up his robes and runs to meet the son, and wraps his arms around him in an embrace.

The son begins his rehearsed speech:  “I have sinned….” But the father is not even listening.  He is already celebrating!  Even though the boy is hardly repentant, even if you listened to his speech!

In the culture of his day, he sends his servants out to gather up what this boy is going to get: the clothes and shoes of a son of the household.  And a party!  A great big celebratory feast because, as the father said, my son was dead and now he is alive!

 

Jesus says, the Father in his story, is God the Father.  And that boy is any of us who thought we knew better than God about what would make us happy, who celebrated our freedom FROM God by using everything up and finding ourselves at the bottom of things.

Maybe like him, we thought God would require some groveling from us, perhaps a demotion in status and maybe we’d be turned away.

But look what Jesus shows us!  God’s glad to have us back.  Notice the Father didn’t ask that child for a thing.  That doesn’t mean the son didn’t do wrong – he did!  But the Father is literally paying that son’s debts, because he has him back.

Jesus is telling us that God the Father wants us home, and he will even pay the price owing for  us, that we can come.

Some people like to make it sound like God waits on his throne looking for the ones he might throw into hell, but that’s not how Jesus showed it to us.

Instead, God’s the dad on the porch, hoping against hope that TODAY is the day his beloved child might come back into relationship with him.  Those folks who want to make God sound enraged and ready to punish, haven’t been paying attention to Jesus.

 

But, there is another son.

There is the older son.  That son did everything the way he was supposed to do it.  He never dreamed of leaving his father’s land and going to far countries.  He would never have broken his father’s heart by asking for his inheritance now so he could get away from his father.  He was absolutely dependable, and he did what his father wanted him to do.  He checked all the boxes.

And when that younger brother showed up and was welcomed home, this older son stood outside the house and seethed.

Why, after all that boy had done, would he be welcomed like that?

Wasn’t it clear who here was the GOOD son?  If anyone around here is going to be honored, shouldn’t it have been him?  If that kid was going to come home, wouldn’t it have been the right thing to have humiliated him?  Or even turned him away and sent him back where he came from?

What is the reward for having been so very good, and OBVIOUSLY better than his brother?

While the party goes on inside, this guy stands in the outer darkness and stews in his resentment.  Until the Father comes out to him, and begs him to come in.

The older son says, you’ve never even given me a small party with my friends, and I slave all day for you!  And this son of yours comes home and you throw a huge celebration!

But the Father replies, Everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad:  this brother of yours was dead, and now he is alive; lost, and now he’s found!

There’s so much going on here.  On first glance it’s obvious that the older son doesn’t have his Father’s heart.  He never feared or worried or cried over his lost brother, and it didn’t mean that much to him that he was back – but it was not so for the Father.

And then, there is the matter of what motivates this son.  He regards himself as so much superior to the younger brother, because in every way he has met the outer obligations of his station in life, but he has just made it plain that he was never any more in tune with his father’s  heart than his brother was.

Every day he SLAVED for his father?  And his father GAVE HIM NOTHING?  He is no less of an ungrateful mess, even though on the outside he looks like the good boy.

I wonder, how much of the time did that older brother power himself merely on the mean pleasure he took at being the better son, the superior boy, the heir who merited everything, while he imagined his brother’s humiliation at losing everything?

How important to him was it, that he was the superior son?  And did that have anything to do at all, with his relationship to the Father?

How many people live their lives finding their own meaning, solely in being superior to someone else?

 

Now, it’s a parable.  Jesus is telling us about God’s heart.  God loves both sons, and both of them have missed the point, lost the plot, and don’t deserve what they hope for.  He welcomes the younger one home; he begs the older one to come into the party and join the celebration.  What makes it a party, is the joy in the Father’s heart, to have his sons there.

 

So, if we imagine that God loves us better because we are good and follow the rules, well, we’ve missed the point.  God loves, because God loves!  God loves the “good” kids and the “lost” kids and every  one in between and he wants us  all to come home.  Of course he wants holy lives from us – but we can’t even begin to live a holy life, until we are back in relationship with our Father.

If we imagine that God ought to bang the door shut on those who aren’t as good and righteous as we are, well – we’ve missed the point.  God didn’t think either one of those boys was “good” – but he gave both of them a new opportunity to start over.

If we imagine that our sinful self is a special case and God definitely wouldn’t invite us in to the party until we have saved a life or something and thereby made ourselves acceptable, well – we’ve missed the point.  It’s God who makes us acceptable, by accepting us in Jesus.  God wants us home.

And, if we imagine that we are better than both those sons because we already know this story and we know why Jesus died on the cross and we get it, well – maybe we’ve missed the point again.  One thing to know about Jesus’ death on the cross is, that the ground is level there.  In other words, there is no hierarchy.  There aren’t the best people and then those who are still very good but a little lower, etc.  No.  We are all in need of God’s love and grace, and Jesus demonstrates that God freely gives it to us.

Rather than measuring ourselves by what we imagine God’s standards to be, it is imperative that we examine in this parable just what Jesus shows us God’s standards ARE:  he wants us home, he’s willing to WAIT for us, and he sent Jesus to make the way home for us.  And he hopes that when we come home to him, our hearts will thaw, and we will look at one another the way he does, and see everyone else in his celebration as a beloved of God, in need of grace, receiving what God has to give.  In fact, that is what the party is about!