The father, the older brother, and the prodigal son

Our Gospel text is a story that almost all of you have probably heard before. It is one of the most well-known stories of the Bible. Because of that, it is a story that sometimes keeps us in a ditch of interpretation. What I mean by that is that we think to ourselves, “I’ve heard this before. I know this story,” and then turn our brains off and think about the Brewers, or the Final Four or taxes, or whatever else is slipping into your mind this morning.

I know that those experiences and the things going on in your life are part of how you hear this story this morning. I think that is part of Jesus intention in telling us stories. Our mind can wander, but that also allows us to draw new things in each time we hear it. There are many ways to tell and to hear a story, and that is all part of the frame we bring to interaction with God’s word. Many of you may find that you never hear the story exactly the same way, if you allow yourself to hear it anew.

Today, in our second reading we heard the words from Paul that “in Christ we are new creations and everything old is had become new.” When we hear stories anew, that is part of the experience. Today you, the listener, is invited from your unique experience and context to hear a story in a different way, even one you’ve heard a million times.

How do you frame this story?

This is part of how we frame our interpretation. We all bring frames with us to how we see and hear scripture. This story in particular is one that has been framed many different ways, even in art. I know this because when I was a seminary student, the Luther Seminary library received a gift of the world’s largest collection of art depicting the story of  the Prodigal Son. And guess who got to catalog each piece … this guy!

Artists have framed the story from every angle, sometimes from the point of view of the father, sometimes the son that returns, and sometimes the older brother. How did you hear this story today? What frame did you have as God’s word came to you this morning?

  • What do we think of these characters we hear about?
  • What do you think of this son that takes his inheritance and leaves home?
  • What do you think of the Father that greets him when he returns?
  • What do you think of this older brother who refuses to go into the party?
  • What character do you most connect with this morning?

The Prodigal Son

We often connect with the Prodigal Son. What does prodigal mean? It means spending money or giving things away in an extravagant and reckless way.

The Father

But it is also the father who we may see as giving something away in an extravagant and reckless way. What does the father give away? The father gives away love, freely and extravagantly. Many of us probably grew up in a culture that said love needed to be earned. Maybe that was even our family or church culture that taught us that.

The rascal is the one who gets the love

This story tells us that in God’s economy, and in God’s story, the rascal is usually the one who gets the love. This story may stand alone, but there are similar other stories in the Bible.  Many sets of brothers appear in the book of Genesis, and often it was the rascal that got the blessing of the father. God does not desert the other brother, but the story that is passed down to us through scripture, was passed down through the rascals.

The older brother

So God’s love of the rascal is part of the story, but there are those of us who want God to be fair. We want to get what we’ve earned in a way that makes it obvious that others who chose poorly get less.  We may find ourselves as the older brother, who was working hard in the fields. He stayed and worked when the younger brother took half the inheritance and left. It we are thinking like the older brother, we may be disappointed by this story.

His Dad throws this younger brother a party! What??? Come on! Seriously. The older brother sits on the porch and won’t go in. He can’t associate with that gross unfairness, that lavish giving of grace for someone who didn’t deserve it.

For many of us, if we are honest, we will frame the story through the eyes of the older brother. We will think of those who have not been responsible. We will think of those who don’t come to church on a Sunday morning, but sleep in.  But it goes deeper than that.

Is God the older brother or the father?

What really bothers us is that we want God to be the older brother.  We want God to be fair and to judge based on our output and responsibility. But if God is the Father we meet in this story, He is a God who empties the scales and throws a party for those we least expect, the ones that we assume will be punished, not celebrated.

This is not a blessing of the younger brother’s behavior. This is a hint about how big God’s heart is and how we might practice love as God practices love, so that when we hear a story,  it won’t come as a shock to us when we see how extravagant God is with his love.

How can we see God’s love?

If we see ourselves as the prodigal who has returned and how he is treated by his father, not losing sight of that frame.  We may also see it from the frame of practicing love as God does in this story. Obviously the love this father gives is extravagant, and more than any of us may give someone who shows up at our church door or doorstep. God does invite us into this point of view.

The Apostle Paul, tells us that we should no longer see things from a human point of view. At our Bible Study on Wednesday we listed how we understood a human point of view.  We are invited to be ambassadors of Christ in this world. This new creation that is lavishly revealed to us is from God and Paul says we have been given the ministry of reconciliation of the world to God, restoring relationships between God and God’s people, not counting trespasses against them”.

WE have been invited to the party. And this message has been entrusted to us. Like an invitation to a party, we carry this message of God’s love to the world, and to those who may not think that love is for them. We are ambassadors of God’s love for a world in need. A world doesn’t see God through the frame of judgment, but through the frame of love. That love invites the sinner in, even us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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