How many of you remember from your childhood the lessons you learned about fairness. If your cousin, or brother, or sister, got something from the grocery store and you didn’t than you threw a fit because that’s not fair. If you live or work with children on a regular basis then you will recognize that most squabbles erupt from this emotion of feeling somehow mistreated. He got a tablespoon more ice cream than I did. No fair! Why does she get to stay up a half-hour later than I do? That’s not fair! She got to sit in the front seat last time. It’s not fair that I always have to sit in the back. As my children get older, I’ve decided that if you’re going to be an effective parent in the twenty-first century then you might consider enrolling in law school. A parent needs the wisdom of a judge to hand down rulings on a moment’s notice and a memory to remember all the ways that each sibling had that the other didn’t receive.
And I suppose if you think that we grow out of the fairness game, think again. I’ve seen adult strangers argue over their place in line at a grocery story. I’ve seen loving family members get into a squabble over issues of fairness. And as I think about fairness and think, I’m too good to ever think that I would do something like that, I simply remember driving on the interstate and the traffic being forced down to one lane when a car comes blowing past the line waiting patiently and it looks for a space to sneak in. So, what do some folks do? They try and cut him off. He’s not going to get in front of me. It’s not fair.
Today is the beloved story of the Prodigal Son from the 15 chapter of Luke’s Gospel. The word prodigal is an adjective that means “recklessly wasteful.” To be a prodigal is to squander something. Therefore a prodigal son is a literally a wasteful son, one who throws away opportunities recklessly and wastefully. The younger son in this famous parable is a waster. He is one of the most famous rogues in the entire Bible. In our soap opera imaginations we can read between the lines and pencil in all the sordid ways he must have wasted his inheritance. “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” He takes the money and blows it on “dissolute living.” The story actually doesn’t go into detail here about what such dissolute living entails but my modern day sensibilities tell me that his lifestyle was probably not the best.
We know this story well. It’s one of my favorite stories from the Bible. We know about this son the waster. And what we don’t know about him, our minds are more than happy to provide details. And we know all about the father, too, who takes back his rogue son even before the son is able to make a complete confession. The father runs across the field and smothers his son with kisses, robes, a ring and a huge party. Come to think of it, many would call him a “waster” too. For who would spend so much so foolishly? Especially on somebody who doesn’t deserve it? I don’t know what you’d call it. I’d call it a huge waste.
But even if you may have sown a few wild oats in your past, and maybe you’re grateful to be taken back, my guess is that the majority of us this morning can more closely identify with the older son in this story. Jesus definitely wants his listeners to see the folly in the older brother’s behavior, but, darn it, slip into his shoes for just a second and see if you don’t sympathize.
What has the older brother been up to all the years while his younger brother is out of the picture? He has been working his tail off all day. He’s probably exhausted, his boots smell like cow manure, and probably is hot, sweaty and tired from working the fields all day. And then he hears the sound of music and dancing. Being confused is probably not the right word to describe the older brother’s reaction. He known his father doesn’t throw parties like this unless there is a really good reason to celebrate. And someone finally breaks the news. It’s just too much for the older brother to bear. A robe, a ring and a fatted calf—excess for someone who has just squander his fair share of the assets. His brother asks for his cut before the father dies. It’s kinda like the younger son was saying, “drop dead, dad, and give me my cut.”
And had you been in the older brother’s shoes, working hard to support yourself, while your younger brother lived it up, what would you have done? Would you go to the party?
Maybe the reason I enjoy this parable is because of the many different ways that one can approach the parable. There are so many theological nuggets in this old story. But perhaps the most obvious one that we see is that God isn’t fair. Sorry. God doesn’t play by our rules, see life the way we see it, or keep score the way we keep it. God isn’t fair. And if we’re honest, we won’t be surprised.
God’s not fair. And not only that: God has an ongoing love affair with sinners. God throws a party of rich food and drink to get their attention. God invites the undeserving. Slips a ring on sinner’s fingers. I think we can agree that this is a possible explanation to the parable, but let’s step back and think about how that sounds to the older brother, who is still in need of a warm bath. “But when this son of yours came back … you killed the fatted calf for him.” He cannot even bring himself to acknowledge his brother with a name — “this son of yours.”
So, where are we in the parable? I mentioned earlier that you might be identifying with the older brother. Maybe you are inside at the party? Or, maybe you feel as though you are the fatted calf… Or, are we standing like the older brother outside with our arms folded, refusing to come in? Curiously, however, we are never told what the older brother decides to do.
From the beginning Jesus says that this is a story about two brothers. And notice who Jesus was speaking to: one group were the sinners and the tax collectors and the other the Pharisees. Which one is the authentic prodigal? Which one has yet to come home to the Father’s extravagant love? You know, we can waste our lives keeping score and complaining about unfairness. We can harbor grudges to the grave. We can completely misunderstand what Jesus is all about even as we worship every Sunday. We can waste life waiting for apologies, waiting for others to earn our forgiveness and acceptance.
Yet, the fact is that every Sunday, God throws a party for sinners. Some of us have recently been in a “far country” and we are making our way back home. And others, perhaps working hard in the fields for years, have slipped into a Christianity that is more about controlling God’s love than celebrating it. God is not fair. God will not play favorites. But clearly, God likes to throw a party.
So who is the real prodigal? It’s not the one with a shady past. In the end, it’s the one who stays outside. The brother who could not bring himself to forgive. “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. “The one we usually call the prodigal is at the banquet of salvation. He has been found. That means the dead one, the lost one, is the one who stubbornly chooses to remain outside of the father’s party. What a waste.