I sometimes fancy the hardest thing about the gospel is not the wrath of God, but his mercy. I think, for instance, of some years ago, when serial child killer Wesley Allen Dodd stood on the gallows in Washington State and professed his faith in Jesus and his hope of heaven. The witnesses hissed with contempt. Like Jonah, some dark part of us is “angry enough to die” at the thought that God might have mercy on our enemy (Jon 4:9).
That is the startling lesson of the parable of the Prodigal Son: it aims to be a comfort, but a shocking comfort.
The context of the parable of the Prodigal Son is somewhat remote from our experience. We no longer feel disgust toward those colorful biblical characters, the “tax collectors and sinners.” To get the hang of things, we must instead picture Jesus dining with child porn publishers and drug pushers in order to understand something of the revulsion he provoked among his countrymen: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). In reply, Jesus tells the tale of the younger son (often the hero of Jewish history like Isaac, Jacob and Joseph) who is a despicable jerk. The son asks for his inheritance. Translation: he says to his father, “I wish you were dead.” He leaves the Promised Land. Translation: he turns his back on his people. Finally, he whoops it up with fast Gentile women and high powered cocaine brokers, hits the skids, and ends up willing to eat pig food just to keep his belly full. Translation: he turns his back on God. In the eyes of Christ’s audience, the younger son is the definition of The Total Loser With No One to Blame But Himself.
And, lest we forget, his stomach-driven repentance is not exactly pure as the driven snow. “How many of my father’s servants have more than enough food to eat?” he asks. But it is, as Jesus points out, a real coming to his senses. And so, with imperfect contrition but really seeking reunion with his Father, he tramps home in rags, a strung-out scarecrow shorn of cockiness and humbly hoping for a job shoveling out the stables.
Meanwhile the Father, ripped-off, abandoned, and rejected like King Lear, has never succumbed to bitterness. On the contrary, Jesus tells us he takes off at a dead run to meet his son while he is still a long way off. The son, hoping to maybe get a bed with the goats, finds himself dressed, given the family ring and feted with a spectacular feast! In a single dramatic gesture, the Father does for him what God did for Israel way back in the days of Joshua: he “removes the reproach of Egypt” (Jos 5:9). The filthy rags are stripped away and, as Paul says, he is made a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). God’s mercy is lavish.
Too lavish, in fact, for the Older Brother. He is the one who lent his car to junior and got it back with a mysterious scratch on the paint job. He is the one who turned down the nice job to stay on the farm and help out when his brother skipped town. He is the one who tried so hard to be good. Now he is ready to explode with frustration. “All these years I served you,” he yells at his Father, “and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.” He’s done everything that was expected of him, and still nothing he’s done has earned his Father’s love.
And he is right. Nothing can earn that love… for it was freely given both to him and his brother all along. “My son, you are here with me always,” says the Father with heart-breaking tenderness, “everything I have is yours.” The Older Brother might just as well have been trying to kick open a door that was already standing wide as work his way into his Father’s love. As it is, it is the Older Brother’s heart that is closed. For all the Father ever really had to give was his love. And that he pours out on good and bad alike. Until the Older Son says yes to such incredible mercy, even for jerks, he will not go through the door to the celebration. I wonder what he will do. I wonder what you and I will do.