The parable of the prodigal in Luke 15:11-32 is among the most famous Jesus told. Rembrandt did a famous painting of this story that has moved many. Yet to read the parable is always unsettling. I wonder why on earth a father would give half his estate to a son he knows is planning to squander it? That just does not seem like good parenting. It also doesn’t seem fair that this son receives such a lavish welcome on his return without even having to grovel! At least a part of me is with that older brother in pitching a fit and staying away from the party.
One of the insights from our pastor’s message this past Sunday that really helps me is to see how both of the sons are lost. What they share in common is that both are lost in selfishness. In different ways, each is a prisoner of his own self-absorption. They are different only in the way they express it, which might help explain why the older brother is upset. Down deep, I suspect the older brother was confronting the reality of his own selfishness in that of his brother, but didn’t want to see it.
Both brothers are absorbed in themselves to the exclusion of any concern for either their father or their other brother and for the future of their family. The younger brother essentially wishes his father dead and wants the present value of his inheritance now, not willing to share in his older brother’s labors that might have enhanced it. All he cares for it seems is maximizing his pleasure in the moment. Even his approach to his father, as repentant as it is, masks a shrewd appraisal that he might do better as a servant in his father’s home than he is feeding the pigs.
The older brother is lost in self absorption as well. He is absorbed in his personal rectitude and his resentment of the younger brother. Seeing his father’s distress, he makes no effort to find his younger brother. And when the younger brother finds his way home, he seethes in anger both against his brother and his father for not throwing him a feast, when he could have had this at any time!
There are so many ways I can be lost to the captivity of selfishness! There are so many ways I create a cosmos that revolves around closing myself off to God and others! In the end we dehumanize ourselves, whether in unrestrained hedonism or an ugly self-righteousness that is both angry and envious toward those who don’t match our personal rectitude. I vacillate between “I want what’s mine!” and cries of “It’s not fair!”
Rich pointed out that it is easy in this story to try to identify which brother we are most like. But identifying the kind of selfish we are can do little to liberate us from being lost in selfishness. The only thing left for us is to stop focusing on ourselves and rather on the Father who is truly extravagant in love. Both sons lived in a “zero sum game” world. By contrast, the Father is one who is extravagant in love, who always has enough to go around and who would much rather throw parties for those liberated from lostness than leave either son on the outside.
I’m struck that in Christmas, we celebrate this extravagant, prodigal love. The birth of Jesus reflects this collusion of Father and Son to rescue us in all the ways we are lost in self-absorption. Jesus becomes the truly loving and righteous Elder Brother and Father’s Son who rejoices not in condemning people in their failure but in finding lost people and restoring them to the Father.
Christmas is rightly a time of parties. It rightly reflects the parties of heaven over the lost who are found by the Savior whose birth we celebrate. The question for each of us is will we turn from our own forms of self-absorption to join the Father’s party or will we remain on the outside, a party of one in a cosmos centered around self?
[This post also appears on my church’s Going Deeper blog for this week.]