Joshua 5:9-12 Psalm 32 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32
In Luke, the religious leaders are "grumbling'' because Jesus welcomed sinners. The Greek word only appears twice in the New Testament (here and Luke 19), both times in reference to Jesus’ embrace of sinners. It occurs three in the Jewish Bible [Exodus 16:2, 7, 8; Numbers 14:2 and Joshua 9:18, 24]. The three times in Exodus are from the story of Israel’s murmuring against Moses because they were thirsty. While they were focused on the man, Moses, they were really turning from God. Murmuring is rebellion against God.
The parable is pretty transparent. Obviously, the younger brother represents "the sinners," while the older brother is the religious leaders grumbling against Jesus. The story seems to say that all people are God’s children, the sinners should repent and those already at home should welcome them back. Typically, we read the parable as a condemnation of the religiously self-righteous. So it is interesting that while the Father does not go in search of the younger son, He does go out to seek the older brother. I believe Jesus is letting us no that, really, no one is righteous: we are all lost, but, Good News, the Father loves us. These are deep words: "All that I have is yours....come into the celebration!"
Today, however, I invite you to look within your own heart, where both brothers (you can make them sisters) live. The younger son represents the flesh—the part of you ruled by desires (passions) which lead away from God. The key insight is that the younger son wanted to do his own thing, as do each of us. Do not be deceived. It is not just the wild decadent life of a young man which constitutes “squandering the inheritance.” The gaudy sins of the flesh are obvious and we must tame these impulses and temptations through prayer, fasting, and spiritual disciplines. However, we are far more likely to squander our inheritance on mundane things. Jesus warned the church that the pre-occupations of daily life can cause us to drift away from God. The most dangerous passions, we have learned, are masquerading as virtues.
Which brings us to the turning point of the young son’s story. “He came to himself,” it says. I think what that means is the “false ego self” was unmasked. We can speculate about what wounds, lies, doubts and fears had led him to leave. We do know that he did not understand his identity as a son. Now, finally, he remembered (re-member: put the pieces back together as a whole) his father and life in the father’s house. Maybe his repentance is motivated by selfishness? Whatever the case, returning home and speaking the words receive an unmerited love and welcome.
The older son reflects the dark side or shadow of our goodness. Being good has its own dynamics and so it often judgmental and resentful. Paradoxically, for example, serious minded Christians can look down on those who do not take faith seriously, but non-believers can be equally self-righteous in declaring "I am not one of those church-going hypocrites." Self-righteousness is fed by the feeling that we have been treated unfairly and resentment that others are getting a better deal. It delights in seeing other people pay for their crimes. It is also blind. It is so blind. He cannot see himself. The tragedy of the older son is a failure to recognize his status as an heir. He does not see how he is treating the father the same way as his brother did. He does not see that “Everything I have is yours.” He does not see the pain of his brother, only his sins. He cannot feel compassion or intimacy. He probably never saw His Father's heartbreak. The demons afflicting the self-righteous are more dangerous because they are more subtle, and the wounds they feed on are more deeply hidden.
The Father is disrespected and unloved by both his sons. It is a tragic picture, made all the worse because it accurately reflects how each of us relate to God. The warning of the story is that while the Father’s love is never in question, our response is. The work of repentance is to trust in the Father’s love, to look for the sons within our hearts, and to lay the unique way work in us before Him, and ask Him to heal and cooperate in the process.