There’s an ancient story that you may have heard. The long and short of it is that a younger son asks his father for his inheritance early (which in that culture was a scandalous thing- the social equivalent of wishing your father was dead). He takes it and ventures out into a distant land where he squanders his money on prostitutes. Finally the money runs out, a severe famine hits, and irony of ironies this young Jewish man finds himself in a pig pen feeding pigs. Having hit the epitome of rock bottom he decides to return home to his father. When this wayward son is seen by his dad, the story tells us that his father runs, embraces and kisses him. It’s a pretty powerful story of forgiveness.
But this story is badly labeled. We’ve come to call it the Prodigal Son, assuming that the emphasis of the narrative is on the younger son, but read a little further and you’ll discover that there’s another son. This older son is your model oldest child. He’s incredibly responsible, having stayed at his fathers house while his younger brother was doing his dirt. When we meet him he’s in the fields working, and when he finally speaks he’s careful to remind his father that he’s never neglected a command that’s been given him. Yet there’s a problem.
If you were to read the interactions carefully between this dutiful older son and his father you would notice that there’s an obvious disconnect. There’s no real relationship there. Ironically, the one thing that these two brothers have in common is a disregard for their dad. The only difference is that one went far away and the other stayed home. And yet we’re forced to conclude that both sons are wayward, both sons are lost. One was lost through his rebelliousness, the other through his rule keeping.
So what’s the point? Jesus, the author of this story, is making a profound point, that for much of history we’ve missed out on. His point is that both the irreligious (those who don’t come to church, depicted by the younger brother), and the religious (depicted by the older brother) are lost. That no amount of rule keeping, church attendance, praying or giving gets me any closer to the father. That I, as a church attending person, can be just as jacked up and lost as any pimp and prostitute who never comes to church. That religious people can go to hell too. It’s a sobering thought.
There’s a beautiful thread that’s woven throughout the story, though. The father, whose indisputably a picture of God, goes out to both sons. He extends his arms longing to embrace his wayward irreligious younger son, and his rule keeping religious older son. Yet the tragedy is that the only one who falls into his embrace is the younger son. The message is clear- it’s easier to convert younger brothers than older brothers. If that’s the case can we assume that there will be more religious people in hell than irreligious?
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