“Once upon a time, a man had two sons.” This opening line for a story draws us in. It could go almost anywhere. One of Jesus’ most famous parables begins this way. Even if you didn’t go to church, you might still have heard about the prodigal son. A parable is a story that sneaks in behind your defenses and makes you think.
You can read it in Luke 15. There are three stories about finding something which was lost—a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. Luke sets it up by telling us that Jesus was attracting “all the sinners and tax–collectors”, and the religious authorities didn’t like it one little bit. Instead of enjoying the party, they were grumbling about how Jesus welcomed just anyone to come and sit with him and eat with him. Gosh, even sinners! Tsk, tsk, tsk.
The story goes like this. Once upon a time, a man had two sons. The youngest son said, “Hey Dad, let’s pretend you’re dead. Give me my share of the inheritance now.” Well, didn’t the story just get interesting?
Surprisingly, Dad agrees. He divides the property and gives half to the boy, who leaves and promptly spends it all in riotous living. He wasted it all, and when the cash ran out, so did his so–called friends. He ends up living like a pig—literally. He slops out the pig pens and even the pigs’ food began to look good.
He begins to think. Why, even the hired hands on Dad’s estate have it better than him. He decides to go home, throw himself on his father’s mercy, and ask for forgiveness and a job. Dad, please just take me on as a hired hand.
Back home, Dad sees the youngest son come trudging home, carrying the weight of the world on his weary shoulders. He runs out to embrace his son. I imagine him looking up the road in desperate hope every time he went out to the mailbox. Today, that hope has become real. Today, the boy comes home. With tears streaming down his face, Dad cleans him up, gives him fresh clothes and fires up the BBQ for the best steaks in the land. It’s party time! His precious boy has finally come to his senses and come home.
And the story ends happily ever after. Right?
Well, not really. The older son steps onto the stage. He’s the responsible one. He has worked his tail off to take care of Dad’s estate. He’s never complained about doing his duty. But now he starts complaining big time.
He’s out working in the field when he hears about the party being organized. He’s furious. “You’re throwing a party for this jerk? My whole life I’ve done what you asked. Did you ever throw a party for me? No! Not once! And now … he comes home after wasting everything, and you throw a party for him. Well count me out!”
Nothing the father could say would change his self–righteous mind. It doesn’t matter that the lost one has been found. It doesn’t matter that his brother has come to his senses. It doesn’t matter.
Lots of people will hear that story and feel good about the healing of the father and the youngest son. They will feel sorry for the older son. They would be grateful for the grace and forgiveness which flows through the story. They might imagine themselves as the lost son who is welcomed home with open arms. They might even think of themselves as the father who welcomed his lost son home with open arms. Not in a million years would they think they might be this self–righteous prig of an eldest son.
But let’s be careful about that. Remember that Luke sets this story in the context of the respectable leaders grumbling about the riffraff Jesus was hanging around with. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as riffraff. We are respectable. We’ve made a good life for ourselves. We’re responsible. We’re sorry about those who can’t make it—“There but for the grace of God” etc—but that would never be us. How can you just forgive the waste of the younger son? Doesn’t there have to be some kind of accountability? And so they decide to skip the party.
Comedian Mark Lowry once said that “God spreads grace around like a four–year–old spreads peanut butter. God just gets it all over the place!” And we end up thinking that someone’s gonna have to clean that mess up and we’re afraid it might be us.
In his book Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli writes, “Nothing in the church makes people more angry than grace. It’s ironic: we stumble into a party we weren’t invited to and find the uninvited standing at the door making sure no other uninviteds get in. Then a strange phenomenon occurs: as soon as we are included in the party because of Jesus’ irresponsible love, we decide to make grace ‘more responsible’ by becoming self–appointed Kingdom Monitors, guarding the Kingdom of God, keeping the riffraff out.”
The problem is that Jesus keeps inviting the riffraff in. He tells all kinds of stories about God welcoming the riffraff, about God taking the side of the poor, feeding the hungry and loving the unlovable.
But here we are in church in the 21st century, in our go–to–church clothes, making sure that we make a good impression, and that everyone else toes the line as well.
Maybe it’s time to rethink what church means. After all, Jesus had a reputation as a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11 and Luke 7). He hung out with the wrong people.
Maybe this time of pandemic is an opportunity for the church to recapture this sense of mission. It’s not about our supposed “right” to worship. It’s about living out God’s grace and Jesus’ mission to serve all people.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook