When Travis told me I was being the “Older Brother” the other day, I did not fight it. I’d always thought that brother had some valid points. Perhaps my mission was to give him greater voice. (Don’t you wish you used Biblical allusions as artillery in your marriage? It’s great.)
He had done something I had been asking him to do and instead of being grateful I was just mad that it had taken so long. (Don’t you wish you were married to me? It’s great.)
And then I dove into Luke 15, in that most determined state which simply means I am looking for something new to justify myself.
Do you know the story? Two sons, one father. The younger son asks for his share of his inheritance early, leaves, lives hard, spends the cash, ends up hungry in a pig pen (paraphrase) The older son stays home with the father and works the family property is responsible, rule-following, colors within the lines (paraphrase.) The younger son returns home looking rough and the Father is so happy to see him he throws a huge party. The older son resents this. Why didn’t the father ever at least let him slaughter a goat for a party with his friends? (sympathetic – We Puerto Ricans are pig roasters ourselves, but this story is Jewish and the pigs play a different role.) The Father tells him to get over it. He loves them both. (paraphrase)
The Father represents God. The brothers represent you and me. The story is about compassion and wild, unadulterated, ever-expanding grace. It’s a love story involving snorting pigs and slaughtered calves and emotions as messy as the ones I live with. And, as the lovely, nameless commentator who writes in tiny print at the bottom of my Bible pages writes, the story is, “…the essence of the Gospel.”
And in my poorly-motivated close reading I saw two things I had never seen before.
Luke 15:20 But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion.
The story draws a comparison between the one who appears to be “close in” and the one who is “far off”. And the Father loved him while he was far off. Before he got there. While he still stunk of pigs. Before he had a chance to give a speech of apology or a list of intended reparations…leading me to my second realization: That wayward younger son didn’t come home because he was sorry. No, no, he came home because he was hungry.
And the Father loved him as he was. And He threw Him a party. And gave him new clothes and jewelry. (Love.)
See, my understanding of grace, unfortunately, tends to be like the elastic bands that I wrestle Sophia’s hair into every morning. It stretches and grows in different seasons, but as soon as I let go it bounces back. If I’m not vigilent, my Elastic Grace bounces back to believing it can be bought with eloquent apologies or at least good intentions.
But, the story doesn’t even describe good intentions. In fact, the older brother who assumedly has good intentions, we are left to think is even farther off.
And this is what can be maddening about the Bible.
Or when we’ve spent some time in the land o’Far Off (or let’s face it, that’s where we get our mail), in the form of pig pens or in that scarier, darker form of always being so in with the Father, it’s sheer hope.
Hope of wild compassion for the stinkiest ones, tired, hungry, and in debt.
Hope of wild compassion for the clean ones dying of bitterness and exhaustion inside.
And hope for great parties with the Father.
A few years ago I heard Tim Keller speak at the Willowcreek Leadership Summit. In a two day conference full of dynamic speakers, media, and communication, this Pastor I had barely heard of, stood up, and with no catchy hook simply talked through the Parable of the Prodigal Son. And it was one of the most mesmerizing hours of the Summit.
It’s been years now since I’ve read it, but The Prodigal God is as easy to read as it is immersive. Wherever/whoever you are, you will find yourself in its pages.