Every time I read The Parable of the Prodigal Son I am struck by the behavior of the oldest son. Ever notice how we never really get a resolution at the end of the story? The story doesn’t close with the oldest son saying, “You’re right, Dad. I’m so glad my brother is home – let’s go celebrate.”
My gut feeling is that the oldest son storms away from both his dad and brother, allowing his pride and anger to get the best of him until his resentment grows and turns into hate. It becomes pretty clear by the end of the story that he always did what was right with the expectation of getting favor from his father and an elevated status in the household. As soon as that assumption is questioned by the father receiving the younger son with open arms, the older brother’s real motive comes out.
We often read the story through the lens of the younger brother, relieved that God is a father of love and mercy, ready to receive us back with open arms. What we fail to see, though, is that more times than not we are the older brother – judging and prideful. The younger brother did not just sin against the father; he sinned in some of the worst ways possible. He spat on his father’s reputation so he could have money to have sex with whores and live in squalor.
Most of us in the church have never gone this low. Sure, we’re not perfect, but we’re not included in the lowest wretches of society either. And the pride of every Christian loves God’s forgiveness in his or her own life but scorns it in elsewhere. Don’t believe me? When’s the last time you invited a recovering drug addict, abuser, murderer, rapist over for dinner? Which one of us would have no problem introducing a prostitute to all of our church friends?
You see, God’s love isn’t fair. It’s radical. So radical that it bore nails for people that torture children, rape the innocent, kill for fun. I’m being a bit extreme to make a point. But seriously. Those people have just as much right to the love of God as the most ardent churchgoer. All it takes is for them to recognize their sin and come home like the youngest son did. Ugh. That’s not the kind of grace we like. We like our moments of anger, our quick unclean thoughts, our occasional gossip to be forgiven….But murderers? Rapists? Sadists? Those people need to pay.
And there lies the pride that quickly puts us all in the place of the older brother. Are you happy to see the worst of society in your church? Do you run to embrace them and welcome them home? Or do you wonder what the hell the lady with the short skirt and tits practically out is doing in church? Are you appalled by the stench of liquor on the man sitting next to you?
I relate with the older brother. I hate the fact that God reserves the same place at his table for people who have drifted in sin all their life as for the saintly. I deserve a gold star if I wait in line the whole time and not just cut to the front. That man who killed his wife sure as hell better not get the same reward as me.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a relief but mostly, it’s a tragedy. We all like to think we’re the broken son who gets embraced by his loving father. We can even see God running towards us – smile on his face and his arms opened wide. Unfortunately, for the most part, that’s a fantasy. We’re the pissed off brother in the corner fuming, asking, “What about me?” We’re the one questioning the fairness of love that sees everyone equally. We’re the one saying, “How dare you not give me my due for all the time, energy, and devotion I gave you.”
No single sin disqualifies you from the love of God, but your pride disqualifies God from your love. It is the deadliest and most serious of all sins. Yes, even worse than murder. Maybe not in the eyes of the law but in the eyes of God. It is easy for a murderer to know he is wicked. Blood is stained upon his hands. If he wants redemption, he comes broken. “My God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But for the “good” pride causes a major blind spot, we come to God with chin up, head held high saying, “I’m not THAT bad.” In order to receive the grace and love of God, you must first know you need it. Pride is deadly because it convinces us that we have nothing to be sorry for, that there’s nothing that we need from God. And paradoxically, the son who never walked away is still the farthest from the father.