In the last few weeks I have hear three sermons on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. One was on the older brother, another on the father, and yet another on the younger son. These are familiar perspectives. In the past, I have even heard mention of the “prodigal God,” a strange juxtapositioning of the words, and yet it heightens our awareness of the point: God’s grace and love is extravagant to the point, that in the world’s understanding, it is unmerited — which is the whole point, really.
Frederick Buehner took up the parable in a book on preaching, one of my favorite of his, entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel As Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. He sees in the well-known parable of the prodigal son the comedy of the father’s love for his returning son, but he also notes the comedic blindness of the older brother. The older brother can’t see the wonderful absurdity of his father’s love because he is, “…trapped by [his] own seriousness.” This is not about law, the “ought,” about the kid getting his just deserts or the faithful older brother getting his party, but all about grace. It’s not about repentance on the part of the wayward son, as that’s not spelled out. That’s the crazy comedy of it. Buechner says:
“The boy is back, that’s all that maters. Who cares why he’s back? And the old man doesn’t do what any other father under heaven would have been inclined to do. He doesn’t say he hopes he has learned his lesson or I told you so. He doesn’t say he hopes he is finally ready to settle down for a while and will find some way to make it up to his mother. He just says, ‘Bring him something to eat, for God’s sake. Bring him some warm clothes to put on,’ and when the boy finally manages to slip his prepared remarks in edgewise, the old man doesn’t even hear them he’s in such a state. The boy was lost and is found again, and then at the end of the scene what Jesus as teller of the parable says is ‘They began to make merry’ (Luke 15:23). Merry, of all things. They turn on the stereo. They break out the best Scotch. They roll back the living room carpet and ring up the neighbors.”
The old man is an old fool. In the blindness of love, he completely overlooks all of his son’s foolishness, his wishing him dead, his greed, his frivolity, and his drunken, sorry life and acts if if he did nothing wrong, as if he were justified.
Which is the whole point, really. He treats him as if he had been faithful and obedient, thought he hadn’t.
I doubt there is more to suss out of the parable. It’s already been worked over by the likes of Edwards, Spurgeon, Nouwen, Piper, and Keller, just to name a few. But, nevertheless, I took it for a walk around my backyard, took it out to the edge, and looked over the fence, considered the orange-flagged stakes marking the boundary of mine and theirs, turned back and looked at my house, lit from within. And then I knew what was missing in the parable.
Me. The prodigal me. For every prodigal thought, every unwarranted distraction, every going my own way, every attempt to have it all now, and every selfish move. There’s not one going home but thousands.
I walked back, trailed a hand across my gray cat who meowed something like “I could have told you that”, laid a hand on the door handle, turned, kicked my shoes off, and settled into home. I’m home, thank God.
“Blessed is he who he is not offended that no man receives what he deserves but vastly more,” says Buechner. “Blessed is he who gets that joke, who sees that miracle.” Blessed am I to be the brunt of that joke, to have a Father who runs to me, laughing.