I have been smitten with the Luke 15 story of The Prodigal Son since God welcomed me home several years ago. I have read books, listened to sermons, studied the language, and preached sermons on Luke 15 for much of that time. Each different author, speaker, or time of study has produced new and fresh insight. This has become, for me, the story that never gets old. To borrow from Frederick Buechner’s words, Luke 15 is the story that is too good not to be true. So I just finished another book on this beautiful story, this one by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was so taken by Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal”, that he sat in front of the original in a museum in St Petersburg literally for several hours just taking it in and playing out the nuances of the painting as they interpreted the text. Nouwen talks about Rembrandt as he introduces the painting and then proceeds to work through all three characters in the story – prodigal son, elder brother, and father – seeing in each one applications and lessons for us all. His insights are quite engaging and at time brilliant. I highly recommend the book to anyone.
In the section on the elder son, Nouwen’s words are authentic and honest; love with an edge. He deals with much of this in the tone of self-reflection, but it strikes its own chord in the reader’s heart. He says,
Elder sons want to live up to the expectations of their parents and be considered obedient and dutiful. They often want to please. They often fear being a disappointment to their parents. but they often also experience, quite early in life, a certain envy toward their younger brothers and sisters, who seem to be less concerned about pleasing and much freer in “doing their own thing.”
Can the elder son come home? Can I be found as the younger son was found? How can I return when I am lost in resentment, when I am caught in jealousy, when I am imprisoned in obedience and duty lived out as slavery?
Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal
I thought deeply about this section, it has lingered with me for a while now. One of the big issues here is the seeming injustice that is taking place. The elder son had worked, been responsible, and yet he wasn’t the one welcomed home. The prodigal experiences emotions that the elder had never known; joy, laughter, relief, rest. The elder had dug and picked and straightened and set alarms clocks and stayed focused and a million other things that the little brat hadn’t done. So naturally the party was not a party at all in the elder’s eyes, it was a slap in the face of the one who’d been carrying the load. He pushed his father, trying to guilt him into seeing the injustice,
“Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends?”
Luke 15:29, (The Message)
The elder son had missed something that the prodigal was experiencing. On occasion we all hit a zenith, we have “a moment.” It is different for different people, and some have more than others. But there are these “moments” where it seems as if the entire world in cahoots looking to make sure that we are filled to capacity with happiness. Holding a newborn baby, scoring a winning shot/goal/run, being completely surprised by a party in your honor, etc… these and a million more little things create those moments. And the elder brother hadn’t had his “moment.” His younger brother was wearing gear that only the master of the house was supposed to wear, and he was wearing it to cover pig crap and road dirt and guilty sweat. He had a ring on that was worth more than his life, and he’d been embraced by the father that he’d given the finger to as he walked away from the house not so long ago.
Could everyone be so blind?
Why couldn’t anyone see that this ingrate was playing everyone? He was out of money, out of food, and out of options – so naturally he shows back up. He should be tied to a tree stump out back and beaten with canes, not dancing in the house smelling beef ribs and good wine. He was having his “moment” when he didn’t deserve it.
As I thought about this today, the father’s words rang in my head in a new way. The father said,
Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
Luke 15:31 (ESV)
Could it be that the father wasn’t just saying that he should be grateful and let the prodigal have his “moment”? Could there be the subtlest of chiding here? Maybe what the father is saying is, “You could have had your ‘moment’ every single day your brother was gone, but you chose not to.”
I wonder if the joy that prodigals feel makes some of us elder children jealous because we don’t think we’ll ever feel that kind of rest or relief or love ever again. Maybe we think that you can only come home after you’ve left home, or after you’ve rebelled, or after you’ve got nowhere else to go.
Friends, that isn’t true.
What if the truth is really this: every time we realize we are in the Father’s house, loved by Him, accepted by Him, and desired by Him we get to have our own “moment”? Doesn’t it make sense that the “moments” should be more intense and more amazing the longer we stay in the Father’s house? The prodigal had a party that night, he ate steak and drank wine and laughed and, for the first time in a long time, felt secure. But what about the realization the next morning? He didn’t have to go wade through pig muck, he was going to eat and drink again that day in the Father’s house, and the day after and the day after, etc…
When we are living in the Father’s house and daily going out to follow His instructions and do what He has asked us, we get to come home a thousand times, not just once. Faithfulness, commitment, and discipleship are not all that difficult to understand. In a way, being a disciple means that every day you come home again, and you bask in the enormity and beauty and epic nature of God’s love. Thank God for the “moment” we have when we come home from the far country, or when we’ve walked through hell and find out that the Father is ready to put His robe on us. But perhaps thank God even more on the regular days, on Tuesdays, when we’ve just gone to work or gave the kids a bath or ate lunch with a friend…on those days friends, we still get to come home. And at home there is always a “moment” waiting for us.