The story is of the young man who insults his father by asking for his inheritance early, then goes far away where he squanders every cent. He ends up working on a pig farm, and one day he realizes that the slop he’s feeding the pigs is better than what he can afford to feed himself.
He is hungry, and perhaps ashamed. Even so, he sets out to go home, rehearsing along the way what he’ll say to his father. But the father sees him coming, and, running to meet him on the road, interrupts his prepared speech to hug and kiss him and call for a celebration.
It’s a perfect account of reconciliation, except for one other character. There’s an older brother who’s been at home the whole time, working as a dutiful son. He complains that his father has never thrown him a party. The story ends with a celebratory bash going on for the younger son, the older son standing outside, and the father’s invitation to join the party hanging in the air.
Though it seems as though the older brother is a spoiler of the story, he is in fact the reason for the story in the first place. This man, though dutiful, was closed. Who knows what family history preceded this story? But whatever external or internal influences played out in his mind, the result was that his heart was closed. Closed to the forgiveness of a loving parent, closed to the father’s sleepless nights of worry and subsequent explosion of joy, closed to the thought of reconciliation, closed to his brother’s struggle to live his way back into the family.
Jesus’ story was not directed at the prodigals among us, but at the older siblings. The Pharisees and scribes were the older brothers who complained that Jesus socialized with the prodigals. Their hearts were closed to the idea that a holy person might actually enjoy the company of people they didn’t like or appreciate. They were often judgmental of these they called “sinners.” But Jesus, whose heart reflected the heart of God, attempted to move them to a more receptive attitude. It wasn’t as though he was excluding them; he wanted them to join in the celebration with all those who want to be home with God. Jesus challenges those who consider themselves the insiders of the faith, and in this story shows them instead on the outside, looking in.
As our Lenten reflections continue, may we seek to have open hearts, at the invitation of Jesus. Like God’s heart, the door to the celebration is open wide. We may stand outside and critically gaze upon the goings on, or we may happily receive the invitation to join in the eating, laughter and affection.
Let us reflect the openness of God.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2010