The hand-written note taped to the wall of the hotel elevator said, “Huge Party Tonight, 8:00 PM, Concierge Level, Everyone Invited.” The guy standing next to me said, “Man, this is great.” I hadn’t met him before, but his nametag said we were attending the same convention. The idea of a party at the end of the day seemed like just the right antidote to the tedium of the meetings we were enduring.
However, later that day, the handwritten note in the elevator came down, replaced by a printed notice from the hotel manager, apologizing for the inconvenience, and stating that there would, in fact, be no such party that night on the Concierge Level to which everyone was invited.
But it made me wonder about who might have showed up. Conventioneers like me, travelling salespeople, vacationing couples, teenagers making some excuse to get free from their parents.
A party to which everyone is invited. No need to RSVP. No need to bring anything. No dress code. You can come if you are tired, or bored, or lonely, or just curious. You can come if you are guilty or innocent, if you are a sinner or a saint.
Of course, not everyone would have actually come. Some people would have stuff to do. Some would not be in the mood for a party, like the responsible, obedient, older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He’s in no mood for a party.
The crowd to which Jesus first told this story was a mixed bag. Some were saints and some were sinners. Some were delighted by his teaching, and some were threatened by it. The lost and forsaken were cheering him on, while the scribes and Pharisees were plotting to take him down.
The scribes and the Pharisees are good and decent people. They have dedicated their lives to interpreting and preserving the Torah. The problem they have with Jesus is that he isn’t teaching from the approved catechism. He’s preaching his own version of the Word of God.
Furthermore, a rabbi, a religious teacher, is supposed to condemn bad behavior not condone it. Jesus welcomes known sinners and even parties with them—beggars, bums, derelicts, outcasts, prostitutes, illegal aliens, and members of organized crime known as tax collectors.
In response to their grumbling, Jesus doesn’t defend himself. He doesn’t explain that he’s doing street evangelism and that the reason he hangs out with whores and tax collectors is because he’s trying to convert them. He doesn’t say he only drinks club soda at their parties. Instead, he tells them three lost-and-found stories, parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and this one, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
All three of these lost and found parables are object lessons on the same thing: the nature of God’s amazing grace. Which is to say, God’s unmerited good favor. Nobody earns their way into heaven. Mark Twain said, Heaven goes by God’s good favor. If it went by merit, your dog would get in and you would not.
That word “prodigal” means “given to excess.” It refers to “being obsessed” about something or “having an obsession” of some kind.
I drew a sketch of how I see this little family for today’s bulletin. The father, who looks a little clueless, is excessively benevolent; he’s overly generous The older brother, who’s got his eyes on his younger brother, he’s excessively self-righteous. His need to be right is obsessive. And the irony is, he is right. And the Prodigal, the wild one, he’s excessively reckless. His obsession is wanderlust.
All three of them are prone to a certain kind of excess. And all three get caught up in I like to call the “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” syndrome. This is what we sometimes say when we look back on our foibles, mistakes, bad decisions, and impulsive actions; things that seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out not to be.
I’ve got many examples from my own life. Here’s just one. of them. When I was in my early 40s, I went cross-country skiing with my older son, Nathan. It was a beautiful winter’s day, the sun what out and the snow was perfect, a little powdery cover over nicely packed base. At one point, we came upon a ski jump that someone had built in a clearing in the woods. It wasn’t an Olympic sized ski jump, but still pretty impressive and well-made.
Not really thinking it through and wanting to impress my son that his old man still had the goods, I decided to go for it. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Word to the wise: Never go down a ski jump with cross-country skis. Halfway down the ramp I realized this was not going to end well, but there was no turning back.
Nathan told me later that my landing would have gone viral on You Tube fail videos. I paid for my impulsive decision with a sprained ankle, dislocated shoulder, bruised ego, and Nathan had to carry me back to the car.
Seemed like a good idea at the time. I’m sure you have your own stories. It happens to everybody and not just to individuals. The “seemed like a good idea at the time” syndrome happens to governments, institutions, and corporations. A good example is when Decca Records in London rejected signing the Beatles in 1962 because the talent executive said they lacked a unique sound.
Even God himself is not immune to this problem. The Book of Genesis has 50 chapters. In chapters one and two, God creates humankind. Seemed like a good idea at the time. But by chapter 6, God is already saying he regrets doing so, and sends the flood to wipe everybody out except for one family. Forty days later, in chapter 8, God promises he’ll never do that again either, and just to be sure, God places the rainbow in the sky to remind himself.
I wonder if the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son ever looked back on his decision to give his son his full inheritance ahead of time in the first place. The request to do so was outrageous. To ask your father for you full inheritance while he is still alive, is like saying, Dad I wish you were dead. If the father had said no, all of this might have been avoided. Maybe it was one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time.
Same for the reckless younger son. I know what it’s like to feel trapped by your life. I know what it’s like to reach the point where you are willing to take desperate measures to change things, that you simply must get out of dodge because you feel like you are dying with the way things are.
With the money from his father he could redefine himself. He became a big tipper, the life of the party, indulging in any pleasure that money could buy. He became great at living in the moment, but the money ran out before he even noticed, and that’s when dissolute living and lacking any restraint comes crashing down around him. Maybe he now looks back and thinks he’d do things differently.
I’ve often identified more with the older brother in this story, in part, I think because I am one. I grew up with three younger siblings, a sister and two brothers. (raise hands)
Older sibs can relate to this. As an eldest child myself, I know what it’s like to be the one to break parents in for the other kids. I know how parents get a lot more liberal with the younger ones than they were with me. The eldest is the first to do everything. First to talk, first to walk, first to go to school. First to ride a bike, first to drive a car, first to date, first to get a job.
I get why the older brother angry and hurt when he comes home from a hard day of hard labor in the fields to find a lavish party going on in honor of the return of his derelict, irresponsible younger brother, who blew his entire inheritance on reckless extravagance.
This total this loser is welcomed home with the best robe, the family jewels, new sandals and the fatted calf, while I, who stayed here to work like a slave and never once disobeyed, I never get so much as a young goat.
So sure, Dad, take the kid back, but under certain conditions, not to a lavish party. What are you teaching him about taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions? By rewarding his rebellion and bad behavior, aren’t you teaching him that he can get away with anything?
Sure, forgiveness is a good thing. Whatever the sin, few of us would deny the possibility of forgiveness, but we’d also like to see some heartfelt remorse, evidence of true repentance, and firm commitment to make amends for the wrong that was done.
It’s not fair. Unfairness in families is not a trivial matter. Lots of us have had to deal, and maybe are still dealing, with perceptions unfairness in our own families. Every parent intends to love each child equally. But in reality, some kids just need a lot more from their parents than others. And the ones who need more tend to get more, and oftentimes that seem inequitable and unfair to the other siblings.
Resentment rears its ugly head when the responsible ones in the family end of paying the bills for the actions for the family scoundrels. And when the scoundrels don’t even have the decency to be grateful, it drives the responsible ones crazy, just like the older brother, who stands outside the party, refusing to go in.
If anyone has earned a lavish party, it’s him. He expects his father to honor him as he deserves because unlike the other kid he is obedient, plays by the rules, and does what was right. He cannot abide a love that ignores right and wrong and throws parties for prodigal sinners and expects the pious to rejoice.
If life were fair, the story should end as the younger brother envisioned when he came to his senses and decided to return home and plead for mercy, with him being treated as a hired hand, living in the servants quarters, and spending his days in humble penance to his father and his older brother.
The older brother is only asking for what is right and just and fair. Sadly, his passion for fairness, which for him is the core of a decent life, has now become his own prison, holding him in bondage to his resentment. His resentment is why he can’t join the party, for there is no place for resentment at a banquet of reconciliation. Resentment just won’t go there.
The father’s love, like God’s amazing grace, isn’t based on merit. The father doesn’t love either son according to what they deserve. He loves his sons and he loves his daughters because they belong to him and he belongs to them. The fact that some are recklessness and some are righteous doesn’t change that.
The older brother is standing outside the party. He hears the music and dancing and laughter. But, he’s unable to swallow his resentment and his need to be right. And we get it. We could choose to stand there with him in solidarity, because he’s right, it’s not fair.
Or we could go inside and join the party. Sounds like they are having a lot of fun in there. And, we’ve been invited. But the invitation isn’t based on merit, or on worthiness, or on the doctrine of fairness. The invitation is based on the father’s unmerited good favor.
It boils down to a simple choice between our need to be right and our longing to dance. I say, let’s go dancing!