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More on the Prodigal Son…

It’s very easy to reduce the parable of the Prodigal Son to a two act play, but it’s a three act play, and the third act is the most important.  The first two acts, the Prodigal Son and the Compassionate Father, are really just setting up the real point Jesus is making.   So we can’t stop after the second act, we must go on to the third act, the Angry Brother.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”

This is a three act play because there are three characters, and there are three characters because in the whole problem that necessitated Jesus telling this story, there were three actors.  There were the tax collectors and sinners who were coming to Jesus.  There is Jesus who is receiving them and eating with them.  And there are the Pharisees who were upset, offended and angry about it.

The sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes are the prodigal son.  Jesus is the one enacting the will of the father, he’s playing the role of the father.   It’s the Pharisees who are acting out the role of the angry brother.

In the parable, the elder, angry brother sees the extravagant hospitality of the father as an injustice.  For the elder brother justice must involve punishment or it’s not fair.  In his estimation it’s not fair, he won’t come to the party, and because of this he will not experience the kingdom of god.

The Pharisees talked about the Kingdom of God all the time.  It’s what they were waiting for, they wanted the Kingdom of God to come.  But because they didn’t understand how the Kingdom of God would come, when it actually was coming through what Jesus was announcing and enacting they missed it.  They didn’t enter into it.  This is why Jesus says to them …“Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” Matthew 21:31 ESV

But look at what the story tells.  We have an ungrateful, profligate sinner younger son who insults the father in many ways, squanders his resources, comes back home, and is graciously, extravagantly received as if he’s coming home a hero.  A robe, a ring, shoes,  a fatted calf, a big party.  We look at this, but what is it?  Is it reconciliation to be celebrated? Or is it injustice to be protested?

This story can be told in such a way that you will be sympathetic with the angry older brother.  Some might already be.  Seriously – all he ever did was think about himself.  He brought shame and disgrace upon the family, sold off part of the estate, and wasted it on drink, prostitutes and partying!!   He was just living recklessly, having a good time, then when things get bad he comes crawling back home, and we treat him like he’s a hero??!!

How many, when we read it like that, think “Hey, that older brother has a point!”  That’s the little Pharisee in each one of us. And yes,   “He’s got a point!

The Pharisees thought of justice as punishment instead of reconciliation, and that was their undoing.  The Pharisees missed the Kingdom of God because when it actually arrived it looked like a welcome home party instead of mandatory sentencing.  Their idea of the Kingdom of God is when people get what’s coming to them!!  It’s about time!   Getting their just desserts!!!   That’s what the Pharisees are looking for…

But instead of mandatory sentencing, it’s a welcome home party, and they just could not recognize it as the kingdom of god…

More to come.

John Lewis

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