“They couldn’t have been more different.” I had heard it said of siblings before, but as my wife and I draw near to the birth of our second son, it sunk in closer to home this time. We sat talking after dinner with a couple whose two sons are now adults, and as our own son explored their home, they reflected on how their first as a child had been so easy and peaceful. The second: “holy terror."
My mind roamed through personalities, rivalry, rebellion, and all the possible paths for my own two sons—all the more freely as one is a only toddler and the other is unborn. My own parental anxiety aside, stories of wayward children capture our imaginations. Few other forms are infused with such heartbreak and hope. It is no wonder Jesus seizes upon it and no wonder the “prodigal son” has become one of his most known and beloved parables.
Given Jesus’ audience, however—religious leaders grumbling at the company Jesus kept—the essential twist is in the discovery that the elder son is just as distant from his father in his own fields as the younger was in a far-off land. The younger son is alienated by his rebellion, the elder by his resentment.
Justice and reason are on his side. By all accounts he is the more deserving of his father’s approval and appreciation. While the elder brother has been faithful, his brother has done nothing but finally give up and show up on the doorstep. Maybe such a failure could receive forgiveness but what is all this lavish festivity? And yet he finds himself on the outside. His position of strength isolates him from the true heart of his father, which is willing to be wounded and also willing to rejoice. We cannot expect to have one without the other. It is true what they say about shaking hands or receiving gifts with a closed fist. Compassion and joy make us vulnerable. How often are we happy to forgive? It is safer to “forgive" but keep our memories sharp—still to guard our hearts from hurt, still to expect the worst. After all, we’re only human.
But “from now on, we regard no one from a human point of view.” Paul does not add any “ifs, ands, or buts.” Instead, he adds a “so”: “We are ambassadors for Christ." We not only enjoy God’s embrace; we have been entrusted to extend God’s embrace. We must be ready to receive as we have been received. Let us not mistake our work in the Father's fields as the Father’s work itself. However tirelessly we give, serve, and pray, if we reject or neglect our lost brothers and sisters, we are far from the Father. For the reckless heart of the Father beckons us through brokenness, beyond cynicism, and into celebration.