Every Christian in America knows this Sunday's appointed gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary. It's Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, better known as "the Parable of the Prodigal Son."
But just in case there's someone out there who doesn't recall the story, it goes something like this: A landowner has two sons. The older of the two, under Hebrew culture of the time, will inherit the majority of the property upon his father's death. This being the case, the younger son asks his old man for his share of the property in advance. The father gives it to him, and this young knucklehead strikes out on his own, basically wasting his inheritance on hookers and booze.
Then, as luck would have it, the whole country goes into recession. The young son is broke, out of work, totally ashamed, and forced to take a job cleaning pig poop. Coming to his senses, he decides to return to his dad's estate, apologize for being a complete idiot and an embarrassment to the family, and beg his father to employ him for wages.
The kid's dad is overjoyed at seeing his long-lost son return. He welcomes him with open arms and throws a huge "Welcome Home" party. Meanwhile, his older son sits outside the festivities sulking. When the father asks him what's wrong, the older son gives him an earful about how unfairly he's been treated. After all, he's worked with his father faithfully all his life. His idiot brother has squandered money and disgraced himself. The older boy wants to know why the party is being thrown for the family meathead while he--the faithful son--has never been recognized. The father says,
"Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found." (Luke 15:32)
Earlier in the pericope, Jesus says,
"I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15:7)
And that's kind of the point.
Nevertheless, I have a mature lady in my parish who just hates this parable. She doesn't want to see the little reprobate jackass brother get rewarded. "It's just unfair!" She tells me. And I guess I get that. But the whole nature of life is unfair, isn't it?
To my way of thinking, "fair" really shouldn't be the issue because "fair" implies equality. I would much rather be concerned about justice and mercy. After all, we're never going to have things be completely even-steven equal are we?
Think about your own family. I believe that in every family on the planet there will always be one kid who will get more attention and/or resources from Mom and Dad than the other siblings. This will be the kid with special needs. The kid who can't seem to find himself. The kid addicted to alcohol and drugs. The family screw-up. This child will get more because this child will need more.
Similarly, in every family there will be one kid who will end up holding the bag for an aging parent. All the duties will fall on his or her shoulders. Why? Because this is the kid who, by virtue of proximity, maturity, or resources, will be able to perform the function of caregiver.
We all live in a system of family-based socialism--from each according to ability, to each according to need. "Fair" never enters into it. We just try to do what we can and hope we are doing right. I would hope that the "older brothers" out there recognize what an honor and privilege it is to spend time with their aging parents, and not think of their care-giving as a burden.
Similarly, in my years of ministry, I've seen lots of families with sons and daughters who have caused boat loads of emotional pain. I've seen parents and siblings who have wisely cut off contact with the family screw-ups so as not to enable destructive behavior. But I am yet to see a parent who would not willingly sacrifice a limb in order to get that child to repent and come home contrite and whole.
Bottom line? God desires our repentance and our forgiveness of each other. After all, don't we pray in the Our Father to be forgiven as we ourselves forgive? It may not be fair, but it is right.
I dream of a world in which forgiveness is a chief priority. Just imagine: The U.S. would welcome Cuba back into the family of nations, Lutherans and Roman Catholics would kneel together at the communion rail, and country music radio would once again play the Dixie Chicks! Wouldn't that be grand?
Thanks for reading, my friends. Drop me a comment and let me know what you're thinking, okay?