That is the starting point for the story that is most commonly known as the Story of the Prodigal Son. The prodigal is the younger son, the one who brazenly asks for his share of the inheritance, leaves and squanders it, comes to disgrace and abject poverty and then, on the verge of starvation, dares to return home hoping to be taken back in as a servant. Instead, the father welcomes the younger son back, throwing a feast in honor of his return, rejoicing that the son who was dead was alive, the lost had been found.
And as has been famously preached on by so many, including by myself at times, the story does not end there. The second of the two sons, unmentioned until now, the elder brother, comes back, refuses to join the party, but stays outside rejecting the whole homecoming scene. The father comes out and entreats the son to come in, to accept that while the father loves him for his loyalty and faithfulness, that it is necessary to rejoice that this brother has been returned to life, that his presence in the family has been restored.
And there the parable ends.
Most preachers perceive, and rightly I believe, that the story is about the older brother. Probably the brother is symbolic of the Pharisees, the ones who at the beginning of the chapter are scandalized that Jesus welcomes notorious sinners and even eats with them. The sharing of table fellowship with those who were tax collectors and sinners was a powerful statement made by Jesus of whom he accepted as worthy to be in his company. To eat with these people meant that Jesus placed them on an equal social and ethical level with himself. He accepted them into fellowship with him, even though their occupations and lifestyles could be seen as evidence of rejection of the basic teachings of Judaism. One was to live as God's holy people by living in separation from and rejection of the lifestyles of the Gentiles, who were outside of the Law, the Torah, of Almighty God. Instead, these tax collectors and sinners entered into relationships with Gentiles, including those who worshipped idols and foreign gods, and compromised the purity of life under God's Law and in so doing endangered the continued existence of God's own people, the Jews. Jesus' acceptance of them was an affront, and must be opposed, or at least protested.
Jesus responds with three parables, each about a lost possession that, when found, is the source of wild rejoicing. And because of the rejoicing at the return of the younger brother, this parable is seen as matching the two previous, about the lost sheep and the lost coin. "There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" the first parable concludes. And with the statement of the father at the end of the third parable, that this brother who was dead is now alive, was lost and now was found, the rejoicing and the party is seen to be on the same level as the rejoicing of the angels over the one who repents.
And there, I believe, I and indeed we all have gotten it wrong.
Because, simply, the third parable ends with no one repenting.
The younger son returns, as a careful reading of the text shows, not because he has repented (although he carefully rehearses his speech claiming that he knows he has sinned against the father) but because he is starving to death. At home, at least, he could work and be fed, since his father treats the slaves so well. He would be better off as a slave in disgrace at home than trusting to the "kindness" of strangers. He has to say the words admitting he was wrong, and so he is prepared to do, in order to get a job with meals provided; but has he really repented? At best, it is questionable; his motives are definitely mixed. In fact, this parable is a good argument that God (the Father in the story) forgives us as fallen sinners even though, as sinners, our repentance is often (always ?) flawed, incomplete, and filled with mixed motives. It isn't the sincerity or completeness of our repentance that saves us; it is instead the overwhelming, prodigal grace and mercy of our heavenly Father that loved us first and loves us even though we continue to sin and repent and then sin again.
As others have pointed out elsewhere, the true "lost son" in this parable is the older brother. This is the son who stayed, who always did what the father commanded, and whose complaint comes pouring out as he and the father stand outside, with the party going on within earshot. Many motives have been ascribed to the older son in these moments: jealousy, envy, anger, resentment. He has been accused of never really loving the father at all, but only acting out of duty; of working for the father because he believes that his works would earn certain rewards from the father; of being as covetous of money and position as the younger son, but being more devious and underhanded in how he would obtain it. Because the older son is identified with the Pharisees, it seems that he is fair game for being attacked in every way; after all, the Pharisees are the ones we all love to reject. They are seen as negative, stiff-necked, religious prudes who judge everyone else harshly and unfairly, unloving and unforgiving, and ultimately the ones who won't make it into the kingdom of heaven, or at least if they do get in it will only be as the very last ones, trailing in reluctantly behind the tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners.
Let's face it, don't most of us think that the Pharisees (and all religious folks who get compared with them, down through the ages) will be the ones left outside of the great heavenly banquet, because they will reject sitting down and eating with a God who welcomes such sinners into the feast? It isn't so much that God will lock them out, as they will stubbornly and self-righteously refuse to come in.
All of which proves only that the lost son, the older brother, is still lost and rejected. He stands outside of all of our parties, hearing the songs and smelling the barbecue, unable to come in. Read the parable again. The older son is lost because he was forgotten. No message was sent to him where he was, out in the field. Unlike the shepherds in the story of Jesus' birth, no messanger was sent to him "with good tidings of great joy." Unlike the lost sheep and the lost coin, no one misses him or realizes that he is absent. He is left to discover the news by accident; oh by the way, your brother came home and your father invited everyone to come and rejoice. Everyone but you, that is. Speculation on why the older son was not sent for is just that, speculation. The only thing for certain is that he was not sent for, not given the good news, not invited to rejoice.
The father comes out and pleads, when he learns of the older son's anger, alone and outside in the cold. But does the father ever repent of not extending the invitation to the son earlier? The older son cannot get over what the younger son has done, and especially to what his brother did with the father's generosity. This could be envy and jealous resentment, it is true. But it could instead be anger at the younger son taking his birthright and treating it as only good for what it could buy, including buying sexual thrills that degrade both the son and the women his father's money paid for. Such anger, in another setting, could be identified with that of the prophets of old accusing Israel of "playing the harlot" with every false god of the nations surrounding her, of Isaiah or Jeremiah or Amos calling for justice to flow down like waters, and condemning the use of wealth only to buy one's own comfort and ease at the expense of the poor, the widow and the orphan. Such anger could even be compared to Jesus' own anger at the abuse of the temple, and his rejection of those who take the offerings of the poor while devouring the houses of widows.
I wonder at our willingness to judge the older son the way we do. Even when we as preachers claim (or admit) that most of us find ourselves represented by the older son, seeing some of his anger and resentment in ourselves, we are very quick to count ourselves as more sensitive than he. We, we hasten to say, we know we are too prone to judge others; we would accept the father's pleading and repent of our hardness of heart toward the younger, errant sibling. In fact, isn't our presence in the church, along with those others seeking grace and forgiveness, evidence that, indeed, we are pharisaic older brothers no longer? It is always those others, those self-righteous ones still waging fingers at us who have seen the light, who are the ones to be tsk-tsked over. How judgmental of them, we all agree, as we party on in judgment of those who cannot yet come in.
Perhaps the older son is outside because, indeed, he is not welcome. Being who he is, the onewho stayed and lived as the father said he wanted, would anyone be able to accept the presence of the proper, obedient older son in the midst of the party? Or would he be an accusing presence, in spite of himself?
And yet, of course, the father does come out. Regardless of the earlier slight and insult (and insult it indeed is), the father loves this son, this companion of his through thick and thin, and perhaps longs to put everything right and see reconciliation among all. The older son is not ready for that. Who knows if he ever will be? The parable ends before that point is reached. And all of us, prodigals and miscreants and properly behaved and offended as we may find ourselves, all of us are left to wonder if a point of real reconciliation can be found. Can this family be saved, after all of the blunders and deliberate offenses? God only knows.
Instead, the parable ends with the father outside in the dark with the beloved older son, the one who feels so rejected, the one outside the camp. Perhaps he can only be reached by yet another older son, the one who came to fulfill all the law, the one who was nonetheless rejected and driven out, the one who pleaded with his father to forgive those who rejected and tortured him. Perhaps it is that first born son who can speak to and for all those who believe that their love and obedience has been spurned and ridiculed, the one who must have loved the Pharisees so, since he kept talking to them in spite of their arguments against him. Perhaps those who stand, outside, on principle, will be welcomed in by the hospitality of those who know what it means to be forgiven when it wasn't deserved, or even desired.
The parable of the lost son ends, uncomfortably, with a question mark. Those of us who live now, uncomfortably, in the question marks of church decisions and church divisions, wait for what the outcome of the story may be. The door opens, the father comes out. And the curtain descends, with these words flashing across the scene:
"To Be Continued."