Who’s in

This Sunday after worship, our church is hosting the musical production, “The Prodigal Sons.” I hear the show is great. It’s based on Jesus’ most important parable.

A man had two sons. The younger one demanded his inheritance from his father, and then squandered his father’s wealth in wild living. But then he came to his senses. He returned home and threw himself on his father’s mercy. “I’m not worthy to be called your son,” he cried.

The father who’d never stopped looking for him, welcomed him back as a son.

The older brother was out in the fields doing his duty, as he’d always done. When he saw that his father had welcomed his brother back home, he became angry. The father pleaded with him to come in, but (apparently) to no avail. “You owe me!” the son said.

I’ve said many times, when I finally understood this passage, it changed my life.

I’d always thought that the point was to be like the older brother: Stay home, do your duty. Don’t be like that awful younger one.

But that’s not what the parable is about at all.

It turns out that there are two ways to be our own savior, one by being bad and one by being good. At the end of the story, it was the “good” brother who was on the outside of his father’s house looking in.

Saying “You owe me!” to the father is a sure sign of a deadly spiritual condition. This is why, on the greatest day of his father’s life, when at last he had his son back safe and sound, the older son refused to celebrate.

When the truth of this finally dawned on me, I understood why so many people are put off by church. They look at the church and what they see (fairly or not) is a bunch of unhappy older brothers.

And as often as I’ve preached and taught on this passage, people still tell me, “I don’t see what the elder brother did wrong.”

Let me put it this way. There are two ways to approach God. One is to say, “I’m not worthy,” and the other is to say, “You owe me.”

I’m not God, but it would seem that the ones God welcomes are the ones who say to God, “I’m not worthy and I know I will never we worthy.”

The ones who think they deserve to be in, are out.

The ones who know that they deserve to be out, are in.

The party

It was the best day of the father’s life; he had to celebrate. Knowing that, his son refused to come to the party. “Everything I have is yours,” the father pleaded, but his son was not moved.

So ends Jesus’ greatest parable about the “Prodigal Son.” But there are actually two sons in the story, and it’s the “prodigal,” the wandering one, who finds his way home. His older brother was the responsible one, the sensible one, the one who stayed home and did his duty. Shockingly, it was the older brother, not the “prodigal,” who, at the end of the story, was outside the feast of salvation looking in.

Jesus was speaking to the religious insiders of his day. They were the serious, the responsible ones. They did their duty; they kept the religious traditions of the people intact. Jesus had aimed this parable at them.

How do you tell religious insiders that they’re lost?

Growing up, I was the eldest of three children. I was the responsible one. I became an Air Force officer, did my duty. But I was in my fifties, in seminary, when the meaning of this story became real to me. I’d always thought the lesson was, “Stay home, do your duty. Don’t be like the irresponsible younger brother.”

I was completely wrong. That’s not the lesson at all.

Do you get it? If not, I don’t condemn you. It took me about 55 years.

If you’ve achieved your goals in life, but found that things don’t satisfy…

If you’ve failed at everything, and found yourself at the bottom…

Whether you’re an elder brother or a younger brother, this is what you most need to know: There is a father who comes to you, who longs to embrace you and meet you just where you are.

Do you get it? The Christian faith will make little sense until you do.

Base your worth on his love for you.

Come in to his party. It’s for you.

Repent? Who, me?

A school district took away jump ropes. Kids could still jump rope, but without the rope. It seems that jumping rope was hard for some kids. Failing might damage their self-esteem.

For two decades, psychotherapy has been in decline, despite research that it really works to promote patients’ mental health. The reasons for the decline are complex, such as the increased use of medications, but here’s the thing: psychotherapy involves long, hard work facing our own issues. Most people blame others for their problems. Psychotherapists used to see patients who were unhappy and wanted to understand themselves. Now, more patients want someone else to change. Fewer people say, “I want to change myself.”

It would seem that Ash Wednesday and repentance are out of touch with the times. That’s too bad, because repentance allows you to face the evil that you’ve done without the guilt crushing you.

The classic case study in repentance is the parable of the prodigal son. A young son took his share of his father’s wealth, left home, and squandered his wealth in wild living. When his life had fallen totally apart, he resolved to go home and work his way back into his father’s good graces. That was the first part of repentance—turning from his old way of life and heading home.

While the son was still a long way off, his father ran to him and kissed him. Instead of giving him the punishment he deserved, he welcomed him back as his son. When the son experienced the radical love of his father, he fully repented. In that moment he had access to all the father’s love and riches.

Repentance is like a key which unlocks our own hearts and allows the love of the father to flow into us. True repentance isn’t about feeling guilty for what we’ve done; just the opposite. True repentance is about joy.

The father, who represents God in the parable, didn’t give his son what he deserved.  He transferred the son’s guilt and humiliation to himself. Real repentance is turning away from an old way of life and accepting God’s love.