The worlds we sought were never those we saw; the worlds we bargained for were never the worlds we got.
— Saul Bellow, Dangling Man
I realize it is an unflattering thing to reveal, but if I had to insert myself into the Gospels, I would best fit as a Pharisee. I like to think that I would hang out with the seekers-turned-believers like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. But still, a Pharisee I would be.
Jesus was usually annoyed, if not disgusted, with the Pharisees, yet he was never indifferent toward them. The parable of the prodigal son is an example of how he tried to reach the Pharisees.
The story has two sons and two chapters. The first is dramatic and satisfying: rebellious son leaves home, flies high then crashes low, returns home, is embraced by his father, and there’s a big party.
The second chapter is more of a downer: older son stays home, is bitter and resentful, and — that’s pretty much it.
The prodigal son’s story is fully formed and complete. Indeed, the parable would be more palatable if it ended at verse 24: “So they began to celebrate.”
Why did Jesus keep going? Why did he choose to end his otherwise gripping tale with an unsympathetic character slouching petulantly outside the festivities? If the prodigal son is your Hallmark tear-jerker, the older son is the postmodern fade out.
Jesus told this parable while surrounded by tax collectors and “sinners.” On the edge of the crowd were Pharisees muttering about how Jesus was behaving. Two sons, two chapters.
The older son is usually seen as Jesus’ critique of the established church’s judgmental reaction and disapproval of the father’s limitless acceptance.
It is true that the brothers were estranged, but the relationship Jesus cared most about was father with son. This parable is about a father trying to reconcile with his two very different children.
When the father “went out” to his eldest and “pleaded” with him to come to the party, the older son did not protest that his brother was allowed to return. He was mad about the party.
For years I tried to identify with the younger son but found it unconvincing. This is not because I haven’t sinned or am a better person (a ridiculous notion) — but because I never asked for my inheritance and left. Even in my most terrifying, deepest doubts, I believe. I remain at home.
I do not envy the prodigals’ exploits in a distant country. I genuinely rejoice when they choose Christ and the angels rejoice in heaven. But I understand the older son’s frustration and jealousy.
I want a party too.
I want a dramatic testimony. I want people to be able to say, “Wow, she’s really different now.” I’d like a specific moment in time to mark my homecoming, a before-and-after to orient and guide my life.
The truly bitter pill is knowing that although the Father desperately wants me to come inside, the party isn’t for me, and I’m not getting one later.
My spiritual journey does not include a specific salvation experience. My heart has been strangely warmed many times, but not in the way John Wesley meant.
The Father takes my hands and says, “My daughter, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” Is that good enough for me?
In the kingdom there is only one party. Maybe you’re the one being toasted. Maybe you’re serving the cake. It doesn’t matter to God.
God is just, but he is not fair.
Will I come in from the dark? The choice has always and ever will be mine.
Sarah Kehrberg lives in Asheville, N.C.
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