“…his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing”
The parable of the prodigal son is one of the best-known stories of all time. The stupidity of the younger son, who turns his back on his family and wastes his years and his father’s money in wild and profligate living, is more than a fiction – it’s a sad reality in so many families. The young man coming to his senses and with humble repentance returning home to be met by a warmth beyond his deserts or expectations makes it one of the happiest ending stories. A father who is more concerned for his son than for his own reputation or loss of money is the father of whom we all approve.
The godly father of the parable – seems to spare no time or money to provide a great celebration – the fattened calf for the BBQ, the robe and ring, the friends and music and dancing and feasting – here is human celebration at its best. This is a party with a real reason to celebrate. The younger son went looking for pleasure and found it back at home. This was not a time for serious sombre chastisement but joy that the lost has been found.
But of course, this is not the end of the story. The parable contrasts the joy of the father with the miserly spirit of the older son. The older son who had not wasted his father’s possessions, never gone off – lost to the family and to God – the older son who is more concerned about himself than about his brother’s recovery or his father’s joy.
There is a time for every matter under heaven and this was the time to laugh and to dance not the time to weep or to mourn. The older brother could not have had worse timing. And on this occasion bad timing was more than a sin – bad timing was an illustration of a total failure in relationship.
We love the parable of the prodigal son – because we know of some prodigals or have ourselves been prodigals. It is great to know that there is a way back, that there can be acceptance, forgiveness, reconciliation and joy. We love it because the father is so wise and loving. We love it because it has such a happy ending for the prodigal and his father.
We love it because it shows that pleasure, party, music and joy are part of the good things in the reconciled life and not just part of the prodigal’s stupidity.
But the older brother always darkens the parable for us – which is why he is often forgotten in the retelling. For he is that other expression of the human condition – the spoilsport moralist who does not understand the exhilarating joy of forgiveness.
Some of us need to go home in humble repentance and say sorry for our stupidity. Home to the family, or more importantly still, home to God. Some of us need to lighten up and rejoice that forgiveness is available to all because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. All of us need to know when is the time to laugh and dance to sing and make music with joy and gusto and when is the time to mourn and sorrow for our sinfulness and for the pain of the world.