The Parable of the Forgetful Son

I’ve always read the so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son as basically a parable about God’s effort to deliver us either from the outer life of unrighteousness (the younger brother) or the inner life of self-righteousness (the older brother). On the basis of that reading, the older brother refuses to join the celebration thrown on the occasion of the younger brother’s return because the younger brother was undeserving of the Father’s favor by the standard of his own deservedness. But there is a glaring inconsistency with that reading and an honest reading of both the Gospel and my own life. In the latter two, the older brother’s problem is not ultimately that he is indignant about the Father’s treatment of the younger brother, but that he forgets what that treatment was like when he himself returned from the distant country.

The Gospel introduces us to the God who comes not for the righteous but for sinners (Lk. 5:32), and the one who comes for sinners introduces us to a Father who goes out to both sons (Lk. 15:20; 15:28). The older brother only grows old when he forgets he is the younger brother.

Perhaps as much as any temptation we face in the journey of discipleship, we must confront with a shameless audacity the temptation to graduate from the celebration thrown in our own honor to something more somber and serious. For all of our service is like the clanging of a symbol soloist in a grain bin if we insist on doing it apart from the joy of the party in the house, a party which is never-ending and ever-beginning, because the Father recommences his eternal celebration with every sinner who repents. It is the very celebration he commenced anew the day you and I repented after finding ourselves found by the One who did not wait for us to find Him (Lk. 15:6-7; 15:10; 15:23)–by the Father who came to us in the Son.

The day we withdraw from our own celebration in order to become smile-less disciples is the day we lose touch with the motivation to be disciples–the joy of being found by a Father who enjoys finding his children, the joy of being loved by a Father who celebrates and belonging to a family that sings. And if that happens, it will not be long before we become indignant of the occasion altogether and forgetful of our place of belonging in it, leading us to the restless life of tallying up merit to heap before the world we are trying to compete with, becoming children whose home feels like the distant country and whose father feels like a distant master.

A joyless disciple is an enemy of the Gospel. Celebrate your salvation. That’s what God is doing.

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