Dr. Peter Marty: Getting What We Never Deserve

10 Bible Stories That Breathe Life, Part 6

Read Luke 15:11-32.

There is a reason why the parable of the prodigal son is famous even in the minds of those who barely know the outlines of Scripture. There is a reason why William Shakespeare alluded to it more often than any other biblical story. It's because this parable has it all: greed, envy, confession, celebration, forgiveness, bitterness, jealousy and love. 

A submission to the late, legendary syndicated advice columnist, Ann Landers, read like this:

"I have three siblings. Our parents have willed half their property to us, with the remainder to go toward scholarships to the college we all attended. I feel they should give all their property to us to be used as we see fit. None of us is in financial need, but this would be a nice addition. 

"I have tried to get them to see my side, but they remain adamant. Because of this, I have not spoken to them for six months. This does not seem to be working. Do you have any suggestions? - Stiffed in Iowa."

The animated columnist was full of chastisement for the Iowan's childishness. The first two words of advice summarized the entire reply: "Yes. Stop."

We don't know if the elder son in Luke's story ever unfolded his arms and let his bitterness go. The story never tells us.

We do know that he was lost in resentment, which is what resentment tends to do to a person. It gets deep in one's bones and cell tissue, perniciously so. Even though you may look good on the outside, resentment can easily be rotting away your inside.

We don't know the details of the younger son's escapades. The King James Version of the Bible has colorful language to describe his circumstance: "He wasted his substance in riotous living." Wasted remains our colloquial way of describing someone who has had too much of everything. 

It's hard to tell if this young son returned home because he was hungry, sorry or just needed to use the washing machine.

What is clear is that some transformation was in the works. Although he had a "give me" attitude at the outset of his exploits, by the time he was headed home his life had taken on a "make me" character. Instead of "Give me the inheritance that belongs to me," it now became "Make me one of your hired hands."

In the end, though, this parable will always be less about the moral condition of the sons and more about the dad's character.

When the young son says, "I have sinned and am not worthy to be called your son," it is his father's love that prompts the confession, not the confession that prompts his father's love. When the older son rails against his father for exercising some special love toward his decadent brother, dad has to inform him that this is not a special form of love. This just happens to be the way he always loves. 

We struggle to understand unconditional love. For most of us, loving part of the way, instead of all the way, is our defense mechanism against being hurt. Not so with the father in our story. His love is not an "if you do this, then I will love you" variety. It is more of a "because of who you are and because of who I am, I must love you" type. This father may not approve of his sons' ways, but he loves them so much that he accepts them just as they are. 

If the younger son is mystified by this extravagant love, the older son is infuriated by it. Why? It is a love that is riddled with unfairness. The father never aims for fairness. The party is his opportunity to practice unfairness. Fairness only works in the realm of mathematical calculation. Grace and generosity have nothing to do with math, much less with anything we deserve. 

When standing in the presence of God, we never get what we deserve. But who would choose a world of perfect fairness when a world brimming with grace and generosity is dangling right in front of our eyes?

[Taken with permission from the February issue of The Lutheran magazine, published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.]