Parables sometimes muddy the waters. But sometimes they hold up a mirror so we can see ourselves. This is one of those parables, adapted from Luke 15…
Once there was a man who lived in a nice, quiet town. He went through good times and bad in that little town. And always the people of that town were there to celebrate or grieve with him.
The man worked hard. And God blessed his efforts. And so, as he got older, he found himself one of the wealthiest people in the town. He had a beautiful house, the best food, the best clothes. But his pride and joy was never in the things he had. It was in his two sons.
They grew up with all the advantages: education, security, love. They grew into handsome young men that everyone in town admired. Their father taught them his business. He set aside a trust that they could access upon his death. But he also taught them to love the Lord, their family, and their town.
The older son was dutiful. He did his best to learn the business and take on the increasing responsibilities his father gave him. Sometimes he thought about what else he might do, where he might go, but in the end all he wanted was to be at home and follow his father’s example.
The younger son was different. He was always dreaming of other places and chafing under the responsibilities his father gave him. Until, one day, he came to his father. Full of arrogance, he dismissed the father’s work and the town he loved as provincial and boring.
“It seems like you’re going to live forever, and I’m tired of waiting for what’s mine,” he said. “I don’t want your life. I don’t want your God. I don’t want your church. Change that trust so I can have it now. And then I’m gone.”
His arrogance was breathtaking. And, yet, his father agreed. Sadly, he rearranged his affairs so that both his sons could take possession of what he intended to be theirs. He divided everything he had between the two brothers. His advisers were shocked, and warned him that he’d have nothing. But he shushed them and told them that’s how he wanted it.
So the younger son left. He went to a thriving, vibrant city far away from the little town, a city that never slept, full of treasures for a young man with wealth to uncover. He explored every scene, ate in the best restaurants, became a fixture in the most exclusive clubs. And he also discovered, and enjoyed, some other experiences that just weren’t available in a small town. He had no shortage of friends, especially when he pulled out the card and paid the checks. He had known it all along: there was so much more to life than that small, dead-end town where his father and brother worked the days away.
But, faster than he expected, the money ran out. His cards started getting declined. The clubs that welcomed him turned him away. The friends avoided him. The girls who had opened their beds to him laughed at him. He lost his downtown apartment, his car, his tabs at the best restaurants. He found himself washing dishes in steaming kitchens, collecting cans from the garbage, squeegeeing windshields for loose change. And then some things he didn’t want to think about.
And one day, rooting through the garbage on a cold, windy street corner for a crushed Pabst Blue Ribbon can, a thought struck him. He remembered his father’s guest room. It was just a bedroom, but the memory reminded him of how his father never turned away someone in need of a roof over their head. And then he was in tears, sobbing, thinking about the home he had left.
It took a while. He hitchhiked, walked. Stole a bus ticket once. But eventually he was back in the little town. And there was the driveway of the house. He almost lost his nerve, but calmed himself by reciting his speech in his head. “I’m so, so sorry for all I’ve done. I’m so tired and hungry. Can I just stay a few nights in the guest room until I figure out my next step? Maybe have a few leftovers to eat? I know I can never make up for my sins, but I’ll do any work you need done.”
And then he saw someone running toward him. He started to run away, but then saw who it was. His father. His graying father, sprinting toward him like Usain Bolt, with his arms wide, eyes wet, and a smile on his face. Before he could move, his father had him in a bear hug. He thought briefly of how bad he smelled, but his dad didn’t seem to notice. He started to recite his speech, but it was muffled by his father’s shoulder and then drowned out by his shouting.
“Look who’s home!” he roared, to no one and everyone in particular. And then he was shouting orders to the cook, to get a feast on the table. “We have to celebrate!” he screamed. Hustling his son inside, he pushed him into the bathroom to take a long shower. There was a pile of his father’s own clothes waiting for him when he got out: his rags were nowhere to be seen. And, when he was dressed, his father told him to take a nap — in the bedroom he’d grown up in, still just as he had left it.
That night, there was a party like that little town had never seen. His father had invited everyone. The food was abundant, the music was loud, and the party went well into the night.
Conspicuous by his absence, though, was the man’s other son. The father found him in his own room, headphones clamped tightly over his ears to drown out the sounds of the celebration. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Come join the party.”
The older son responded with a bitterness his father had never heard in him before. “You know, if you’d wanted to have a party for one of your sons, I can think of a better choice than that ungrateful, manipulative freeloader. You have another son, you know, who’s always tried to be loyal and responsible. Maybe you could have at least ordered him a pizza so he could have a few friends over.”
The father shook his head, tears coming to his eyes for the second time that day. “Son, you have always been with me. And, for that, I’m happy to give you everything I have. But the celebration tonight isn’t about reward. It’s about the fact that one of the two people I love more than anyone or anything in the world, a son who everyone else had given up for dead, has come home to me.”
Taking his son’s hand in his own, he looked him in the eye. “Don’t you see? We have to celebrate.”