…Hazardous to Your Spiritual Health

When I read the parables, I tend to cast myself in the role of the good guy.  “‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

So when I read about the Prodigal Son, I tend to see myself as the Prodigal, sinful but penitent, welcomed into the Father’s arms. Which is good as far as it goes, but as Brother Paul pointed out Sunday morning, “The Prodigal Son” is probably not the best title for this parable. If Jesus only meant to tell us that the Prodigal Son left home, sinned, wasted all his money, came back, and was forgiven and restored, the story would have ended there. Perhaps a better title would be “The Two Brothers” or “The Forgiving Father” or, since this parable was aimed at the Pharisees, “The Elder Brother.”

And at my most honest, I identify more with the elder brother. I’ve worked long and hard at being the good son, the good example, keeping the rules, even the obscure ones everyone else seems to have forgotten. And I hope, even expect, to be rewarded. We, as a society, tell our children, stay in school, study hard, get good grades, and when you’ve finished, you’ll get a good job that pays well. Each generation is expected to advance beyond the generation before. I pursued it to a doctorate, and expected a good living. Instead, I find myself deeply in debt for a degree that has not only failed to land me a job, but has proven a barrier to employment. I would be more employable if I’d stopped with a B.S. People I went to high school with are now making more money with only a high school diploma. If I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?

In church and Sunday School, I was the kid who carefully observed every rule, principle, and suggestion, and strove to put it in practice, while inwardly marking down others’ every infraction. I’m just now realizing how many people who ignored these rules were closer to God than I was, and how many of even the greatest sinners are restored and forgiven. And next to God’s forgiveness, mine looks like spiritual probation.

After teaching us to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors;” just in case we missed the point, Jesus adds, “if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

I have reason to fear.

It’s easy to read Jesus confrontations’ with the Pharisees as saying, in effect, “You worked your holy hiney off, and it only made you twice as fit for Hell; sinners can get into the Kingdom of Heaven, and you can’t, Nana-nana-nana!”

But that’s not how he pictures the Father. The same Father who was watching and waiting for the Prodigal, who saw him in the distance and ran to embrace him, leaves the party with the ninety-nine righteous, finds the Elder Brother, and begs him to come in.

God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

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