The Tale of the Prodigal Son is the quintessential Lenten parable—always found right at the midpoint of the season as if to say, “Have you come to your senses yet? Ready now to make the turn toward your Father?” In recent years, many have argued it should be titled the Parable of the Loving Father to keep the emphasis on God’s mercy rather than our wrongdoing. But in studying the parable anew this particular Lenten season, I was struck by a number of commentaries pointing out that it should be read as the Tale of the Elder Son since the plot builds in such a way to focus less on the wayward wanderers in our midst and more on those of us who never leave our Father’s home. How will we respond to the prodigal’s return?
Here’s a weird idea: I think it has something to do with how we think about our work.
It was a couple of years ago on retreat that I first stumbled across the translation of verse 29 in the parable rendered “Look, all these years I worked like a slave for you and not once did I disobey…” I remember being caught off guard. Slavery is a grave evil. No one should be forced to work like that, so why would the elder son end up doing so? It seems the father in the story is confused also: “The whole farm is already yours. From whence does this lack of freedom come?”
It is a question that has hung with me ever since, because I, too, sometimes (okay… lots and lots of times) work from a strange sense of compulsion rather than out of freedom. And I know that when I do that, it has a profound effect on how generous and forgiving that I can be with others. When I am in over my head in work, I am not in the mood to party… and I don’t think that anyone else should be either. And so once again, at mid-Lent this year, the parable once again asks, “Have you come to your senses yet? Ready now to make a turn toward your Father?” I invite you to reflect with me upon that here. (If link doesn't work, check out the preaching for March 6th)