Loving skillfully is hard. It's not enough simply to be warm and fuzzy.

An artist's depiction of the return of the Prodigal Son, showing the father and son embracing.
Credit: Rick&Brenda Beerhorst, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Published On: March 29, 2019

A reflection on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.

We all know the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It's one of the "chestnuts" of the Bible.

Lots of us have heard or even preached on the remarkable grace that the father in the story shows to his younger son. I've certainly known lots of fathers who wouldn't have been so welcoming when the family honour had been besmirched.

But I'm a whole lot more like the older brother, than I am like the prodigal. And I understand why the older brother feels cheated. It's nice to see "the old man" so happy, to be sure, but is this really great parenting? What about the older brother, who was never even given even a young goat to share with his friends, let alone the prized fatted calf? Should fathers only ever throw parties for prodigals who come home? Is this really skillful parenting?

It reminds me of Tommy Smothers, who made a career out of complaining "Mom always liked you best."

I don't want to think about worshiping a God who welcomes the lost, but ignores the ones who never go away. Where's the grace in that for people like me?

But maybe this is a fault of simplistic preaching. Do we have to assume that the father in the story is a stand-in for God? Or could it be that the whole situation is intended to spark us into a more complicated discussion of what it means to love different sorts of people?

Maybe no single character in the story is supposed to show us what God is like. Maybe the story is intended to spark a discussion about how to love skillfully. Maybe we're supposed to figure out what happens next.

Can you imagine Jesus telling this story, and then asking the crowd to figure out what each of the characters might do next, to resolve the obvious conflict in a way that God would approve of?

What could the father say next to the angry brother, who's feeling cheated? What might the younger brother say next to the older brother, to try to restore the relationships? What would be the next steps for each character in the story, if they wanted to follow the way of God, instead of the way of the world?

Loving skillfully is hard. It's not enough simply to be warm and fuzzy — we need to be aware of how our actions impact all of those around us. It is possible to welcome a prodigal home, and at the same time be loving, supportive, and appreciative of the older brother too. We don't need to encourage the competition. But as the story shows, we need to be skillful, lest our celebration of one person have unintended consequences for our relationship with someone else.

 — Stephen Fetter is the minister at Forest Hill United Church, an intercultural congregation in Toronto. He’s also the coordinator of United-in-Learning, the General Council’s online continuing education program.

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