This year at soccer camp we have been teaching the kids about the story of the Prodigal Son during Bible time. (For those of you who are not familiar with this story, the original text can be found in Luke 15:11-32.) I am a coach/counselor for the pipsqueaks of the camp, ranging from age 6-8. Actually, this past week I had a 3 year old and a couple of 5 year old campers in my group. To my surprise and delight, their age in no way hindered them from understanding the story and the main points that they were supposed to learn. If anything, their young minds understood it better than those who have had time to assimilate to the world.
When most people read this parable, they only focus on the younger son, the prodigal. They focus on how the younger son dishonored and hurt his father, took his inheritance, and wasted it all on useless and fading pleasures. They focus on how he, like we all do, tried to do things his own way and ended up failing. They focus on how, when he decided to come back home to his father and older brother, was welcomed back by the father with loving, outstretched arms, just like God does with us.
And that’s where most people normally leave it.
I am not most people.
The older brother in the story stayed home and worked for the dad while the younger brother was off doing his thing. The older brother resolved that he would work all day everyday, earning his keep instead of demanding it like his younger brother. That might not have been such a bad idea, except that the older brother lost sight of why he was working, lost sight of why he was home with his father. As a matter of fact, he was working so much that he never even saw his father.
How often do we get so caught up in what we’re doing, be it things for the Kingdom or for ourselves, that we forget to look up to our Father? So caught up in life that we forget why we are even alive in the first place? We know that life is nothing without Jesus, yet we lose sight of that while we are commuting to our 9 to 5, or even on the arduous journey from Hilltop to Simpson.
When I asked my campers if they could have a relationship with someone they never see or talk to, their answer was a resounding “No!” If small children understand that, why can’t we? We think that we can claim to be Christians, claim to have a relationship with God, and then go on about our daily lives, uninterrupted.
A 6 year old knows that. When we take a step back, you and I know and realize that too.
The older brother was so caught up in working that he forgot why he was living. He was working to earn his keep, working to earn his father’s love. In all his toils, he forgot that love is not something to be earned, but given. Furthermore, the love of a father, at least our Heavenly one, is unconditional. God’s love is not bound to our good deeds, which are nothing more than filthy rags in light of His glory (Isaiah 64:6).
The younger son, the one who betrayed his family and effectively wished his father dead, was the one to come back home and admit his wrongs. He was the one to enter into the father’s love and forgiveness, the one to enter into the celebratory feast.
The older brother, on the other hand, the one who thought he did everything right, refused to admit his wrongdoings, refused to admit the fact that maybe he didn’t know everything, refused to admit that he couldn’t do everything on his own. But more importantly, he refused to enter into his father’s love, the very thing he was trying to earn. When the father invited him into the feast, he angrily declined, his pride and sense of entitlement welling up within him. Instead of forgiving his brother and setting their differences aside, he seethed with anger. He couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that his father could love unconditionally, love without expecting anything in return.
Friends, our Father loves unconditionally, without expecting anything in return. He does not ask us to try and earn His love with good deeds or with hours spent in the sanctuary. He simply asks that we love Him back and that we follow His lead.