When we read the story of the Prodigal Son, we bask in the glow of the love of that father and, thus, the love of our Heavenly Father. But let’s not forget the elder son’s attitude: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him” (Luke 15:29-30).
At one time, I sympathized with the elder son. After all, he had a good argument. Many of us have worked for the Lord most of our lives. We see enthusiastic new Christians and almost roll our eyes as though to say, “They’ll learn.” Or perhaps we’re surrounded by elder brothers and have never even seen a new Christian.
On Wednesday evenings, our church serves a free meal to anyone who comes, usually 80-120 people. A few are homeless, many are unwashed, and some have mental disabilities. Some have emotional issues that keep them from fitting in easily in society. Aberrant behaviors exhibit themselves — profanity, arguing with seatmates, threatening someone or talking to a stuffed animal. But they come, and we feed them. Some even join us for Sunday worship.
How many of our own church members participate or reach out? Not many; some who are available say they “aren’t comfortable” around “those people.”
Really? Were Peter, Andrew, James and John all cleaned up and rosy when Jesus called them? Weren’t they smelling of fish and the waters of Galilee? Jesus most often castigated the rich, not the poor. Let’s face it: Americans are rich. American churches are rich. If you doubt it, travel to Thailand, Uganda, Tanzania or India. Meet with a congregation under a tree because the members have no building in their village. Read statistics from International Child Care Ministries. See how little it takes to feed a child in a Third World country.
Our Christian friends — people we love and, in general, respect — are rejecting some of the people for whom Christ died. Poor people are not only on the other side of the earth. They are in our midst if we’ll only look.
How have seasoned Christians arrived at such an attitude? I think it’s because we are stuck where the elder brother was. We look at all the work we’ve put in. We are like the laborers hired early who say, “These who were hired last worked only one hour … and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day” (Matthew 20:12).
Yes, we are equal! We are all equal in God’s kingdom. So why are we grousing? Because we haven’t really seized what is ours, and we haven’t asked our Father for a party! We haven’t asked for a young goat so we could celebrate with our friends. We haven’t really accepted the riches that are ours in Christ Jesus. After all, “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Ephesians 3:27). We are already wearing the special robe, ring and sandals — clothed with Christ! We just have to accept the party that God has for us.
He even tells us the gifts He’ll give at our party: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). These gifts are ours for the taking. We just have to accept them joyously and not grudgingly. We know “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7), but He also loves a cheerful receiver.
Notice that none of those gifts for our party include any aspect of judging others. James elaborates on the admonition of Jesus — “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1) — in saying “because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). The elder brother jumped to judgment, but the gentle father reminded him of his position. “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31).
God has a party planned for us. We just have to ask for it and accept it joyfully.
Lanita Bradley Boyd is a teacher, writer and speaker who lives in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. She especially enjoys mentoring young women, editing and reading. Read her musings in her blog at lanitaboyd.com/musings.