Grace and Peace to you.
When he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.'” …
… His elder brother was in the field… He became angry and refused to go in… His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back…you killed the fatted calf for him!’
—from Luke 15. 17-30
The younger brother distances himself from his father by essentially wishing his father’s death, by seeking his father’s goods instead of a relationship with him, and by going away. Even upon his return the son intends to break the familial relationship: “I am not worthy to be called your son; treat me as a hired hand.”
We usually paint the older brother as the righteous one, but the older brother is an exact mirror of the younger. He distances himself, staying out in the field and refusing to come in, so that the father has to come out to him. He expresses no love for his father or desire for his father’s love, but only for goods. He sees his relationship with his father in terms of “obeying your command” but not love. (In fact he’s quite rude and spiteful.) Mirroring his brother’s attempt to break the familial bond (“treat me like a hired hand”), he says he has worked “like a slave” and calls his brother “this son of yours,” as if they’re not related.
If we’ve thought of the older brother as the righteous one, it’s because he’s been obedient. But he’s selfish, bitter and unloving. Both brothers are equally wasteful (“prodigal”) of their father’s love. And the father does not seem to want obedience—he wants a loving relationship, and offers it to both sons alike. Righteousness is not obedience; it’s love.
The failure of our love—distancing ourselves from God and one another— is at the heart of our sin. In our self-centeredness we break our family bond with God and with others, as if we’re not related. It is not just of our disobedience that we repent, but of our distance, our refusing to get close to God and to others, including those whom we judge.
The good news is that in the end we are unable to break that bond. Despite our attempt to disown God and each other, God stays related to us and keeps us related to each other. The father puts a ring on the younger brother’s finger—a symbol of family. And he corrects the older brother and calls the younger one “this brother of yours.” Despite their failures he invites them both in to the party. The righteousness that we need is not obedience. It’s a loving relationship—and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God.
In repentance we pray toward both God and neighbor, “I am not on my own. I am yours.”
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