Luke 15. The Parable of the Forgiven Brother.
The farmer set the scythe by the freshly cut millet and paused to mop his brow in the heat. It had been a long day and a long season. It was hard enough doing the work of one man, but now he did the work of three.
Right at harvest time last year, his younger brother announced that he was taking his share of the inheritance and leaving. It was a shocking and shameful turn of events. He would forever bring shame upon himself, announcing legally and socially that he was in effect leaving the family. But it would also bring shame to his family if he left. Every time his father went to the market, or into the city to trade, everyone would look down upon him. “He couldn’t even keep his own house in order,” they would say. Some would pity him…others would be angry. Some would go as far as to say that to allow such blatant disregard for honor and propriety might even bring God’s judgment upon the whole community. Some would refuse to trade with them. Some would mock them publicly.
Needless to say, the older brother tried everything he could to talk him out of it. He used intellectual reasoning, suggesting that he would struggle without the support of his family. He used emotional pleas, begging for him to think of his poor mother and father and what they would go through. Finally, he used pure rage, screaming at him until he was red in the face.
But there was no changing his mind. The day that he packed up his riches and his belongings and left for the far county, the older brother sat shiva for him…he celebrated his funeral as if he were no longer even alive. From that moment on, he was dead to him. He spat on the ground by his scythe, metaphorically spitting on his brother’s grave.
As strong as his anger was, his father had felt an equal portion of grief. He had been getting old for some time, now, and so he had been able to do less and less every season. But this season was the worst. For it was not the pain in his bones but the pain in his heart that kept him from the fields. He waited every day for his good-for-nothing son to come home. He would not sit shiva with him and resume his life as though the younger son was dead. Instead, he held out hope that his son would actually return. As the older brother would work and sweat every day, he would look down the hill at the household and see his father waiting in the front courtyard. Waiting. Watching. Hoping. Looking up the road in the direction that his brother had left. It was if he actually thought that the little twerp was going to come back up that road and bring the money back and buy his way back into the household. Of course, the older brother tried to convince him of his folly as well. But it was just as useless. He put the rag back into his pocket, and picked up the scythe again. He noticed that his father was not waiting today. Maybe he’s finally come to his senses, he laughed to himself. But he absentmindedly registered a puff of smoke coming from behind the house. If it wouldn’t have been ludicrous, he would have thought that maybe he even smelled meat cooking. Strange, he thought, in the heat of the day.
By the time he finished the day’s work, he definitely smelled meat cooking. He knew that it was not a feast day, and he had heard of no special occasion to celebrate. He knew that no honorable guest would have come to see them…ever since his brother brought shame on the family, no one with a shred of honor would dare darken their door. But the closer he got to the house, the clearer it was that something was going on. There was music playing, the women were preparing for the feast, and the smell of the food was simply amazing.
He held out hope that some good turn of fortune had given his father reason to celebrate. Maybe he had finally killed a goat so that he and his friends could celebrate, like he had been hinting to his father for months. So it was with half of a smile that he caught a servant and asked what was going on. The smile disappeared soon as he explained the reason for the slaughter of the fatted calf. His father’s dream had come true. His good-for-nothing brother had indeed made his way back up that lonely road. And of course, he didn’t bring any money with him. Just shame and debt and the reopened wound of grief, as if a patch of injured flesh had been torn open again.
And, of course, his fool of a father had not sent him packing like he should have, but he let the mooch back into the house. But what angered the older the brother the most was that he treated him like an honored guest, not like a slave like he should have. He had ordered the best calf slaughtered and prepared, musicians hired, feast preparations begun. The older brother flashed back to the last time that he had considered asking for even a goat to have a party with his friends. He had stopped short of even asking his father, because he knew that they did not have the money to splurge and he would feel guilty with every bite.
He exploded with anger at the servant, and made enough noise that his father had come out to find out what was happening. The older son exploded with fresh rage, pointing his finger in the face of his father and renewing all the old arguments once again. But this time, it was the father who tried to persuade the son. Tried to persuade him to see this as a day of celebration, not anger.
He used intellectual reasoning, reminding him that now his brother could help with the harvest. He used emotional pleas, asking him to not upset the family on this special day. Finally, he used love, pleading with him to forgive and welcome back his brother until he was red in the face.
The older son would have none of it. How could he forgive someone who had caused him and his family so much pain? He refused to go into the house, refused to speak to his father anymore. Of course, he refused to even look at his son. He flipped one of the tables on its side, spilling the contents everywhere. He pointed his finger at his father once more, and spat, “I have no brother.”
And he stormed away from the house.
Before he knew where he was going or what he was doing, he stormed away from the household and up the road. The very same road that his brother had walked away on, on what seemed like a lifetime ago now. Now the older brother fled in a rage, leaving behind the family to pick up the pieces.
He was gone all night. He considered a hundred plots of revenge, from burning the crops to returning to the party with the scythe and ending his brother’s life for real this time. He even considered running to town and visiting the prostitutes like he imagined his brother did…maybe that’s what it would take to get a fattened calf from his father. Eventually, the exhaustion of his hunger and his resentment caused him to collapse right by the road, and to fall asleep.
But then, in the darkness of the night, the older brother came to himself.
Before long, it would be the new year, and the season of forgiveness, preparing for the Day of Atonement. It was the practice of his people to spend the first days of the new year asking forgiveness for all the wrongs that they had committed. The older brother usually spent his hours daydreaming about his brother and father pleading for forgiveness from him for all the wrongs they had committed. But somewhere in the night, his heart began to turn.
He began to see that it was his duty before God to forgive his brother:
• Forgive him for his immaturity.
• For his selfishness.
• For his greed.
• For the ways that he had broken their family.
• For all the ways that he had stolen the last year of his life.
But then he paused. He thought again of his father. Every day that his father had sat outside, waiting for his brother. Of course, he hoped against hope that his younger brother would return and he could rush to his side and celebrate the reconciliation of their family. But in that moment, the older brother realized how much of it had been for his sake. He knew that he did not have many more years on this year, and he knew that the older brother watched him from the fields every day. As the old man sat, waiting for his brother, his lesson was meant for him. Every day, a fragile and hurting old man, waiting in the hot sun, to show him – the older brother – how to forgive. All of it – the fatted calf, the musicians, the party – it was as much to teach him and the whole community about forgiveness than it was to impress a younger man upon his return.
Had that year been stolen, or had the older brother thrown it away in resentment? Before long, he began to realize that it was indeed he who needed to be forgiven. He realized that he was the one who needed to beg for forgiveness from his family:
• For his immaturity.
• For his selfishness.
• For the greedy way that he had treasured his resentment.
• For the ways that he had broken their family.
• For all the ways that he had stolen the last year of their lives.
He recognized that his immature behavior was just as shameful to his father, and was just as pointless as his brother’s had been. As the purple sunrise started to peek above the hills, the older brother looked with a tear-stained face back toward the house. He knew now what he must do – he had to return to his father and ask for forgiveness. He would throw himself at the feet of his loving father and thank him for the lesson that had gone so long unheeded.
As he got closer, he began to walk faster, and then jog, and then run. By the time he got back to the house, he saw a figure in the road, moving toward him. The figure was running, too, and the older brother recognized his gait – it was his father! He ran faster to catch him.
But then he stopped. There was not only one figure. There were two. Just behind him, was his brother. Steadying their father as he tried to run.
Both had spent the night by the gate. Waiting. Watching. Hoping. Looking up the road for him to return.
The older brother stopped. It had been so long. He didn’t even look like the same young man who had brashly run away merely a year before. Of course, it wasn’t the same young man. It was a man who had come to himself, who had been changed and transformed.
He wondered what he looked like to them in the morning light. Did he look different? Could they tell? Did they know what he had learned in the night?
Did they know how much he yearned to be…the forgiven brother?
As they slowed to embrace one another, the sun came over the hills to bring a new day.
It was a day of forgiveness. Of reconciliation. Of grace.
Only the One who truly understood forgiveness could teach his disciples “you must forgive seventy times seven.”
Only the One who truly understood forgiveness could pray aloud at his execution, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Only the one who truly understands forgiveness can live the Jesus life. May we learn to live, and forgive, like Jesus did.