A Universalist Reading of the Parable of the Prodigal Son

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAToday, I had the opportunity to supply preach for a friend at his church in Marietta. The text for this week was the parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15. I had a lot of fun with that sermon, drawing parallels between this parable and George Strait’s classic, Love Without End, Amen. I always enjoy every opportunity to juxtapose a country song with the parsing of Greek verbs. It’s like ice-cold milk and an oreo cookie, just a classic combination. I did a pretty standard read of the parable, the son is the wayward Christian, the father is God, etc. I did give some special treatment to the elder brother, because I kind of felt for the guy. Here they are throwing a party for the return of his long lost little brother, and nobody even thought to find him and tell him. Poor guy, of course he got pissed. I know I would have. We’ve really been in the shoes of both brothers at one point or another. But, anyway, while I was preaching, I had a bit of an epiphany. It was a little distracting at the time, but I powered through. I started to think a little more about the elder brother, and I came to a new way of reading this parable.

The elder brother is often connected to the disapproving Pharisees in the opening verses of Luke 15, although this is up for debate. However, I’m starting to feel that we could interpret him in another way.

I think the elder brother can be read as representative of the bulk of us as Christians.

Hear me out.

In this universalist reading of the text, the father is still God, and the younger son can still be a Christian finding his/her way back to God. But, he isn’t only that. I think the younger son can be representative of the fact that anyone, anywhere, is not beyond the loving embrace of God. Life is a journey where we’re all wandering and soujourning about, sometimes away from God, sometimes coming home. But God is always there, not just to keep an eye out for us when we’re lost, but to straight up run to us as soon as we can be seen on the horizon.

The elder brother is those of us who think that the kingdom is just for a specific segment of people. We become irate at the thought of the salvation of others who we think haven’t earned it. We’ve slaved away obediently to our God, following all the rules, just like the elder brother. Then these other folks wander in after partying it up, maybe they’ve even spent their lives grounded in another faith tradition, and God just takes them in? God just rolls out the welcome mat, lets them into the house, and throws a party? He even slaughtered the fattened calf! THE FATTENED CALF!

Smacks of unfairness doesn’t it?

But, then, who are we to be the gatekeepers for God’s kingdom (or maybe in this case, kin-dom is much more appropriate)? Who are we to be angry that God welcomes someone? That’s not our call. In the words of Thomas Merton: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”

Yes, I know, Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, if not through me.” Frederick Buechner had some fascinating thoughts on that:

[Jesus] didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could ‘come to the Father.’ He said that it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.
Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.
A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. (Listening to Your Life, meditation for February 28th)

Just like the prodigal son on his way back home to his father, maybe we’re all on the way somewhere. And maybe we should stop isolating those who God would welcome.

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