Last night, Alex and I attended the youth service at our church. The service is directed towards junior and senior high school students, so it is pretty much right at my level. In addition to just wanting to go to the service, we went because it was a chance to see one of my friends that is in his first year of college and was home for the weekend.
The service addressed a number of topics, but mostly provided a recap of what the senior high students studied on their retreat last weekend. One of the things that they discussed was the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Most people are familiar with the story, found at Luke 15:11-31. Very briefly summarizing, Jesus shared the story of a man with two sons. The younger of the two requests all of his inheritance, moves away and blows it all. He hits rock bottom, he becomes so hungry that he longs to eat the feed being given to pigs. He decides to return home to tell his father that he no longer deserves to be called his son, but he wants to be one of his hired men. Seeing him returning, the father runs to him with compassion; has his men bring the best robe, a ring for his hand and sandals for his feet; he slaughters the fattened calf and celebrates. The older brother hears all of this and refuses to attend the party, complaining that he has been good and loyal for all these years and he has never even been given a young goat for a feast with his friends. The father tells him "My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." Luke 15:31-32 (NIV).
I've heard and read this multiple times. I've had it explained, and "understood," that the message is the same as that of the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. Still, though, I have to admit that I have never really gotten it. I've always identified with the older son. The son that doesn't understand why, when he has been good his whole life, there is a celebration for the one who "squandered [his father's] property with prostitutes."
Last night as soon as the discussion started, it finally made sense to me. I'm sure it has made sense for a very long time to most anyone reading this. I think I was better prepared last night because the reading this week for my small group has centered on the topic of grace. It has been largely built around Ephesians 2:8-9 ("For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast."). I wrote about the topic of grace and, specifically, Ephesians 2:8-9 in one of my earliest posts. It is the single thing in my faith that I have the hardest time understanding. In comparison, the Resurrection is easy. I don't want to repeat that post, but it is important background to share that I had been spending time reading and thinking and praying about grace.
I now see the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the light of grace. I see, much more clearly, that I am the younger son - not the older son. I am the one that takes the abundant gifts of God and squanders them; who takes everything that He gives me and walks away from Him and into sin. Yet - when, after deserting Him, I realize the need for His help; when I am unworthy of still being called his son; when I come back deserving nothing - through the gift of grace He is there to greet me with compassion, with His arms open wide and He celebrates.
Like I said, I suspect that everyone else got this a long time ago. But, somehow I've missed it until now. Perhaps it is because I would prefer to see myself as the older son, it is easier to think of myself as "the good one." But, it is false, of course I fail. And, even in those times that I am closer to God, when I feel strongest in my faith, the message of the Parable of the Prodigal Son is unabashedly good news - the Father tells the son "you are always with me, and everything that I have is yours."