1. There is a mission group called Mission Barabbas [named after the thief on the cross who accepted Jesus]. It has been on TV a number of times and since it has even been turned into a movie "Jesus Is My Boss," many of you probably know about it. They are all former yakuza gangsters. So, people have an interest in the enormity of their transformations. The way the TV broadcast goes is generally always the same. It will give how they "used to be so bad," but now they "have become good straight pastors." People accept it as stories of "those who have cleaned up their acts with the help of Christianity." Many will look at the tube as they call to mind "the more than a few bad people around them."
2. Even the parable of Jesus that we read today might possibly be read in that way. In the New Interconfessional Version a subheading to this passage of "The Prodigal Son (The Wild Partying Son)" is attached to this section and it is already pointing into that direction. But we need to be careful here on at least two counts.
3. First, we may call it "The Parable Of The Partying Son" but the story has no picture itself of his wild party life. In just a word, the scriptures only say, "So then, exhausting out the limits of his wild partying, he squandered his property down the drain," (verse thirteen). It doesn't touch at all upon the depth of how bad he might have been or how lowdown he might have gotten. It seems the son's nature as a person is beyond the scope of the story. Secondly, nothing at all is written about the "prodigal son" cleaning up his act. He just went home sucking in his pride. After that, not a word is written that he turned out to be a fine son devoted to his parents. It seems that any changes in the nature of this son are outside the scope of the story.
4. So now, where is the main point of this story put? What did the Lord mean to say by his sketching out this story of a father and his sons?
The Distant Younger Brother
5. So, first off, let's take a look at the younger son. Where is this son? He is in "a far away country," (verse thirteen). But, he makes a decision and says [to himself], "I'm telling you I am leaving here and going to my father. ...," (verse eighteen). Then, [the storyline] transfers over to his actions. "Then, he left from there and went to his father," (verse twenty). He walks. He goes as far as to where his dear home is visible. But, the Bible says, "However, while he was still afar off." What happened "though he was far away?" "The father noticed his son, felt compassion for him, ran up to him, hugged his neck and kissed him."
6. In the series of pictures here an enormous change takes place. But, it is not a transformation in the son's nature as a person. It is the change in "the distance." The distance between the father and the son, who are so far apart, comes closer. Till finally the distance is gone.
7. The distance of son and father. We could say it was a distance that came into being when the son took off on his trip because he had set out to "a faraway country." But, we might also say that this distance between father and son did not first come into being because the son had set out from home. He had said to his father, "Father, please give me the portion of the property that I am to receive," (verse twelve). Things like that may happen somewhere in this world, but fathers don't usually split up the property with the children during one's lifetime, only after death. Even if he did split up the property due to some special situation, as long as the father was alive, all the property would still be under the authority of the father. A child only has titular authority but not the authority to close out deals on the property. But, this son did not only seek his portion of the properties, he converted it all into cash and took off. His actions were not simply that he ignored the proper customs in his day; [worse], it meant that he had already considered his father dead. As is the way of all children growing up, this son had so far not lived by his own means. The things he needed to live were given to him by his father and he lived on that. But, in spite of the fact that he had so far gotten everything from his dad, he was looking at his father's life as already dead and gone. There was an awful gap between the two. The son was already distant from his dad.
8. But, the moment that he sensed the distance as real in his life was after he actually was apart from his dad and when he had lost what he had received from his father. He hungered. He got so hungry that he tried to satisfy his stomach by eating the bean pods that the pigs ate. At that moment he remembered that there was bread with his father. As he hungered, he realized that he had been so distant from his father. He realizes it by not having any bread at hand.
9. This same thing happens, for sure, between God and individual people. In spite of a person receiving everything from God the Father, he or she will live as if it all fundamentally belongs to him or to her. Even though a person is given life through God, he or she will live like God has long been dead. But still though, when the things a person needs are still being given to him or her, the person will not feel that distance. The individual does not notice he or she is far from God. He or she will perceive it, though, when he or she loses the things that used to be given to him or her. A person will realize that his or her food, neighbors, health, or even one's life on this earth are not by rights one's own possessions. While miserable a person comes to see the desperate gap between oneself and those who had been giving to him or her.
10. But, there is still something one can do in that position: it is to make up your mind to go back home. It is to change your direction and take a definite step forward. This son didn't just think about it [and forget it]. He actually "departs from there and went to his father." He did it. Humans have the ability to make up their minds and act on it. It may be to attend a house of worship each week. It may be that one decides to be baptized. It may be to bring the bread and the wine of the Lord's Supper to one's lips. It may be to live in fellowship with Christians. Whatever the case, there are things that a person can make up his or her mind to do and act upon it.
11. But, human decisions and actions are not everything. He "was still afar off." While he had come [physically] closer to home there was still a huge huge gap between father and son because, as he himself says it, he no longer had the right to be called a son. It was not the son but the father who could fill the gap. The father spotted his son. The father felt compassion for him. The father ran. He did. The father ran! Then, he hugged the neck of his son and kissed him. The distance between them vanished because of the father. Then the father ordered his servants, "Hurry, bring the best clothes, dress up my child, put a ring on his hand, put footwear on his feet," (verse twenty-two). The father treated the son, who had come back, as his son. After that the son becomes a son in a true sense.
12. Similarly, it is ultimately God himself who fills the gap between God and humans. The father runs to his child. God runs to individuals. That's what it means that God the Father has sent his son into the world. Because he let his son be crucified and redeemed our sin, the gap is down to nothing. We, thus, are accepted by God and, in a true sense, we are become children of God.
The Distant Older Brother
13. But, the story is not over with that. The son had him a brother. When the younger son had come back home, the older one was in the field. The father said, "Let's eat and celebrate" on behalf of my son who has come back, and when he held a banquet and the younger brother was eating and drinking with the father, the older brother was out working away in the field. The older brother heard the buzzing of the music and the dancing as he returned in from the field and he became hot with anger as he found out the reason for the banquet. He wouldn't join in the festivity. I don't think he was unreasonable. His claim was justifiable. The other son said to his father, "This is what I say, I have served my father for many years. I have not once disobeyed your instructions. But yet, you have never given me even one little goat for me to have a banquet with my friends. Yet, this son of yours, after he has burned a fortune up with prostitutes and come back home, you slay a fattened cow for him," (15:19-30).
14. For the time being, let's accept his words at face value. It might actually be that he never had disobeyed his father's instructions. Because the older brother too was human, even if he might have done a bad thing or two hidden to his parents, there would be no need to make him out to be a bad guy. Any way, at this point in time, it doesn't matter whether he was or wasn't a truly righteous person. It seems that this parable doesn't even take issue with as to whether the son who came back had truly cleaned up his act and had gone straight. It is the gap between the younger brother-son and his father that is in the picture. Also, equally in the picture is what's between the older brother and his father. Gaps are between them all.
15. The father says to the elder son, "My child, you have always been with me. All that I have is yours," (verse thirty-one). It was true, the elder had been with his father, you would think. But, he couldn't now make his father's joy his own joy. He couldn't share in his father's happiness. The elder brother-son calls his younger brother in whom his father was so happy, "this son of yours," (verse thirty). The elder brother puts himself at a far spot from his younger brother. Consequently, he puts himself at a far spot from the joy of his father. In effect, the elder brother is equally distant from his dad just as the younger son had once been!
16. Even here, it is the father who acts in order to fill the gap. The father leaves the house and approaches the older son to coax him in, [though] he is refusing to come into the banquet. The father speaks out to his elder son's heart and invites him to share in the joy with him as his father. Therefore, repentance for him would not be defined as being a better man than he [already] was. [Repentance] for him [meant] to take a seat at the banquet with his father and to accept the love the father had for these brothers.
17. Well, at the first I mentioned the men of Mission Barabbas. People tend to be interested only in [dramatic] change, that some bad gangsters turned into good people. But, what they are testifying to with their bodies and person is not the change in their natures as human beings. There is something more important there than a bad guy changing into a good guy. It is that people who were once far from God the Father have come home to the Father. They are people who have come back home.
18. In addition, the people who are far from the Father are not necessarily just the gangsters. It is not just the criminals of society. Even people considered by society as decent may [just as easily] be distant from God especially because of their self righteousness to which they cling. In that sense, the two brothers appearing in this parable might be representative of all people. This is my story and this is your story.