The story in Luke 15 is subtitled “The Parable of the Lost Son” in the NIV, and “The Prodigal Son” in the NASB. We’ve commonly taught this passage emphasizing that we are the lost son, squandering our father’s wealth and turning away from him for a life of leisure and pleasure. And we’ve also taught it considering that we might be the other son, bitter and angry that our little brother might be treated so well, despite his ungratefulness and reckless living.
But there is another character here, mentioned but twice: the father’s servants. Perhaps we should pay closer attention to the servants.
After all, it was the servants who, that afternoon, were called upon to fetch the best robe that symbolized that the lost son was welcome in his father’s house.
It was the servants who went to retrieve the ring, which symbolized that the prodigal son’s position in the household had been restored.
It was the servants, who may not have had any of their own, also returned with sandals for this wasteful young man’s feet.
And it was also the servants who, despite the daily duties still to be done, set aside what had been planned for dinner and prepared instead the fattened calf as the centerpiece of a feast, which under other circumstances may have taken days to prepare.
And I suspect, that when verse 24 says that they began to celebrate, it doesn’t mean that the father and son danced alone in the yard. It would seem that they danced too over the return of the one who had been lost to the household they served. And probably, when that older brother returned from the field to see what all the fuss was about, seething in anger, and was unable or unwilling to speak directly to his father, instead pulled aside the servants to inquire. The answer was simple, your father is celebrating the return of your brother.
So why is it then, if we would also call ourselves servants of the Father, that we would respond so differently to the return of the prodigal in our own lives, families and churches?
Why would we not extend a welcome so warm to those in our communities who might humbly return to the church of their youth?
Why would we argue that someone whose life had been mired in sin, might not also receive a ring on their finger when they turn again away from those wretched days?
Why would we begrudge the blessings God offers to all his children, thinking instead of the things we lack?
And why would we not be so willing to drop whatever it was that had occupied our hands to set a feast and celebrate the return to the Father of one who might still bear the burdens of lost years?
My journey over the past couple of years has caused me to pause and consider whether I would have been so quick to fetch a robe and ring and sandals. And I suspect I have not been. I have not been quick enough to offer a robe to a person wrestling with their gender identity or sexuality. Not quick enough to acknowledge that people who don’t look or think or speak like I do may have just as much to offer the Kingdom of God as I do. And too often I have withheld the sandals, waiting for someone to first wash their own feet.
I believe it’s time to fetch the fattened calf. It’s time to prepare a feast, to celebrate, and to welcome home to our Father all who would turn towards him.
You can read some of my thoughts from this journey of pairing belonging and transformation in the new book from The Youth Cartel, 4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers.