We can feel good about many of Jesus’ teachings. After all, he says we should feed the hungry, treat our neighbors with love, let go of our anxiety, and so forth. Of course we want to be pleasant, productive, helpful people!
But some teachings are harder to accept. For example, consider the story of the father who had two sons. The younger messes up his life in a major way, and the elder stays home and keeps doing what he’s supposed to do. When the younger son returns, broke and beaten, we love seeing the father take the young man into his arms and immediately reinstate him to the family. We hope that, if we ever crash and burn, loved ones will welcome us back.
Part two of that story presents a more difficult issue. The elder son—“the good kid”—is resentful that the father has made coming back so easy for the wayward brother. It’s almost as if the kid hasn’t done anything wrong! Where’s the righteous anger at the wastefulness, the damage done to the family, the loss of a sizeable inheritance through sheer foolishness and selfishness? Will this runaway have to do anything in the way of compensation? Shouldn’t he make a public apology? And what’s with this huge party in his honor? No one else ever got a party around here—especially those of us who behaved ourselves.
In other words, where is the justice? Doesn’t it bother us at least a little bit when people get away with wrongdoing? We don’t like it when a criminal goes free and never has to answer for his or her sins—that’s just not right.
But Jesus quoted the prophet Hosea, through whom God said, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” Sacrifice in the Old Testament was part of the legal system for dealing with sin. Jesus said that justice wasn’t good enough; only mercy will do.
And the fact is, no one really gets away with wrongdoing. That prodigal son came back to a family, but his inheritance was gone for good, which would make life hard for him later on. We always pay a price, even if it is only the inner brokenness, pain, and chaos that are sin’s results. In a way, we may be like the good son. But each of us, at some time or other, is also the son who self-destructs. Mercy cares for us and restores us, no matter which kid we are.
- Pretend that you are the good kid. What do you have to say to the prodigal brother or sister, and what would you say to your over-merciful parent?
- Pretend that you are the lost kid. What do you have to say to the brother or sister who has had to take up the slack caused by your trouble making? What do you have to say to the parent who is welcoming you home?