I sat and talked with a friend the other day. We were talking about life, faith, and stories. As I shared about another friend of mine who has majorly turned his life around, he said “Joel, I’ve grown up my whole life in church, I’ve never partied, I never even touched alcohol until I was 21, I never did drugs, I’m not married, so I’ve never had sex, I’ve never majorly screwed up. I’ve always done exactly what the church has taught me to do. And I feel like that’s not good enough. Like I don’t have a story to tell.”
He paused for a moment and drew a breath as his eyes moistened. Then, with his voice quivering, continued,
“I hear people talk about all these people who are turning their life around, who used to be really bad, and everyone celebrates them. But here I am, and no one even mentions how well I’ve done at keeping all the things that Jesus commands and the church tells us. I feel like I’m not good enough, that I don’t have a story to tell, that I have nothing to say that is worth listening to.”
At this point, a tear rolled down his cheek. I was astounded. Dumbfounded. Speechless. I literally had nothing to say (which, if you know me, is saying something).
I never thought for a minute that he was so troubled by having never “screwed up”.
As we sat in silence, I began to pray for God to speak to me. “Give me something to say.”
And then I felt like God was prompting me to read something to him from scripture. I had no clue what, but I felt like I needed to. So I opened up the bible app on my phone and the verse of the day was Luke 15:32, “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.’”
That was it. The story if the two sons. I opened up the whole chapter and with no introduction, no words of mine, I just started reading.
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ”
With some anger in his voice, he interrupted me, “that’s it. That’s exactly it. I just want a party for me. I want someone to recognize and celebrate me.”
I kept reading,
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘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.’”
I put stopped reading and out my phone down. As I looked up, tears were rolling down his face.
We hear about this story all the time. But we always preach on, talk about, the son who ran away. The son who screwed up. But we never spend time really thinking about, delving into, the son who stayed at home.
We preach sermon after sermon about “The Lost Son” who ran away. And how God’s grace, acceptance, redemption, was there for him when he came back. I’m sure the older son wasn’t perfect. He probably screwed up. But he didn’t do anything majorly wrong, that we read. As I thought about that, I realized that many people who grow up in church probably identify with the older son more. And the story of the younger son is a powerful story for those who are far from God. But what about those that never really strayed? Always did their best to live by what they were told? The “good kids”. The ones who can’t identify with the younger son.
At best, they get told that “in their own way, we are all the younger brother.” and that’s true, but if you’ve never felt like you really did anything majorly wrong, all that does is feel like a tired, trite, overused cliché. It doesn’t really connect with those “older sons” out there. I know I don’t have any great words of wisdom, or any solutions, or any sermon about the older son. All I have is this:
No one talks about the son who stayed at home.