The story that Jesus told of the wayward, or prodigal, son is really about a father who lost two sons: the one who strayed away and the other who stayed home. They both rebelled against his love. They breached it by deliberate choice.

The younger rebel repented and came home. He was received in his father’s waiting, forgiving arms. He was restored to sonship with great joy.

His older brother could not understand this forgiveness. He based his relationship with his father on his own achievements, and sought reward for his righteous conduct.

Had he not remained home, served and obeyed his father? Why should his brother be received with such celebration? What was his father’s joy about – simply because the renegade had returned? Shouldn’t he be punished rather than rewarded? Wouldn’t true joy come from his own blameless achievements and behavior? Complainingly, he conveyed these thoughts to his father.

The father assured the older brother that he still loved him, and reached out to him to enter the family circle of rejoicing on his brother’s return. He explained that it was fitting to make merry. “Your brother was lost and now is found, was dead and is now alive.” He assured the older brother that he had always been with him as his son, and all he had as a father belonged to him.

As Jesus taught this parable, we learn, the tax collectors and sinners drew near. The disciples were among these people, as well as the scribes and Pharisees – the most renowned teachers and leaders of Israel, always seeking to trap Jesus. They were complaining and grumbling among themselves: “This man receives sinners and eats with them!”

This parable begs us to examine ourselves and ask who we identify with in this story. Are we the younger son, who continues to rebel and needs to ask for forgiveness? Or are we the older son, following all the rules while our hearts are far from God?

Perhaps we’re good members of a church or a “do good” organization. We get good press on our accomplishments. Accolades will be spoken at our funeral. How we love that!

But this story reminds me of the words the reformer, Martin Luther, spoke on his deathbed: “We are only ever beggars.” This means, of course, beggars of God’s gracious forgiveness – never earning our salvation.

God’s love is for sinners, and that is you and me. This love is meted out in His gracious word, given in fullness by a costly deed. Jesus, as he spoke this parable, was on his way to the cross where he would suffer for our sins and then rise, triumphant over them. Both our death and resurrection are involved.

This truth applies to all of us – for those who have ignored Him in their rebellion; for those who claim a particular kinship with Him and take a special view of themselves as a “kingdom member,” as if we belong to a certain club. It warns us that we can lapse into either camp.

Rather, the true call is to be a disciple. Truly, we can see this kingdom as a body of believers who are family to each other in the church. But also, as the “moving force of Christ upon this earth,” the church’s call is to be family to the world and to be “at table” with them, as Jesus was and is.

Pastor Carole Shelby is a retired Lutheran (LCMC) pastor and a member of the Park Rapids Ministerial Association.