“He welcomes sinners,” the religious leaders gawked. “And eats with them.”
This is how Luke 15 opens. With the religious leaders of Jesus’ day skeptical and baffled by this rogue Messiah gaining quite the following.
And Jesus, in no hurry to put the rumors to rest, and perhaps in effort to feed the frenzy surrounding his reputation, decides to tell a few stories—His audience consisting of both the ones scandalized by the company He kept, and the scandalous sinners themselves.
He tells three stories. One about a lost coin. Another about a lost sheep. And the third about a lost son.
It may be the most well known parable of all: The Parable of the Prodigal Son.
In the story, there’s a younger son who has a wild streak and goes against his better judgment pursuing a fast, but ultimately unsatisfying, life.
There’s a dad whose insistent love and unwavering devotion causes him to run and meet his wayward son—while still a long way off—as he makes his way back home.
And there’s an older brother—a rule follower to the max—except you get the feeling his good behavior and his following the rules don’t do him any favors. He’s so wrapped up in his own exemplary behavior, he misses out on the love and affection of his father. He is so furious with his younger brother’s disregard for the family name, that he pouts his way through the party his dad threw for his brother, unable to humble himself enough to attend.
The parable is as clear a picture of the Gospel as anything. Not just because of the image we get of a loving father whose love knows no bounds. But because we see how redemption is the crux of the story. The younger brother in all his wrong-ness, ultimately got it right with the father in a way the best behaved older brother couldn’t bring himself to do.
In fact, it seems getting it right may have hampered the older brother’s shot at getting grace. And getting it wrong, as the younger brother did, created an avenue for redemption and restoration—a pathway to the father he would have never known otherwise—more than the brother who played by all the rules.
In other words, God’s specialty isn’t perfection. His highest value isn’t good behavior. And our biggest mess-up isn’t a liability, but an avenue to know God’s grace. God’s sweet spot is taking the irreparable and making it new, taking broken things and bringing them back to order, taking the dead and creating life.
Jesus would later know this as well as anyone. Crucified. Buried. Resurrected. Dead to life. In three days.
Jewish tradition believes there’s significance in the number three.
Number one represents unity, agreement and simplicity.
Number two signifies complexity, tension and discord.
Number three symbolizes harmony—involving both the unity of one and the dissonance of two.
The two together are greater than they could be on their own. Day three says, what looked impossible to reconcile, what seemed unlikely to rectify, is now restored, redeemed, made whole.
I think the progression of days Jesus was in the tomb represents the progression of all of us—including the prodigal son.
We started out good. Day one.
We sinned. Day two.
We learned through the death and resurrection of Jesus that our sinfulness would not get the final word. That maybe we would come to know the greatest thing about our God, grace, because of it. Day three.
The problem is, we have a tendency to believe we are day one people.
That if we just put forth enough effort, we’ll be okay. That we’re better than “the other guys”. That we’ve done most everything right, enough right. We have a tendency to settle comfortably into older brother thinking. More than that, we have a tendency, like the older brother, to make rule following the objective.
But the truth is, we are day two people.
We are broken. We mess up, we run away, and we get it wrong more often than we probably even realize.
And this is the very thing that brings us to the brink of day three. That’s the secret the prodigal knew. That the sooner we come to terms with our day two lives—with our faults and our screw ups, our sins and our inadequacies—the sooner we arrive at day three redemption. Because the wonder in redemption, the wonder in day three, is that it needs a day two.
If ultimately we want to be resurrection people, we have to be dead people first. And own it.
It could be the thing we are trying the hardest to escape, downplay and deny—the stuff we are least proud of, the things that shame us, haunt us and follow us from our pasts, are the very things that bring us closer to the Father, and closer to the grace our Father is eager to show us.
The sooner we come to terms with our inadequacies, the sooner we get to the good part. The beauty of the prodigal son, the beauty of our faith, is found in the power of three. Of knowing goodness, choosing badness, and being welcomed back into the fold anyway.
That’s the Gospel. No one else tells a story like our God does. No one else can take sin like ours, can take the mess we tend to make of our lives, and somehow cause us to be better. That’s God. And that’s grace.
“We had to celebrate and be glad, the father insists to the indignant older son, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”
In other words, “We had to celebrate, because that’s what redemption does. He was here, but left in a path of self-destruction. Now? He’s back. He came home. Day two is done. It’s day three. Let’s have a party.”