I’ve always been enamored with those incredible, fun-loving creatures who live in the Shire in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books called hobbits. Now I’m not a diehard-ask-me-any-sort-of-trivia-question follower; I just love their devotion and loyalty, their ability to enjoy life, and those great feet. You may not remember this, but when it’s a hobbit’s birthday, they give presents to their friends, family and neighbors who show up to their birthday celebrations rather than receiving gifts from them. Their focus on their birthday is to be grateful for those other people in their lives and not on what they can get in terms of cool presents.
Now you may be thinking this is a bad idea. Author and editor Rodney Clap suggests that at first this may be “an unappealing practice” leading someone to think: “What? [It’s] my birthday and I [have to] go to the trouble and expense of gifts and a party for everyone else?” But, he suggests, “Stop and consider what this means in terms of the total number of birthday gifts and parties a hobbit participates in every year.” A lightbulb might be going off in your head. Nearly every day might be a day for a party, for a chance to be reminded by someone that they are grateful for your presence in their lives. Nearly every day would be a chance to attend a great party.
Luke begins Jesus’ parable about two sons in this way: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So,” Luke writes, “[Jesus] told them this parable.” It’s one that we know well of course, this parable we title “The Prodigal Son.” And if you took a poll about which of Jesus’ parables are the most well known, this one would be near the top. A wealthy landowner has two sons. One asks for the inheritance he’s going to get when his father dies. He goes off and blows all that money not even considering if he should open up an IRA. He falls on hard times and takes a menial job keeping track of some pigs. It’s so bad that even the slop fed to the swine looks appetizing.
He comes to his senses, and realizes he could be working for his dad as a servant and at least get a hot meal and a warm bed. So off he goes walking those many miles, turning over in his mind what he’ll say to show his father that he’s sorry in order to help him get a job at home. You know the outcome: Dad sees him when he’s still far off, runs out to him with his robes flapping behind him. The boy starts in on his well-rehearsed speech but daddy doesn’t care one whit. He tells his servants to go get the best robe of the house and to grab a ring and some sandals and take that son of his back home to clean him up. And not only that, they’re to grab a calf and send out the invitations for a huge party because this son of his was dead and now is alive. He was lost and now is found.
And then the party kicks off and the older brother who’s been out working hard comes home for the night. As he’s getting closer to home he can hear the music and see the lights. Soon after he catches a whiff of the filet mignon. When he comes across one of the family servants he asks, “What gives?” “Your brother has come back, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he got him back safe and sound.”
That older brother gets ticked. He refuses to go any closer to the party and just stands out there in the yard a ways off and watches all the eating and drinking and dancing going on. One of the servants sees him there and then goes in to talk with the wealthy landowner. Dad leaves the party in order to speak with his son.
And that older son lets loose a flood of pent up emotions. How he had gotten the rough end of the stick in this deal while his brother had been off galavanting all over the country blowing the family money on God knows what. How he was the one who had been working hard for the family business—no, he had been slaving away all this time. And yet not even once had he gotten just a goat to share with his friends in spite of all that hard work. It’s like his dad hadn’t even noticed him and clearly had taken advantage of him all his life.
Well, dad looks at his son and simply says, “Son, you are always with me, and what is mine is yours. But we needed to celebrate because your brother was dead and has come to life; he was lost and now is found.”
Jesus doesn’t utter another word. He just lets that unfinished ending hang out there for his listeners, for those religious leaders dressed like me who had been mumbling about Jesus sharing a meal with people they deemed to be sinners.
What does he do, this older brother? This isn’t like that notorious short story “The Lady or the Tiger,” because in this case we all know what’s behind each door. We can imaging what will happen with each possible decision. It’s a question, of course, for those leaders looking down their noses at the company Jesus has been keeping. Will they keep up their blatant contempt or will they join in the party?
The question centers on one simple idea: whose party is it?
Rodney Clapp imagines the father responding to that older son—to those leaders—in this way. “This is not your younger brother’s party so much as it is my party, the party I throw for many. I am on the lookout for all my loved ones, near or far. I am looking for them and ready to celebrate with them before they even think of responding to me or giving anything back.” He continues, “Every time God’s active, stretching, searching, healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us. It means there is more. More wine. More feasting. More music. More dancing. It means another, and now a bigger, party.”
It’s easy to sit on this side of the parable and scream, “Wake up, you dolt! Go inside to the party! Have a glass of pinot noir and some veal piccata and then kick up your heels!” But the choice is harder when it’s inside our own brains. When we feel like we’re the one who’s been wronged, or working hard all these years and haven’t been recognized enough to our liking, or when we see the other people attending the party and think, “Nah, if they’re the ones in there partying, I’d rather stay out here and sulk.”
We fall into the trap really about birthdays and hobbits. We might be thinking if our birthday is not solely about us, then it’d be better not to have one at all. If it means buying small presents for everyone, I’d rather just not bother.
Seems silly, right? Ridiculous. And yet, we tend to forget that this life of ours is God’s party for us. It is God’s gift to be opened each day. And it’s not just for you, but for the person down the street, and the one at the Southern Border, and the one in Mozambique. As more and more people come to their senses and see that there’s something so much better waiting for them at our true home, they turn around and then get enveloped by the love of God. And God’s love is generative. It doesn’t get smaller and smaller as more people respond to it. It just keeps growing and growing until this world can no longer contain it.
Every day we get to experience the gift of that amazing love—we get invited to a bigger and better party. The question is will we go in to enjoy it or will we stay outside and sulk?
If you’re at all unsure about how you should respond, you might try asking a hobbit.