I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the story of the prodigal son from the Gospel according to Luke. If I were asked to pick a single story from the New Testament — maybe even from the entire Bible — that exemplifies the Christian message, this is the story I'd choose.

The parable has it all — sin, degradation, repentance, confession, forgiveness, redemption, blessing — the whole spiritual ball of wax, encapsulated in a setting that is intimately familiar to everyone: a family. It is the climax of three stories Jesus tells to answer those who criticize him for eating with tax collectors and sinners.

In a land of plenty and a time of easy access to food, we may miss the significance of sharing food with someone, and whom one chooses to eat with. In Jesus' time, food was less easy to come by, and hospitality was a near-sacred duty. To eat with someone was to share something intimate with them, and to treat them as being of value. As for tax collectors and sinners: those who enforced the taxes imposed by the hated Roman overlords were regarded as collaborators with the enemy. And sinners had turned their backs on God. Not the dining companions for one who would be accepted in polite society.

Nevertheless, Jesus tells three stories that illustrate God's joy at recovering a formerly lost soul, to show that those who say they love God should also rejoice in the return of a sinner to the fold, and should extend themselves to make such a return happen. Maybe even invite a tax collector to dinner.

And this climactic story follows the same pattern: the younger son commits a heinous offense in asking for his inheritance while his father still lives — the equivalent of wishing his father dead — then sells the property and leaves his homeland to squander the proceeds in dissolute living. Fallen on hard times — so low, in fact, that he is working for a Gentile and feeding pigs, which were regarded by Jews of the time more or less as we would regard rats — he "comes to his senses" and decides to go home, confess his sin to his father and ask to be taken back only as a hired hand.

However, when his father sees him coming, he doesn't wait for his errant son to arrive. Casting aside his patriarchal dignity, he runs out to greet him, clasping him in a bearhug before the apology is half out of the young man's mouth, and ordering the servants to dress him as an honored guest and prepare a feast in his honor. If that reception wouldn't convince anyone to repent and return to God, I can't imagine what would.

But this is where the parable diverges from the previous two. There's another drama to be played out: that of the elder son. And I imagine that Jesus knows there's more than a little of the elder son in most of us: the part that feels underappreciated, resentful, self-righteous. That thinks we never get what we deserve, while others get more than they should. That walks around with a giant chip on its shoulder. That part of us is so hungry for approval, which we confuse with love. We want a pat on the back, a gold star to stick on our forehead, in the terms of Luke's story, a kid to celebrate with our friends.

The story draws our attention back to the father. Just as he did with his younger son, the father goes out to the elder son as well, and again casts his dignity aside to plead with him to come into the house and join the party. He responds to his son's resentment and anger with generosity and love: "You are with me always," he says, "and all that I have is yours." Or put less kindly: "Wake up, silly. You're already in heaven, if you'd just open your heart. All the love you crave is here, but you have to be ready to receive it." And of course part of being ready to receive is being ready to rejoice at others' receiving, too.

The final act of the drama is left for us to write: Will we go into the house or not? Will we share God's joy with the infinite diversity of people and other creatures at God's party? Or will we stay outside in the dark and be "right"? The thing is, God doesn't treat us as we deserve — and that is good news. When we surrender to God's grace and love, when we pray, even half-heartedly, to be able to do such a thing, God goes about 90 percent of the way to meet us. God wants everyone in the house, celebrating, and will never stop trying to get us to come inside.

How can we enter into the divine joy? The answer is partly individual, but a good general answer is to do something for someone else. Read to a child, or teach an adult to read. Bake cookies for a senior center. Work a shift at the AIO food pantry. Cook, serve or even just eat with the guests at a soup kitchen. Visit someone in the hospital. Ask a Democrat — or a Republican — to lunch. Resentment flourishes in isolation; its antidotes are gratitude and connection.

May we all come to God's love feast.