(aka Parable of the Prodigal Son)
Primary Lesson: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Was the younger son surprised when his father gave him the inheritance? The request was not like asking for an allowance or even an advance on a paycheck earned. The son’s request, as you might imagine, was quite significant, carrying with it the underlying premise of the father’s death. It’s almost as if the son is saying to his father, “You are dead to me!” The request is utterly astonishing in its disdain and callousness towards the father. The son doesn’t care about the father; he only wants the father’s money.
Essentially, the son has separated himself from the father, tearing asunder any relationship that they had. Not only the father, but the son has also rejected and dishonored the community as well. He has hurt and shamed them, disavowing their traditions and the very life they give. In the context of this story, it is reasonable to assume that everyone – the brother, the slaves, and hired hands, and all the villagers, even the son himself – thought this was a one-way trip.
Everyone, that is, except the father. Notice that throughout the beginning of the narrative, the father remains silent. He does not question the son about why he is leaving or where he is going. There is no evident anger or argument. Instead, the father simply divides the property between the two sons.
We have often heard this story and understood its message as one of sin. The two sons are held up as examples: The younger son is the bad son who runs away and does even worse things in the faraway land. The older son, the good son, remained at home and did what the father asked, never disobeying. The implication is obvious: Be like the older son; remain at home as the obedient, slave-like child to your heavenly father. I hear this message in the story partly because that is how I was taught, and there was never a time or a point to challenge such teaching.
To be sure, in a simplistic (and, in my opinion, incomplete) reading of the story, the basic plot might uphold and give merit to such a reading. The younger son tells his father that he wants what would be his inheritance, he leaves town, and he wastes the money on dissolute living. One day, while dreaming of eating what he was feeding the pigs, the son has an epiphany and he returns to his father’s household only to have his older, more responsible brother, look down his nose at the whole situation. In this parable’s most simplistic reading, the parable serves as a lens through which we can view bad sin, repentance, and obedience.
However, I have begun wondering if maybe there is more here than a simple message about obedience and sin. Indeed, maybe the story is not even really about the younger son but about the father and the older son. Maybe we focus too much on the younger son and his behavior and miss the parable’s thrust as a story about welcome and grace (more than it is about sin). Indeed, hear how Luke introduces the story, “There was a man.” From the beginning of the parable, the father is the focus! And even as we hear about the younger son’s journey, it is always told in relation to the father. The father is the one who even made it possible for the son to leave in the first place.
In hearing this parable as a story of welcome and grace, it might be helpful to notice three parts:
- to whom Jesus is telling this parable;
- what really happened in that pigpen;
- and, how the story ends.
First, the parable we heard today is the third of three parables that Jesus tells, the lectionary skipping over the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. We do, however, hear the context of Jesus’ storytelling. We hear, for instance, that Jesus was welcoming “all the tax-collectors and sinners” and was even eating with them. In Jesus’ day, the clean ( righteous) and the unclean (sinners) simply did not share meals, so the Pharisees, whose job it was to interpret what was kosher and what wasn’t, made sure he knew about it. The three parables that Jesus then tells, about things that had been lost being found, are in response to the Pharisees’ judgment. One sheep out of a hundred was lost, and the shepherd searched the ends of the earth to find it. When he did find it, he threw a massive party to celebrate. One silver coin out of ten was lost, and the woman overturned her whole house to find it. When she did find it, she threw a massive party to celebrate. One son out of two was lost, and the father kept scanning the horizon searching for any sign that his boy might return home. When the boy did return, the father threw a massive party to celebrate. So, what do we learn from this? We learn that no matter who might want to be the judge of who is in and who is out, God is ready to throw a massive party to celebrate every stupid sheep, every seemingly worthless coin, and every ingrate child that was lost but is found.
Second, in his comments after the first two parables (Luke 15:3-10), Jesus notes that the lavish parties are representative of the joy experienced by God and all the angels “over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7, 10). One will notice, however, that the word repent does not appear in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Instead, notice the flow of the plot: After squandering all of his inheritance, the foreign land to which he had moved succumbed to famine. His funds ran out and the economy failed at the same time. The best job he could find was feeding the pigs, an awful situation made clear by his longing even for the food the pigs ate. Now, notice the conspicuous omission of any notion of repentance. Instead, what the parable relates is a moment of desperation when he “came to himself” (Luke 15:17). In other words, he returned to his senses and remembered the farm full of food such that even the hired hands had more than enough to eat. So, he concocted a plan that would bring him home. He would say all the right things – things planned ahead of time – and be brought back as a hired hand. Then, at the very least, he would have food to eat. So, this is really quite striking to me, truly unsettling. Is Jesus saying through this parable that God will welcome back and throw a party for ALL who come home, even those whose return comes with questionable intentions? Is God scanning the horizon, waiting to welcome home even those who are still stuck in their “sinful” ways simply because they’ve come looking? What do we learn from this? I learn that God is always ready to welcome me home, whether or not I’m here for the right reasons.
Third, as the party for the returned son unfolds, the older brother returns from a day of hard work in the field. He is indignant as he stands outside, listening to the festivities and celebrations. He sneers a complaint,
“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command, yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30)
Just as he had done for his younger son, the father tried to bring the older into the relationship. As the story ends, though, Jesus doesn’t reveal if the older brother relents and enters the celebration. Instead, the parable fades to black with the older brother still outside glaring into the house. Is it possible that God would restore a jerk like the younger brother only to leave one who was seemingly faithful on the outside looking in? Can we fathom a God who will allow us to be our own worst enemies when we refuse to be reconciled? What do we learn from this? I think we can learn from this that God is desperate to be in a relationship with everyone, but we can remain on the outside looking in because of our own expectations, prejudices, and lack of grace.
The father recommits himself to the runaway-come-home – a feast, the best robe, sandals, and a ring. Where are you in your life? Are you just leaving home? God offers freedom and you are loved. Are you currently in the pigsties of life? God will protect you and you are loved. Are you on your way home? God waits patiently and you are loved. Have you finally arrived home? God has prepared for you a banquet and you are loved. It doesn’t really matter where you are on the journey! Wherever you are, you can trust that God loves you.