March 13, 2016 Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The story of the Prodigal Son is probably the most familiar of Jesus’ parables. It’s a universal story - as written. We all have our own stories that parallel this one. The more I read it, the more stories popped into my mind - from my own family and relatives and friends - stories I’ve read or heard about total strangers. This is very much a parable for the 21st century - a parable of love, forgiveness and joy.
And I had to ask myself: Who am I in this story? How have I responded to the stories that unfolded in my own life? How is God asking me to respond?
Jesus was asking the same questions of those who had gathered to listen to him: the hated tax collectors who worked for the Romans - lining their pockets with run off from the exorbitant taxes they collected. The sinners - well, that could be anybody. None of us walk this earth blemish free - although the grumbling Pharisees and scribes thought they did. After all, they followed strict religious observance - all those 600+ laws in the Torah. And God forbid they should rub elbows with anyone who didn’t. Notice their condescending reference to Jesus as “this fellow.” He was running with the wrong crowd.
So as we read this parable, I’d like you to join that crowd of tax collectors, sinners, pharisees and scribes and see who you feel most comfortable standing next to. Whose shoes do you fit into? How do you respond to Jesus’ story? What emotions wash over you as you listen? What life stories pop into your head?
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
Narrator: Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’So he told them this parable:
Jesus: ’There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father,
Younger Son: “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”
Jesus: So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said,
Younger son: “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ”
Jesus: So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him,
Youngest Son: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Jesus: But the father said to his slaves,
Father: “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
Jesus: And they began to celebrate. ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied,
Slave: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”
Jesus: Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father,
Older son: “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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Jesus: Then the father said to him,
Father: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’
This is a story of a father who loves his two sons, each of them flawed in their own way, but that doesn’t diminish their father’s love.
The youngest son has had it with life on the farm. He’s itching for his freedom - a chance to sew his wild oats. We’re not told what motivated his behavior, but we can easily fill in the blanks. Such stories abound in our own lives. But in Jewish society at that time what he asked of his father was downright disrespectful, even shameful.
Deuteronomy specifies that the first son is to be given a double portion of his father’s inheritance and the rest is to be divided equally among the other sons, with a portion held for any daughter’s dowries. This was to happen upon the father’s death. A father could decide to distribute it before then, but the sons would be expected to stay home and look after their aging parents. It’s what is meant by “honor your father and your mother.” For the younger son to ask for his inheritance early was like saying to his father, “drop dead.” Put yourself in his father’s shoes. How would you respond?
Now, we don’t know if this kid had been driving his father crazy for years and he figures, “just let him go and he’ll learn the hard way.” All we know is that he divides the inheritance according to the law: 1/3 to the younger son and 2/3’s to the older. In no time at all he was out the door, taking off for lands and life far from the confines of home, where we’re told, “he squandered his property in dissolute living.”
This story always reminds me of a college student who won the lottery when I was living in Northridge, California years ago. A state university he attended was down the street from my home. In a matter of months he had blown it all on a sports car and parties for his friends, with nothing left to pay for his college loans. I wonder what his father had to say?
No sooner had the younger son in our story today run out of money than a severe famine hit the land. Think recession - credit card debt - buying beyond our means - bankruptcy - foreclosures - jobless - no health insurance - food stamps - only they didn’t have food stamps back then. They were suffering from a lack of food. So he hired himself out to a pig farmer. Obviously he was living in Gentile lands - and desperate.
Deuteronomy instructed Jews not to eat the meat of a pig or even touch their carcasses. Here he was reduced to serving pigs their meal - and even coveting their food. Where were his new found friends in his hour of need? - no where to be found.
Why is it we humans often have to hit rock bottom before we come to our senses?
We can’t be sure whether it was repentance, or just self-preservation which motivated him to return home, but he was hit with one of those ‘aha’ moments. I’ve messed up my life. I can’t do this alone. I need to change, even if that means becoming one of my father’s hired hands - someone I used to give orders to. Now that’s humbling. Regardless of the motivation, it was a first step toward repentance.
What must he have been thinking as he made the long trek home? Fear - anxiety - how would he be received? How could he face his father, brother, family, neighbors, in his present state? How had his leaving affected his family? So he rehearsed what he would say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you: I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ Not bad. Even if his heart wasn’t totally there yet, rehearsing this over and over was bound to start connecting on some level.
And what about abba, father? Judging from his reaction, he must have spent many a long hour watching that road, hoping upon hope for his wayward son’s return. No anger, no rebuke, no questions asked, no penance required - just compassion - a welcoming embrace during a moment filled with grace. “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” That takes precedence over everything else.
So he instructs his slaves to kill the fatted calf. Invite the neighbors, the whole village! This is reason to celebrate - right? Well, put yourself in his neighbors shoes. I can just hear the gossip: Do you really want to go over there after what that boy did to his family? Where’s the justice? Forgiven - just like that? It almost feels like he’s condoning his son’s bad behavior. Has he lost his mind?
But then again, no one likes to miss a good party, and it’s not often you get to eat the fatted calf.
In the midst of all this celebration - oops - someone forgot to invite his older brother, out toiling in the fields all day - doing the work of two sons. Maybe they anticipated his reaction and didn’t want to spoil the fun.
The elder son walks up to a party in full swing. ‘What’s going on here?” Can you relate to his reaction? It wasn’t that his younger brother returned. It was the party - the music and dancing that got under his skin. Judaism has clear provisions for the restoration of a penitent returnee. He knew that. Let him return; but to bread and water, not fatted calf; in sack cloth, not a new robe; wearing ashes, not a new ring; in tears, not merriment; kneeling, not dancing.
He had a point, one seen through an all too human lens. And he refused to enter the house, thereby dishonoring his father. There’s a bit of irony going on here. Do you see it? The brother who had once placed himself on the outside was now on the inside; and the dutiful son who had stayed at home, now placed himself on the outside. “Those who are first shall be last, and last shall be first.” Will this broken family ever be whole again? We are not given the answer here. The story leaves us to fill in the blanks. After all, it’s really a story about the state of our world, and of our individual hearts.
The father showers his hurting son with the same grace he showed to his younger son, pleading with him to come in and join in the celebration - trying to help him to understand: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
But the older son couldn’t see it - couldn’t understand. His pain was too great, and all the hurts, resentments, feelings of alienation came pouring out. I’ve slaved for you all this time while Johnny boy here was out sewing his wild oats. I’m the one who took care of you - never disobeyed - and what do I get in return? You never even gave me a goat to party with my friends! What kind of love is that?!!! We’ve heard this all before.
I mentioned that he was seeing through an all too human lens.
His vision, like all of ours, is limited. We can never see the whole picture. He didn’t have any idea what his younger brother had gone through before or during his time away. He didn’t know if he had actually used his money on prostitutes. He just assumed. He didn’t know the degree he may have suffered because of the choices he had made. He didn’t know if he had repented to God, or his father. He didn’t know how much his father had suffered in his son’s absence - what past regrets he may have been harboring. He couldn’t see into his father or brother’s hearts. Only God can do that.
But it was all too much for him to handle, so he drew his line in the sand. Only in doing so, he didn’t realize he had cut himself off from his father and brother’s love. In doing so, he had diminished his own capacity to love. There’s an Arabic proverb that might have been helpful to him at that moment:
“Write the wrongs that have been done to you in the sand, but write the good things that happen to you on a piece of marble. Let go of all emotions such as resentment and retaliation, which diminish you, and hold onto the emotions, such as gratitude and joy, which increase you.”
What he couldn’t understand at that moment was that God’s love is
both/and, not either/or. The father’s embrace of one son did not mean rejection of the other, no matter what they had done. God is not drawing lines in the sand. But we humans have difficulty understanding that kind of love. We get all offended by the thought of God’s grace toward another, when we have serious, and sometimes even not so serious questions about our perception of that person’s conduct or character. We’re quick to become judge and jury, through our limited lenses.
A friend who was dying of cancer years ago told me that at her memorial she wanted me to talk about forgiveness. I asked her why. And she said it’s the most important thing in life we must learn to do, because without forgiveness we can’t love. Without love we can’t experience joy. As the parable ends today, whose shoes would you rather be standing in?