Tag Archives: prodigal son

The Prodigal Who?

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (Read the whole passage)

We are four Sundays into the season of Lent, and the journey to so far has been a challenging one. We came down the mountain of Transfiguration to find our selves in the valley of ash. We then followed Jesus into the wilderness of temptation, and then to Jerusalem to lament over God’s people. Last week the crowds asked big questions about suffering and who is to blame and Jesus answered with the curious parable of the fig tree where the gardener advocated for the tree, “give it another year.”

Today Jesus continues to talk to the crowds of Jerusalem, the Pharisees and tax collectors. And the parable that he tells is one of the most iconic of scripture – The Prodigal Son.

The story of the son who spend his inheritance on dissolute living only to return home, hat in hand, is one that still carries some cultural memory. You can still hear the occasional tv show or movie throw out the label ‘prodigal son’ in reference to someone who returns home from an ill-spent time away, usually involving drugs, alcohol, crime and/or jail time.

The image of the prodigal son holds a certain place in our minds and in our larger culture that pushes us to understand this parable in ways that might not be the ones intended by Jesus as he told it.

In a facebook group of mostly Lutheran pastors that I am a part of, someone admitted that they had grown up being taught that “prodigal” meant “naughty.” And many more pastors admitted to the same thing. And while I won’t ask you to raise your hands, I am sure many of us grew up with a similar understanding of the term prodigal.

Of course, prodigal doesn’t mean naughty. It means lavish or abundant or extravagant or wasteful even. But even still the fact that we label the son as prodigal speaks to a common understanding that has been attached to this parable over generations.

The usual understanding of this parable goes that the son who asks his father for his inheritance and goes off to spend it on a good time in a far away place has committed some terrible, near unforgivable sin. After realizing the error of his ways, he returns to his home to be surprisingly welcomed by his father.

Yet, it is actually not totally clear what his great sin is. Is it asking for his inheritance prematurely? Is it leaving his family duties behind for another life? Is it the dissolute living that he engages in in a far away land? Or is the most Protestant and capitalist of sins, not putting a substantial sum of money to a profitable use?

The term prodigal might best apply to the last one, yet Jesus was not the one who named the parable. Rather English speakers did about 1500 years after the Gospel of Luke was put to paper.

In fact, only when the title is put aside, we are finally able to shed some new light on this story.

The parable begins not with the son, but with a man who has two sons. The younger of which asks for his inheritance… yet, this is was no simple a matter for the people of Israel. Inheritance wasn’t just a convenient equal split as it often is for us. In the ancient world, the eldest son received a double portion of inheritance. In this case, the elder son would received two thirds of his father’s wealth. The younger would received one third. But this did not include the land, as the land was understood to belong not just to one man but to the whole family or tribe of the landowner. The land was meant to provide for all those who lived on it, not just for the landowner. The elder son would not just inherit the wealth of his father, but also his obligation to manage and care for the land, the family, and the servants who worked the land.

The younger son would become the right hand to his older brother, the first of his brother’s servants.

And so when the younger son asks his father for his inheritance it is more than just asking for some party funds. And his inheritance is much less than we imagine to be. What this younger son is really asking for is a different life. He is wanting to do something else than be the first servant of his grumpy older brother.

Often when we tell this story, we imagine some great change in the younger son, someone who learns the error of his ways. Yet, as a new life in a foreign land doesn’t materialize, the younger son finds a job as a hired hand. Quickly, realizing that if this is to be his lot in life, he might as well do it with family than with strangers. And so he goes home, not as a changed man, but back to the destiny that was always his to begin with. To be a servant in his father’s household.

And despite his father running to meet him on the road, it is this understanding of himself that the the younger son says his las words in the story,

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

And then there is the often forgotten older son… the son who is grumpy about life in general. Who despite inheriting a double portion of his father’s wealth, is mostly inheriting duty, obligation and responsibility. The responsibility to managing wealth and land not for his benefit, but in order to provide and care for an entire community.

Perhaps he too feels trapped in a destiny that he may not want. And just like the younger son who begins and ends the parable in the same place, the older son begins bitter about his lot in life and finishes bitter, angry at his father’s generosity towards his younger brother.

In fact, understanding these brothers in this way begs us to ask, who, in fact, is the prodigal one? Who is the one who wastes something?

And again, there is a problem with the familiar title of the parable.

Despite the Prodigal Son’s relatively recent English name, our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters have called it by a different name for much longer…

‘The Parable of the Loving Father’

Our first clue as to who this parable might be about came in the very first words:

There was a man.

It is usually the case that the first person mentioned in a parable is who the parable is about.

There was a man who had two sons.

And it is the Father whose story just might be the most significant.

As the younger son comes looking for a new life, the Father gives his son the opportunity to make a new life.

And when the younger son returns home, the Father runs out to meet his son, to welcome him home with open arms.

Then when he Father throws a party for his lost son, the Father also goes out to find his elder son, and to welcome him to the party.

And as the older son complains that his Father never provided anything for his enjoyment, the Father reminds his older son that all that the Father has is also his son’s.

While the two sons are stuck inside themselves, stuck only seeing the burdens they may carry and the things they might miss out on… the Father continually seeks them out in order to love them, in order to remind them that they are more than they imagine, that they are the beloved children of their father, they belong to their Father’s family and community, and they forever bound to one another as siblings.

It may be true that the younger son is prodigal, lavish or wasteful with money. And it maybe true that the elder son is abounding in bitterness and resentment.

But perhaps it is the Loving Father who is truly the prodigal one. The Father who is lavish and extravagant in his love and welcome, who is willing to risk wasting everything that he has so that his children will know his love, who is willing to seek out and find his lost sons regardless of of the cost.

Of course, this parable is about the Loving and Prodigal Father who seeks his lost children.

And of course this parable is a reminder of just how God is with us.

Each and every time we come home to God’s house, God runs to meet us in the waters of baptism, and lavishly reminds us of God’s mercy and grace given in the Word, and God welcomes us again and again to the table, again and again to the feast of heaven. The feast of heaven where our bitterness and shame, our burdens and loss are left behind so that we can reminded again of who we are.

That we are God’s beloved children that God will spare no cost to find.

An important reminder as we journey towards the end of Lent, and towards the heart of human messiness on Good Friday… That there is no place and no thing that can keep God from loving us, not even the cross.

And The Loving and Prodigal Father is the one running to meet us on morning of the third day.

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The Prodigal Son and his Self-Righteous Jerk of a Brother

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So Jesus told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons… (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

The definition of the word prodigal is: a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way. Or someone who is wastefully extravagant.

The story of the prodigal son is a familiar story that most of us could probably retell the if we were we put on the spot. In fact, the term “prodigal son” can be applied to a person or situation, and most people will know the meaning. Even if most Christian images and symbols are being forgotten in culture, the prodigal son and his story endures. There must be something about this story that bears familiarity to our own experience and lives.

But the problem with familiarity is that meaning can be reduced and simplified. The power of the parable can be lost. And the prodigal son, like all good parables that Jesus tells, is not meant to be a simplistic, straight across comparison where the Father equals God, and the sons equal humanity. Instead, good parables demand that we put ourselves in the shoes of all the characters, that we put God in the shoes of all the characters, and even consider that we or God might not be any of the characters.

A few years ago, a good friend who is also a pastor, shared about his experience teaching his confirmation class the parable of the prodigal son. To help the class embody the parable, he had the students act out the story. They found it easy to play the son who goes out to have a party on his father’s dime. And the dutiful yet indignant older son was also easy to play. But when it came time to be the father who ran out to welcome home his lost son, the students would stand and wait with hands on hips, a frown on their face. Or they would scold the returning son for making his father worry. Some even grounded the son when he returned. They just couldn’t imagine a parent who welcomed a delinquent child home without some kind of reprimand. I am not sure what this says about us as parents, but at least says something about the average teenager’s view of their parents.

Yet, this story only goes to show that no matter how well we think we know this parable, it carries far more depth and meaning than at first glance. And it is far more radical than it appears. It is easy to assume that the parable of the Prodigal Son is a moralism about doing the right thing. Older son good, younger son bad. Don’t be a younger son, we think is the moral of this tale. But that judgement is not one the text actually makes and to really hear what the parable is saying, we have to step away from the morals and lessons that we assume from the get go.

As with all the parables of Jesus, we need to consider the audience. There are two very different groups that Jesus is speaking to. The first is tax collectors and sinners. Those who owed debts and those who collected, but both of whom were believed to be excluded from God’s forgiveness and mercy. Contrast them with the second group, the Pharisees and scribes, the virtuous religious authorities and leaders who controlled access to God forgiveness and mercy. An audience who represented two very different experiences of God’s love.

With these two groups in mind, Jesus tells three parables about lost things, the third being about a man with two sons. The younger son asks for his share of his inheritance to strike out on his own in the world. But before we can set to the task of judging this son for his dissolute living, it is important to understand Jewish inheritance practice. In Jesus’ day, it was the norm that the elder son would inherit a double portion of his father’s wealth. The older son in this story would get two thirds of the inheritance, while his younger brother just one third. But not all things were divided this way. As land belonged to families or tribes, the older son would become the one in charge of all the land of his father. He would control not only two thirds of his father’s wealth, but all of his father’s land, his father’s tenants, workers and slaves. And this would include his younger brother. So while we assume that the younger brother is some party animal or that he can’t for his father to die to get his hands on his money, it might actually be the case that the younger brother just doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life working under his self-righteous jerk of an older brother.

And while it might be easy to assume, like his older brother did, that the younger son went and lost his inheritance by immoral living, we don’t really know. It could have been a combination of circumstances, such as poor choices, famine, or being alone in a foreign land.

Yet, to put the weight of the parable’s meaning on the younger son’s repentance and return home is to miss a key feature of good Hebrew story telling. The last part of the story is often the point.

And the last part of the story is all about the older son.

The older son’s refusal to celebrate his brother’s return is more than a mere attitude problem. This older son has fundamentally missed the point. As his father invites him to the banquet, the older son stands in judgement of both his brother and his father. He is indignant. He believes that he is the righteous one. He believes that he has earned his rightful place in his father’s house. He thinks his hard work and obedience entitles him to his father’s wealth and lands, to his father’s position and power. He complains that his father hasn’t recognized his virtue, not even with a modest young goat to enjoy with his friends. Yet, his father has killed the fatted calf for his delinquent brother. The injustice! Never mind that every goat and calf, every robe and ring, every slave and servant (including the younger brother) will one day belong to him.

It is easy to see the parable of the Prodigal Son about one good son and one bad, yet when we set our assumptions aside and unpack the depths of the story, we can see that it is both sons who are equally lost. And we can see it is isn’t about trying to be more like one son over the other. Instead, we see that there are times in our lives where we have felt self-righteous and indignant, like we have earned our place in the world and more. And there might be other times where we have felt unworthy and unloveable, like we couldn’t possibly be shown mercy and compassion.

Still, even with a perspective shift in how we see the sons, we are just as unable as those confirmation students to see the radical love of a parent, who loves without reprimand or condition. Yet, the newly understood lostness of both sons helps to sharpen for us just how loving this father is.

The name western Christians have given this son says much about how we understand this parable: The Prodigal or Wasteful with Money Son. But the Eastern Orthodox church calls this parable the Loving Father.

Whether it is the son who thinks he is unworthy and undeserving of his Father’s love or it is the son who is indignant and believes that he has earned more than he has received, the father seeks out his sons. Both sons. The well-to-do land-owner father runs down the road in a very undignified fashion welcome his lost younger son home. The generous and compassionate father still goes out to plead with his ungrateful and resentful older son, despite his son’s rejection. This father does not judge, this father does not reprimand, this father does not set condition on his generosity.

Even when younger takes advantage of his father and loses all that he has been given. Even when older cannot see that he has not actually earned anything, but that his father has freely given all that he has to his son. Both sons are given love and mercy and grace by their father. If anyone is prodigal, if anyone is wastefully extravagant it is the father who is lavish with his love.

What a radical image of God’s love and forgiveness for Jesus’ audience? A reminder to the Pharisees, Scribes and those of us who think we have earned it, that God’s love cannot be earned because it is already given freely. A reminder to the tax collectors, sinners and those of us who feel unworthy or undeserving, that God’s love is given freely and does not need to be earned.

This Lenten season we have been confronted again and again with the relationship of love and power. Today, we are shown an image of God’s love that is more generous than we can imagine.

Today, our Prodigally loving God shows us just how far God will go to find us.

Amen

* This sermon was co-written with my amazing wife, Courtenay. Follow her on Twitter: @ReedmanParker