By The Rev. Sherry Deets
4 Lent – March 10, 2013
This parable, often called the Prodigal Son, is one of my favorites from Luke’s gospel. But to focus only on the prodigal son, misses the full meaning of this parable. The man had two sons, not just one; and the man, the father, is an amazing example of a father’s love in this parable.
I’d like to walk us through the parable, pointing out some of the interesting and surprising parts of this story. First, the younger son asks his Father for his share of the inheritance, probably a third of his father’s estate as the younger of two sons (Dt. 21:17). But understand that the essence of a man’s inheritance in that time was land and the only way it could be received was upon the father’s death. So, his request was essentially, “Father, I wish you would drop dead.” Even though the father could divide the land before his death, he retained rights to the use of the land. The younger son, in selling his portion, left his father without rights to the land’s use (Stiller, 111). A person’s property is his until death, and the family’s property was meant to maintain its oldest members until their death. So to demand his share early and then to dissipate it rather than to manage it responsibly for his parents’ sakes, is to say to his father, in effect, “You are already dead to me” (Duke, 90).
He goes into the Greco-Roman world, as many Jews did to seek their fortunes in the lands around Palestine. His goal is to find himself, but he ends up losing himself, reduced to working with unclean animals (Lev. 11:7). The parable tells us that he “came to himself,” (Lk. 15:17). At this point, the parable’s emotional richness begins to draws us in. The boy is hungry. He is humiliated. He knows he has made a mistake and is desperate to survive. Does this mean he genuinely repented? We can’t be sure. The narrative shows him sitting among the pig pods rehearsing what he will say to his father. Can we trust his sincerity? Is he just saying whatever it takes to fill his stomach? The story doesn’t fill in this gap for us.
And, the culture of Palestinian villages was one of honor and shame. Honor was connected to how a person was perceived in the community. The son has brought shame on his father and his whole family by his behavior. He can expect to be shamed by the village on his return.
When the father sees his son, his compassion is inspired and he moves toward him. We are reminded of the sequence in the Good Samaritan of seeing someone suffering, having compassion, and taking action (Lk. 10:33). He may have been seeking to protect his son from the insults of those he must pass by on the way home. His behavior is strange. Fathers did not run to their children. Here the father exposes himself to humiliation to prevent his son from being humiliated. His behavior is strange; it is not the way the male head of a household would act in Jesus’ time. His running to meet his son is an expression of a love so strong that one is willing to cast one’s dignity to the winds, to put aside one’s power and position for the good of another (Stiller, 110).
The father won’t even let his son get through his carefully rehearsed speech before he begins issuing orders to the servants. He offers him a kiss (a sign of forgiveness, 2 Sam. 14:33), a robe (a mark of distinction), a signet ring (a sign of authority), and shoes (worn only by freemen). The father throws him a banquet, rejoicing in his son’s return to his father’s table. He wants to point out his honored status to his younger son, but also to the community (Boucher, 100-101).
The older son objects to the warm welcome and the gifts, the signs of honor. And he has a valid point. Isn’t this celebrating excessive? This son of his father’s (15:30) has squandered a third of the family property and now will be living off his share. Now, don’t we all have the older son in us somewhere. Can’t you feel his indignation, his jealousy, his anger. His father’s grace is a crisis for the older brother who thought that he had earned a place in his father’s house by his obedience. It was radically unfair that this younger brother of his could be welcomed back and welcomed back with a party! But by arguing with his father and refusing to go into the party, the break between the father and the older son is nearly as radical as the break between the father and the younger son at the beginning of the story. The older brother couldn’t stand a love that transcends right and wrong. By our standards. We must not make the mistake of assuming that God’s ways with us are based on our own understanding of what is right and good. Isaiah 55:8-9 says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”
The parable concludes:
Luke 15:30-32 Then the father said to him, ‘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’.” With both brothers, the father, God, goes out to meet each one and asks him to come inside. Isn’t there a little of both brothers in each of us? Like the younger brother, we sometimes wonder if we’ve gone too far away to ever be invited back in—and like the older brother we sometimes wonder if we’ve done enough to earn forgiveness.
There is a song by Sarah McLaughlin entitled “Fallen” that touches on these thoughts: “Heaven bend to take my hand and lead me through the fire Be the long awaiting answer To a long and painful fight Truth be told I tried my best But somewhere long the way I got caught up in all there was to offer But the cost was so much more than I could bear. Though I’ve tried I’ve fallen. Heaven bend to take my hand”.
Heaven bend to take my hand. Our God is a forgiving God. A merciful God. The Father loves both sons, not according to what they deserve. He just loves them, more because of who He is than because of who they are. God invites us in to the banquet and into relationship with God and with each other. Notice that the story ends with the older brother still standing outside, listening to the party going on inside. Jesus leaves it that way, I think, because it is up to each one of us to finish the story. It is up to each one of us to decide whether we will stand outside all alone, being right, or give up our rights and go inside and take our place at the table. God’s amazing grace. Amen.
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