This week’s scripture: Luke 15:11-32
Today’s parable is a familiar one to most of you. Chapter 15 begins like this… “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ It’s no secret that Jesus seemed to enjoy and seek the company of people that others thought weren’t worth it –Jesus would attend a dinner with the more elite of his community when he was invited – although, as we saw last week, he used these invitations as opportunities to teach the community about how they were not living according to the will of God. Much to their dismay, he would spend these times talking about of what God required of them. The more time he spent with them the more he pointed out the errors of their ways and this didn’t make him very popular – in fact, it eventually paved the way to his death. So here he is again, in this story, reminding those who would shame him for spending time with “sinners”, that we all of us belong to God.
First, he says that when one sheep goes missing, the shepherd will still look for it and be overcome with great joy when he finds it because he has found what was lost. He doesn’t just say, well, I have 99, I don’t need that one anyway. No, all are valued. He tells them about the woman that lost a coin, she searched high and low for it even though she had other money, because it was valuable to her. Like these first two stories, the parable of the prodigal son points to the value of something or someone who is lost, but there is a third character in this story that adds to our understanding of the nature of God.
“There was a man who had two sons” – like the man with his sheep and the woman with her coins – there is more than one thing of value in this story. The younger of the two sons goes to his father and says, “give me what is mine”. What is really important to understand here is that this man had absolutely no right to anything that he demanded from his father at this time– none of it would actually be his until his father was dead. So he is essentially saying, you are dead to me, give me what I am owed. He is petulant, greedy, heartless, and cruel – yet, the father, who has every right to say “no,” does not refuse. Being that there were just two sons, the literature says that the property would have been divided into thirds. 1/3 for the younger and 2/3 for the elder brother – that being said – the elder does not get his “share” yet, because the father is still alive. So the younger brother takes his share and runs away with it. Prodigal means to spend frivolously.
The scripture doesn’t tell us what he spent all his money on (but the elder brother has some ideas later in the story), but it does say that his life in this new country was immoral/dissolute. When his money has run out he finds himself in the middle of a famine– he went from dissolute to destitute. He was so desperate that he hired himself out as a pig feeder – Jewish law forbid contact with pigs – he was now the lowest of the low, he was penniless, homeless, very alone and at risk of starving to death… he was broken. In his brokenness he remembered his home. He remembered his father. He remembered his generosity. He remembered that those hired by his father were not treated like he was being treated – they were fed and taken care of. He knew what he had to do if he wanted to live. He knew where he could get help. He didn’t expect to be treated like a son again. He was so broken and ashamed that he no longer felt worthy to be called his father’s son, but he hoped, at the very least, that his father wouldn’t turn him away as a worker. He practiced what he would say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
Let’s remember that he had completely dishonoured his father, his family, and his culture with his behaviour. He acted as though his father was already dead, he left all the work to his older brother, and he broke the laws of his people. But, when his father saw him in the distance all the rules of culture were set aside. His son, who he thought was gone forever, had come home and he ran to him with open arms. You and I can connect with this idea a little bit better than those who would have heard this story from Jesus. They would not have been so quick to accept that this is what a father would do. Honour and shame were what they understood.
Many of us hope that we would be like this father should we be put in his position, but we also know that sometimes people push their families too far. We are more apt to think about times like when my brother went missing at about age 10 in the city of Victoria – my mother was frantic – this was not our city and he was lost. I clearly remember her saying, “When I find him, I’m going to kill him.” But as the hours passed, her anger turned to sorrow and when he came strolling out of the underwater aquarium pleased as punch about the adventure he’d just had my mother embraced him in her love. But, what about the adult addicted to drugs or suffering from mental illness who blames, hurts, abuses, and even steals from those who love them because of their condition? Sometimes the pain of the loved one’s illness or addiction makes it feel like they are lost even when they are right in front of you and it just becomes too much to bear. Sometimes these friends, families, and spouses have just had enough. They simply can’t do it anymore and for their own well-being they have to let go.
Some of you may have seen a video from Sinead O’Connor, the singer made famous in the 90s for ripping up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. She lives with Bipolar Disorder and this week put a video online that many across the world watched in judgement. She was raw, she was real and she was in the middle of deepest despair. She was crying out to the family that she says has abandoned her. What pushed them over the edge and so far from her we do not know. But, it happens. It happens because we are human and we can understand the need to protect ourselves from this kind of pain.
But the father in this story puts aside his own pain, his own shame, even his own pride to embrace his desperate son in his time of deepest need. He doesn’t even wait to hear an apology. For all he knows his son was coming to ask for more money! In that moment though, he doesn’t care. In his desperation, the son begins to say what he had practiced probably all the way to his father’s land, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son;” but before he can say, “treat me like one of your hired hands,” his father has already embraced him and called for him to be taken care and for the party to begin. There is no shame in his return, just celebration! Just like the man and his sheep and the woman and her coin – what was lost is found and it is time to rejoice!
The final character in this story, the older brother, is less than thrilled with idea! He adds a human layer to this story that we may have missed in the other two stories in this chapter. You don’t hear the other sheep or coins saying, “what about me?” But, this is what he does here. “What about me?” But he dishonours his father by not attending the feast that is happening when he comes back from work – like the invitees to the feast that we heard about last week, he just refuses to go. His father, not one to acknowledge the rules of the honour system, goes to his son and personally asks him to come to the party. His son once again dishonours him saying he worked like a slave – he worked, not out of love or respect of his father, but because he felt he had to, in this moment he reveals how much he resented his position in life.
I think most of us can relate to him. Sometimes life feels so unfair. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes others, who seem to do everything wrong, seem to have the greatest reward. Sometimes it feels like we work and work and work and never get noticed, but that other person does nothing and gets rewarded for it. All we see is what we lack. We might even have thoughts like, “Why should others get anything ‘just because’ when we have had to work so hard to get where we are?” When we do anything because we have to instead of because we want to then we are setting ourselves up for a life of resentment and anger.
We can choose to be any of the characters in this parable, and we can be all of them at different times in our lives. We have all made mistakes and the younger son teaches us how to be remorseful. He reveals that in our lowest moments, in our brokenness we can swallow our pride and say we are sorry. He teaches us what it means to turn our lives around and seek reconciliation for those we have wronged by saying we are sorry.
The father in this story is often allegorized as God, but I think the story really teaches us that we ought to be like the father character in this story, and like the man with the lost sheep, and like the woman with the lost coin. We should always look for the lost and celebrate when they are found. But, I noticed something in this reading. This character doesn’t go looking – he lets his son go. Sometimes, like the father in this story, we can’t leave and go after what leaves us because we have other responsibilities that need our attention. Sometimes we just have to keep our hearts open in hope that whatever or whoever we let go of will find their way back to us when the time is right. And when they do, this character teaches us to let go of our anger, our shame, and our pain and forgive. The father in this story teaches us about unconditional love.
Finally, the older brother, who we either villainize and allegorize as representing the Pharisees, or we empathize with him because we see ourselves. He teaches us that we are all invited to celebrate when the lost are found! When we choose an attitude of scarcity where anger, resentment, and bitterness are always under the surface of everything we do then we focus on what we lack and are easily jealous of others. But, when we decide to accept the invitation to the celebration we move out of scarcity and into abundance. Accepting the reality of the Kingdom of God means that we always remember that we are all invited to the party and there is always enough for everyone that shows up!
This week I read a quote online that said, “Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not a pie.” This spoke so clearly to me as I was thinking about the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We never know what the younger son does after the celebration and we never know if the older son decided to come to the party. The point is that there was a celebration! What was lost was found. The work of reconciliation had begun. The work of justice had begun. The love and justice of God is not a pie, there is enough for all. When all of us work within our own lives to be more like what these three characters teach us then we are a little bit closer to realizing the Kingdom. When we learn to be remorseful like the younger son, when we learn to be forgiving like the father, when we learn to be gracious like the father in his invitation to his older son, and when we learn to live abundantly as we hope the older son will choose, then we are learning to live as Jesus tried to teach us to live by his example in the world. For the Love of God, may we learn! Amen.