Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Prodigal (adj.) – wasteful, reckless, dissolute, profligate, extravagant, uncontrolled
This story is one of those stories that is so rich with meaning that there are multiple messages and layers in the text. The challenge is not finding one sermon, but which one sermon to find. As I mentioned with the kids, each of us come to this story with our own experiences in mind which colors how we see the characters and message of the story. If you’re a responsible oldest child, you very likely relate with the elder son. If you are a rebellious younger child, you will understand the younger son’s need to go and be in the world. All of us can claim some experience with a complicated, even dysfunctional family system and so all of us can relate to this story and its themes.
The older son oozes responsibility. He lives and breathes duty and loyalty. He does what is asked of him, he strives to live up to the expectations set on him. In short, he works hard without thanks and does not ask for special recognition … except for this little nagging emotion in the back of his mind that he shoves further back that sometime, just occasionally he would like for his hard work to be acknowledged. He would like to feel valuable and special. So when his younger brother asks for his share of the inheritance and leaves, the older son thinks perhaps now people (namely his father) will finally see his true worth. He figures he just needs to bide his time, let his father get over the insult of losing his son without dying, and then his father can devote all his love and affection on the only “true” and “good” son that he has, him! So, of course he’s a little put out when baby brother comes back and is thrown a party. Every kid who has played with friends or siblings knows that there is one implicit rule of play: Fairness. If one child gets a lollipop, everyone gets a lollipop. If one child gets the attention of daddy, all of the children need equal time with daddy. So the older brother utters the eternally understood words to his father, “It’s not fair!!”
And if we are honest, we understand this brother. We know him and like him. We are this older brother. We’re Christians who are trying to live an upstanding, decent life. We want to be Christ’s light in the world so we do our best to live up to our calling in Christ. We come to church regularly, we pray earnestly, we try to ensure that our actions and beliefs match up … I wonder if there are ways in which the church as a whole is this brother sometimes. Do we cry “foul” when someone who doesn’t even deserve grace and forgiveness claims it in God? Do we tunnel vision in on our own contribution to the family so much that we cannot appreciate the joy of the younger son’s return? Do we act as though love should be measured and rationed so that everyone gets the same, equal amount?
The younger son is completely undeserving. First, he wishes his father dead by asking for his inheritance before he actually passes away. In his land-based society, inheritance means land so he takes a portion of the farm that has likely been in his family for generations and sells it. Then, he takes the money and wastes it away. He goes out into the world and he gets so far from his home that this Palestinian-raised Jew is caring for pigs – definitely not a kosher task that an observant Jew would hold. And he looks and realizes that these unclean, non-kosher pigs are eating better than he is. He needs help. He needs his family. He needs to go back and ask for forgiveness. He knows that he cannot expect much, but he secretly hopes that his father will do more than make him a servant. He is wishing and praying beyond hope that his father will do what he did when the younger son fell off his first bike and skinned his knee – make it all better. He is praying that the father can heal the rift between the two of them, and see his way to forgiving him and maybe even providing for him. The younger son does not get what he deserves … he gets more!
If we are honest, we can all relate to this son in some way. We have all found ourselves down some pathway that we knowingly took. And even though we didn’t mean to get so far away from home, we find ourselves lost, unable to get back to the place of spiritual wholeness. All of us are sinners and we know that we cannot make it right. We can only rely on God’s provision of grace to save us. I wonder if there is some way in which we as a church are this younger son as well. Do we spend our inheritance, the grace that we’ve received, recklessly? Do we wander away from our spiritual home in God in search of something different? Have we reached a spiritual low where we are aware of our need for the Father’s grace and forgiveness, but aren’t sure if it will be extended to us since we obviously do not know how to accept and use it responsibly?
At some point, most of us can also identify with the father who cares fervently for both his sons. When asked to go ahead and die, he gives his son his inheritance. And although more reasonable minds would have then written off the younger son and expected him gone forever, the father watches and waits for his son’s return. He scans the horizon and hopes for the faintest sign of his son’s arrival. Before he catches a glimpse, he is off running (not something that a dignified Jewish father would do!) and welcomes his son home, cutting off the son’s apology and celebrating joyously with a feast. Really a celebration this big flaunted a son’s failure to his friends and family, it should have been humiliating. It is a “grace far too excessive to make sense” (Thoughtful Christian). When his older son is put out by this unfair show of extravagance, instead of defending the younger son or chastising the older son, the father simply says, “Everything that is mine is yours, but your brother was lost and now is found. We have to celebrate this!” The father reassures the older son that there is enough room for everyone to experience the special grace and love of the father.
There has been some debate among Biblical commentator over the title of this story. Some modern commentaries argue that the Prodigal Son is the wrong focus of the story and so have renamed it as “The Parable of the Two Brothers” or “The Loving Father.” I would argue against this change. The word prodigal is essential in my understanding of this passage. The word prodigal is an adjective. Some of its synonyms are wasteful, reckless, dissolute, profligate, extravagant, uncontrolled. The younger son, of course, is prodigal. He is abundantly wasteful – over the top in his misuse of his inheritance. But the word prodigal does not apply only to the younger son. It also applies to the father. The father wasted (!) his love on the younger brother. He poured it out as though there were no cost. He poured out his love as generously and as wastefully as his son had poured out money on riotous living. This is not a smart investment of the part of the father.
And this is God’s love for us, God wastes his love on us, unconcerned if we do not use it well or responsibly. God pours out God’s love extravagantly, without concern that it might dry up or not stretch between us all. There is an important truth to God’s creation within this story: love does not operate under the same laws and principles of the universe. It does not get weaker if divided over many. In fact, it grows more once it is given away. Rodney Clapp describes abundance thinking particularly well: “Every time God’s active, stretching, searching, healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us. It means there is more. More wine. More feasting. More music. More dancing. It means another, and now a bigger, party” (Feasting on the Word). Sometimes we get trapped in the scarcity mentality of the older brother, but we are called into the abundant actions of the Father. In an especially challenging perspective on this test, Margaret Aymer see the father not just as an image of God but also as “a metaphor for the faith community.” She reminds us that “the two sons of the story live together in the Christian church: the younger who come out of hunger and desperation, and the elder who disdains the welcome given to the younger. It may be that the parable is not speaking about how God will act but about how we should act to the one who was dead but is now alive … What might it mean, this Lent, to be the prodigal church?” (New Proclamation, 2010).
I wonder if we as a church can grow into the father’s role in this story of pouring out grace, love and forgiveness indiscriminately, without regard to a person’s worthiness or responsibility. Can we forgive others preemptively, without waiting for an apology or considering whether it is fair? Will we sit and watch the horizon for any younger sons who are hungry for God’s forgiveness, acceptance, and love? I certainly think we can try.
Let us pray:
God of families, we thank you for the gifts and blessings of this church family and ask that you would move in our hearts so that we might learn to love as haphazardly as you do, to forgive as readily as you do, and to celebrate others spiritual successes even when they may look like failures to the rest of the world. Amen.