Luke 15: 1-2, 11-32 – Parable of the “Prodigal Son”
Now 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. The younger of them said to his father,“Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them.
A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered all his [money on loose] 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; but no one gave him anything.
When he came to himself he said, “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.’ ” 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 threw his arms around his son and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “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!” 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. The [elder son] called one of the [servants] and asked what was going on. The Servant] replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”
Then [the elder son] became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “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!”
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.” ’
The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Luke.
The Parable we know as the Prodigal Son is one of Jesus’ best known parables. Yet our American eyes have a hard time seeing it in the way tax collectors and sinners saw it. Or disciples and others present. Or even Pharisees and scribes. This parable is the Gospel within the Gospel that helps us truly see Jesus. We heard it already as a whole story. Hear it again as we weave our way through the story reflecting on each step.
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. But the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
Tax collectors were agents of empire; sinners were those who don’t keep religious rules. Rule-breakers were coming to hear Jesus; rule-keepers were coming to condemn Jesus. Jesus responded with a life-giving story rather than arguing the rules. Jesus “offended” rule-keepers by welcoming and eating with the wrong people. Rather than taking or giving offense Jesus told stories that draw us in and pose a choice. Jesus tells 3 parables, 2 we didn’t hear today: a lost sheep and coin are found and rejoiced over.
Then Jesus told this parable.
There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them.
*Middle Eastern eyes help us see what Jesus’ saw and wants us to see. The eldest son is the primary heir so the younger son is out of order asking for inheritance.
The wrong son asks for the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong way. To ask for inheritance when father is alive is to say, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” You’re not dying yet so divide up the property now and give it to me. And Dad does it. This was not a father willing to be controlled by cultural norms and religious rules!
A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered all his [money on loose] living.
The younger son takes his money and runs — not a good choice for a good son. What will it do for father’s reputation? What will it do to the family name? What will it do to the community? All are violated by son’s request and father’s response. But that’s not all son does. It gets worse. This offending son throws his money away on loose living. Imagine that!
A severe famine blanketed the land and son was starving. 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.
Hungry and homeless he seeks and finds work. Where? A local farmer sends him into the field. To do what? Feed the pigs. Pigs were as low on the work chain as you could get.
He was so hungry he would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; but no one gave him anything.
That no one gave him anything indicates that he had turned to begging and was turned down.
He came to himself and said, 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, ‘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.’ ”
He came to himself was an awakening but only a partial awakening. He knew servants have “bread enough and to spare” while he is starving to death. He knew he had offended father and family and community. He rehearsed a homecoming speech to earn his way home.
So he set off and went to his father.
It is a long journey with lots of time to rehearse. What happened next? Shocking surprise! The same father who was dumb enough to divide the inheritance commits further “offense.”
While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and threw his arms around his son and kissed him.
Father had been watching with longing loving eyes. He saw son far off, had compassion and ran to hug and kiss son. What a welcome! Unbelievable! Unmerited! Unexpected! Understatement! He was filled with compassion – not anger, not rejection, not punishment — compassion. He ran down the dusty road — he raced a long way to welcome his son. Again we need Middle Eastern eyes. In that culture a man did not run, especially in public. Running was wholly undignified for a respected village elder. Running in a robe meant pulling up his robe and showing his feet and leg – a humiliating pose. And he hugged and kissed his offending son. What a welcome! What an offense to family and community. Still it doesn’t end here. What happens next? Son begins his rehearsed speech.
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Son didn’t finish his rehearsed speech. Did you notice what he didn’t say to dad? Make me a hired servant.
Father’s offense of seeing son a long way off, having compassion, racing down the road to hug and kiss him told the son that he couldn’t earn his way home.
It was Father’s welcome not his own work that restored him into the family. Father welcome is not yet complete.
“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!”
The best robe was his own robe; the ring was the family signet ring; sandals were for royalty. The fatted calf was the prized grass-fed prime young beef saved for the best celebration. They servants obeyed and the homecoming celebration began. The dead is alive, the lost is found. Rejoice! It’s party time!
The story still isn’t finished. The oldest son is also away and comes home.
‘The elder son was [far off] in the field; when he came [home] and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called a servant and demanded, “What is going on?” The Servant] replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then [the older son] became angry and refused to go in.
Father does what he did for younger son. He is watching for his oldest son and goes to welcome him home.
Father came out and began to plead with Older Son.
But older son snaps,
“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, 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!”
Older son is offended and his language is loaded. All my life I have worked like a slave and obeyed you. What have you done for me? Did you notice two words older son uses in his angry accusation to father. He doesn’t say “my brother” he says “this son of yours” to father. Older brother disowns younger brother while father restores younger son. Older brother even accuses younger brother of wasting his money with prostitutes. Where did he get that accusation? How did he know it was for prostitutes? He did not have text or twitter back in the day. He didn’t even have a cell phone. Loose living may not be good but it also may not be prostitutes. The older son has been called “a good son in the worst way.”
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, for this brother of yours was dead and has come to life.”
The parable ends unfinished. Father welcomes two sons home. Younger son receives father’s extravagant love and welcome home. We don’t know older son’s choice. Two brothers offend: the younger giving offense, the older taking offense.
It is worth noting a wise word from Richard Rohr here: “More suffering comes into the world by people taking offense than by people giving offense.” Whether we give or take offense we are welcomed home by our God of extravagant Love. Jesus is “Bread enough” for all – a sacred offering and calling.
The Apostle Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians heard today sums up this gospel (5:18f).
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to God’s self through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;…in Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s self not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
Names and Images for God
The Father in the parable is a symbol for God whose motivation and character is love over rules. Or we could say that Jesus gives us eyes to see that “love rules” and that God is Love.“God does not love you because you are good; you are good because God loves you.” RRohr
While God is a Father figure in this story it is not the only image or language for God. No one image or word names or reveals all of God. God is also Mother. Our song of response in a moment is “Mothering God” Hymnal 482. Two Sundays ago the Gospel portrayed God as a Mother hen safely gathering chicks under wing.
There are many other names and images for God.
Jesus’ welcome and story of God’s extravagant love reminded me of two stories from my life.
Story of St Anselm’s Monastery in Washington DC….Buddhist-Benedictine monks
From 1977-82 we were in Mennonite Central Committee Voluntary Service and much of my work was with the MCC Peace Section. During those years I often collaborated with Sojourners Peace Ministry. Occasionally I would go on retreat at Saint Anselm’s Abbey not far from the Sojourners office in NE Washington DC.
One weekend, I was the only guest at the Abbey when three Buddhist monks arrived. Their visit was initiated 12 years earlier by Thomas Merton’s pioneering vision and efforts that opened the way for global monastic dialogue between Benedictines and Buddhists.
That Sunday the Benedictine monks welcomed the Buddhist monks for an evening of dialogue to learn from each other’s monastic tradition. The Abbot graciously invited me to join them for this ground-breaking dialogue and revelatory evening. I knew very little about Benedictines and even less about Buddhists. I received a gift in that Benedictine-Buddhist encounter that Sunday that became one of the most transforming conversions of my life. I saw God with completely new eyes in 3 Buddhist and about 25 Benedictine monks. Their hospitality and grace, compassion and peace revealed God to me that night as I watched and listened to them sharing deeply of their lives and religious traditions. I also gained more insight into Buddhist and Benedictine monastic life than I had ever known. That encounter opened the way that led me to make a vow as a Benedictine Oblate more than two decades later that has deepened my personal faith and enriched my pastoral and peace ministry.
I experienced another revelation that night that was equally instructive but one I call my counter-conversion. An elderly Benedictine monk was incensed that his monastic community would dare to let Buddhist monks into their Christian monastery. Feeling personally offended he was overtly offensive frequently condemning his fellow monks for “welcoming sinners and eating with them.” “We” must not let “them” into our faithful community to contaminate our purity and truth. I saw a monk openly irate that his fellow monks welcomed the wrong people and engaged them. It was not an uncommon experience in our Mennonite tradition that often seeks to be “without spot or wrinkle” as a pure church keeping rules and guarding truth. Encountering this reality in what I had idealized as a monastic community opened my eyes to attempts for maintaining purity, keeping rules, and guarding truth as not being The Way of Jesus or of a loving father welcoming two sons to the celebration. What truly opened my eyes, however, was that I saw three Buddhist monks in the presence of someone’s offended condemning agitation who never expressed a hint of being offended or uncomfortable and who never attempted to defend or justify who they were as Buddhist monks. They were completely at peace and living their True Self with a spiritual detachment unperturbed by condemnation and unengaged in conflict while being completely present and engaged with others so different from themselves. I saw God in a way I have rarely if ever seen among Christians.
I came away from that conversion acknowledging that I know little about Buddhists or even Benedictines, but that never again would I dare to claim that they are not of God or that we have God and Truth and they do not. That night I knew that never again would I say, “They are not of God and do not know God.” What I did say that night was that “If God is not here in these Buddhists and Benedictines than we are all wasting our time. I am a Christian and everything I am and know – my life and breath and being – is centered on Jesus Christ who is the fullest expression I know of God’s incarnate entry in human life and creation. Nevertheless, God’s mystery and being, both known and beyond knowing, is bigger than anything we can comprehend or claim. It is for God to know who God is with all people of all traditions and all religions. I not only don’t have to know but I can’t know or name that Truth for God. Our first sin is to presume to speak for God the Wholly Other against the other. I saw God as never before that night in Buddhist and Benedictine monks in Saint Anselm’s Abbey.
Receiving God’s love and welcome we have to celebrate and rejoice, the dead is alive!
Thanks be to God! Amen!
*I am indebted to Middle Eastern expert and biblical scholar Kenneth E. Bailey whom I have heard 3 times, first in Jerusalem and twice at the Festival Gathering of Biblical Storytellers.
Addendum story not told in sermon:
Story of MCA Menno Church conversation with man about “salvation” and “heaven”
Last October many of us enjoyed our Mennonite Country Auction at Menno Mennonite Church. The pastors have been offering a late-morning session on “Who are the Mennonites.”
We share an overview of 16th century Anabaptism and the Mennonite Church today. Then we let people ask any question they want about Mennonite belief and practice. One question was what Mennonites believe about heaven and hell. There is no one heaven and hell Mennonite answer.
A woman came up to me and said you better talk to my husband before he has a heart attack. His blood pressure went up 50 points with our heaven and hell answer. So we talked — mostly he talked about why he is going to heaven and others are going to hell. What good is it for him to go to heaven if others aren’t going to hell! I offered two things I believe are important for Mennonites.
First, we are not fixated on heaven and hell because Jesus wasn’t. Jesus speaks often of the kingdom of God. God’s reign is already in Christ and not yet fulfilled.
Second, the first sin is our need to define heaven and hell and determine who is where. None of us know anyway so I am happy to let heaven and hell decisions in God’s hands.