A 21st Century Story
Scripture - Luke 15:11-32
We might think that the parable of the prodigal son, as it’s usually known, hardly needs an introduction. It has inspired artists & writers for a couple thousand years. Rembrandt’s painting, with the younger son on his knees before the loving & welcoming father, has become for many as much of an inspiration as the story itself. Phrases from the story – the fattened calf, for instance – have become almost proverbial.
And yet. People often assume that the story is simply about the wonderful love & forgiving grace of God, ready to welcome back sinners at the first sign of repentance. That is truly its greatest theme, which is to be enjoyed & celebrated. But the story itself goes deeper than we often assume.
Let’s be sure we’ve understood how families like this worked. When the father divided the property between the 2 sons, & the younger son turned his share into cash, this must have meant that the land the father owned had been split into 2, with the younger boy selling off his share to someone else. The shame that this would bring on the family would be added to the shame the son had already brought on the father by asking for his share before his father’s death; it was the equivalent of saying, “I wish you were dead.” The father bears these 2 blows without recrimination.
To this day, there are people in traditional cultures, like that of Jesus’ day, who find the story at this point quite incredible. Fathers just don’t behave like that; he should (they think) have beaten him or thrown him out. There is a depth of mystery already built into the story before the son even leaves home. Again, in Davidson County children routinely leave homes in the country to pursue their future
& their fortune in big cities, or even abroad; but in Jesus’ culture this would be seen as shameful, with the younger son abandoning his obligation to care for his father in his old age. When the son reached the foreign country, runs through the money, & finds himself in trouble, his degradation truly reaches a low point. For a Jew to have anything to do with pigs is bad enough; for him to be feeding them, & hungry enough to share their food, is worse!
But of course, the most remarkable character in the story is the father himself. We could even call this “the parable of the Running Father.” In a culture where senior figures are far too dignified to run anywhere, this man takes off running as soon as he sees his young son dragging himself home. His lavish welcome is of course the point of the story: Jesus is explaining why there is a party, why it’s something to celebrate when people turn from going their own way & begin to go God’s way. Because the young man’s degradation is more or less complete, there can be no question of anything in him commending him to his father, or to any possible onlookers; but the father’s closing line says it all. This son of mine was dead & has come back to life! He was lost & is found! How could this not be a cause of celebration?
Sheryl & I know what this kind of celebration is like. Bryan, our eldest son, became entangled with drugs during his high school & college days. Thanks be to God, it never got beyond marijuana use, but it got bad enough that he had to drop out of college & was stopped twice for impaired driving. At one point, we even had to kick him out of our house because he was unable to follow rules he had agreed to.
But God is good. Through faith in Christ instilled in him as a child & teen, & through the love of a woman who would not put up with drug use, Bryan sobered up, started working hard, & miraculously got the construction job at the firm that he is still working for today. We have welcomed Bryan back into the family with open arms. He didn’t get a ring or new sandals or a robe, but he was welcomed back all the same. And Sheryl & I celebrate that every day.
The other thing that was eye-opening was the number of church members who gathered around us & related to us their own stories of substance misuse struggles, by children, grandchildren, & friends. I was pastoring in Salisbury, & what we initially thought would be a stigmatizing, isolating incident became an opportunity for community & commiseration. We learned God’s love is much greater & wider than we had ever previously imagined.
But back to our parable. It is the older brother who provides the real punchline of the parable. This is Jesus’ response to his critics. They were so focused on the wickedness of the tax collectors & sinners, & of Jesus himself for daring to eat with them despite claiming to be a prophet of God’s kingdom, that they couldn’t see the bright spotlight of God’s love. Here were all these people being changed, being healed, having their lives transformed physically, emotionally, morally, & spiritually; & the grumblers could only see the litter, the human garbage that they despised & avoided.
The portrait of the older brother is brilliantly drawn, with little shifts of phrase & meaning. Your brother has arrived, says the servant; but he won’t think of him like this. This son of yours, he says angrily to his father. This brother of yours, says the father, reminding him gently of the truth. I’ve served you all these years, he says to the father, when in fact they had been working as partners, since the father had already divided up the assets between the boys. Everything the father has belongs to him, since the younger brother has spent his share; & that, presumably, is part of the problem, since the older brother sees all too clearly that anything now spent on his brother will be coming out of his own inheritance.
The phrase which ties the story to Jesus’ opponents is telling: I never disobeyed your instruction. That was the Pharisees boast; but the moral superiority which it appears to give melts like snow before the sunshine of God’s love. Where resurrection is occurring – where new life is bursting out – it is not only appropriate, it is necessary to celebrate. Not to do so is to fail to meet generosity with gratitude. It is to pretend that God has not been at work. It is to look only at the garbage & refuse to smell the flowers.
In terms of what God was doing in Israel through Jesus, we can see that the new kingdom-work was like a return from exile. Sinners & outcasts were finding themselves welcomed into fellowship with Jesus, & so with God, in a way they would have thought impossible. But whenever a work of God goes powerfully forward, there is always someone muttering in the background that things aren’t that easy, that God has no right to be generous, that people who have done nothing wrong are being overlooked.
This story reveals above all the sheer self-centeredness of the grumbler. The older brother shows, in his bad temper, that he has had no more real respect for his father than his brother had. He lectures him in front of his guests, & refuses his plea to come in. Once more the father is generous, this time to his self-righteous older son. At this point we sense that Jesus is not content to simply tell the grumblers that they are out of line; he wants to reason with the Pharisees & the lawyers, to point out that, though God’s generosity is reaching out to people they didn’t expect, this doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty left for them. If they insist on staying out of the party because it isn’t the sort of thing they like, that is up to them; but it won’t be because God doesn’t love them as well.
This parable, like some of his others, points, for Luke, beyond the immediate situation of Jesus’ ministry & into the early church. There, Gentiles were coming into the church, & Jews & Jewish Christians often found it very difficult to celebrate that fact. And as Paul realized when writing Romans, it was vital that the new communities never gave the impression to their older brother that God had finished with him. Somehow the balance must be kept.
The story ends, of course, unfinished. We naturally want to know what happened next. How will the younger brother behave from now on? What arrangements will they make? Will the 2 sons reconcile? Sometimes when a storyteller leaves us on the edge of our seats it is because we are supposed to think it through, to ask ourselves where we fit within the story, & to learn more about ourselves & our church as a result. Which role in the story do you - & Shiloh – find comes most naturally? How can me move toward becoming people through whom ‘resurrection’ happens to others? How can we celebrate the party of God’s love in such a way as to welcome not only the younger brothers who have come back from the dead, but also the older brothers who thought there was nothing wrong with them?
It is not enough for us to open the doors of our sanctuary & hope the opioid epidemic ends. We must leave our sanctuary & enter the story.