Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son for Lent 4 C, March 6, 2016
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he 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 his property in dissolute 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; and no one gave him anything. But 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 put his arms around him 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 slaves, ‘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. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he 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 historical Jesus was a teller of parables; that is the consensus among scholars. He was quite good at it. For me, this is one of his best. It does what a lot of his parables do: it messes with our worlds. It challenges us to think in new ways.
The setting is important: some people are upset that Jesus both welcomes and eats with sinners. These folks understand that there are two kinds of people in the world; good people and sinners, pure and impure.
Good people, pure people, should not be enablers for impure sinners by making them feel good about their lifestyles, by welcoming their company, and especially not by eating with them. In that culture, the ones around your table are your tribe, your posse, the people you are okay with, the people you do not mind having around your children.
So, in response to the “shun the sinners” people who are upset with him, Jesus tells three parables: The parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. We just read the third, the one about the lost son. In each, the one that had been lost was found, and that was the cause of rejoicing.
It sounds like a neat and tidy triad of stories, but Jesus is messing with the world these people were living in in some amazing ways. So, let us look at them.
If there are two kinds of people in the world (and whom among us does not usually think in such binary ways?) what are the people-categories? Righteous people and sinners? Notice that Jesus totally rejects that binary, replacing it with another. For Jesus, the two kinds of people in the world are lost one and found ones.
Now, that changes the whole picture. Is a sheep bad, for being lost? A coin? How about a son? Should the sheep be left to suffer the consequences it brought on itself for getting lost? Should the coin be left on the floor? What about the son?
Anyway, Jesus’ story begins in a way that Jewish people would all recognize:
“There was a man who had two sons.”
This is familiar territory. Adam had two sons, Cain and Able. Abraham had two sons, Ismael and Isaac. Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau. Come to think of it, these two-sons stories often involve big trouble, if not catastrophe. Cain killed able. Ishmael was driven away to die by Isaac’s mother. Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and had to flee for his life. Perhaps Jesus’ two-son story will end badly too?
The Horror In the Story
The story begins with a dysfunctional family in which the identified patient, the rebel son, asks for his share of the inheritance so he can go live without the inconvenience of family obligations.
Now, this sounds modern, in fact, almost common. The family has a rebel teenager. But to hear the story the way Jesus’ audience would have heard it, we need to remember that family was everything. You would die for your family, not run away from them.
And Father was not just “dad” as he is to us. Father was a position of honor. You showed respect. In fact, not showing respect, dishonoring father would bring shame on everyone, on yourself, on your father, even on your whole family. And then, to ask for the inheritance from father before he died was to wish him dead already.
In other words, everything about this younger brother’s actions would have horrified everybody hearing this story. And we have not yet even got to the point where this good Jewish boy ends up eating with pigs. He is not just a sinner; he is an abomination! What he needs, according to conventional wisdom, is the worst punishment you could deal out.
Unless what he is, is lost. For Jesus, he is simply lost. What he needs, is to be found.
And who of us is not lost? At some level, we are all lost souls. We hardly understand ourselves, and we know no one in the world totally gets us. We feel both at home in this universe, and somehow alien to it. We are mortal yet we cannot conceive of ourselves coming to an end. Most of us feel the lure of a world beyond our senses that we long for, a home to come back to, but where is it?
When the runaway lost son finally hits bottom, he has a moment of clarity. An “ah-ha” moment. He becomes mindfully aware that his “temporary autonomous zone” is a dead end. He says those words that have become famous:
“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.”‘
Now, at this point, I think the audience of people who are angry at Jesus for welcoming and eating with sinners starts to laugh their heads off. What a ridiculous thought that any father would ever let that happen! He thinks he will get back in the family? No way!
And this is another moment in which Jesus messes with their world. Not only are their people-categories wrong, their entire God-concept is wrong. God is not honor-obsessed. God is love-obsessed, just like all hurting parents of lost children are.
So when the son’s hopeless, ridiculous plan is implemented and his father sees him from a distance, he does what no self-respecting, honor-conscious older man would do, he makes a spectacle of himself: he runs! He disregards his son’s pig-stained impurity, and throws his arms around him. He was, Jesus said, “filled with compassion.”
Compassion, not honor, is God’s defining characteristic. Compassion sees people as lost, not impure. Compassion seeks, and finds, and then rejoices in each finding. The people who lack compassion, who want Jesus to stop eating with impure sinners are not going to like it that this story ends with a fatted calf and a feast.
The Other Lost Son
So, it looks like a happy ending is coming at this point. Unlike the other stories about a man with two sons, this one ends well. The lost son is found. Or at least it would, if this were the ending. But it is not.
The older brother is not at all happy about the return of the prodigal. He feels slighted. He feels envious. He believes he is not getting what he deserves. And to be honest, if his reporting is accurate – that he never even got a birthday goat, then perhaps he is a bit justified.
But he has taken that bit, and become resentful. He has been a good son, but he has gone from good, to arrogant about his goodness. And arrogance is the opposite of compassion.
So, instead of going inside to join the banquet celebrating his brothers return, he stays outside. This gives rise to yet another totally shameless move on the compassionate father’s part. Jesus says,
“His father came out and began to plead with him.”
The father going out to where the arrogant son is – unheard of! And pleading instead of commanding? Utterly impossible! Where is the honor there?
God is not honor-obsessed; like any father of lost children, he is love-obsessed. And now he knows he has another lost son to care about. The older son’s unwillingness to sit at table with his brother has left him outside the family.
The parable ends there, with him outside; lost. So, as we expected at the start, an unhappy ending for yet another story of a man with two sons.
Being a Child of God
There is one more tragedy in this parable. It comes from what so many of us have made of it.
When I was in high school, I attended a youth group in which we learned a musical version of the son’s speech to his father.
“I shall arise and go unto my father, and shall say unto him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am no more worthy to be called your son.”
It was a three part round, so we would sing it over and over – and it was beautiful. But it ended with sinful unworthiness every time. And that is tragic.
Jesus was trying to overturn the category of unworthiness and to replace it with the category of lostness. God, like the compassionate father, did not want a big repentance speech, in fact he cut it off before the prodigal son could finish. He never got to hear the son say,
“treat me like one of your hired hands”
The Father had already resolved to treat him as what he was: a child of the family!
We are teaching our youth here at church to follow the Jesus path. We have taught them that step one on the Jesus path is knowing this: I am a child of God and nothing can ever change that.
Nothing can change that; not getting lost, not loosing my way, not making mistakes; nothing. The only condition of lostness, in the end, is unwillingness to know what it means to belong to this family. This is the family that looks with compassion on everyone who is lost.
This is the family that has a place at the table for everyone who will lay down their arrogance and come inside. The is the family that understands and practices forgiveness as the very center of our life together.
It is tragic to sing a song that ends with “I am no more worthy to be called your son.” This has to teach us that worthiness has nothing to do with it. We are children of God, and nothing can ever change that.
Compassion for Everyone
There is yet one more way this parable messes with our worlds. If we are able to imagine ourselves as lost ones, and if we are able to know ourselves as sons and daughters of God, people with seats set for us at that celebration banquet, that is wonderful.
But then, we are imaging ourselves as the people inside, feasting on flavored tofu, or fresh catfish – or fatted calf (depending on your diet). How does that make us feel about the arrogant older brother outside the door?
If you are like me, it is hard to feel compassion for him. I do not like him. He seems smug, angry, resentful. Not much there to love. For a person with Christian values, arrogance is pretty ugly.
Can I feel compassion, as the father did, for the arrogant older son too? Can I long for him to be found, for his redemption? Can I feel compassion for those who display no compassion?
Can I hold out hope that like their younger brother, they too may someday have a moment of repentant clarity and come home to Papa? Perhaps it is here that this parable messes with my world. This is where it challenges me.
Amazingly, even if and when I get lost in my own judgmentalism about people who lack compassion, I believe I can be found, even there, and be brought back again. As singer, songwriter Timothy Coons say,
“I just keep being found. I just keep being found. I just keep being found.”