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.
As you may know, I taught primarily Hebrew Bible, or “Old Testament”. I actually had planned to teach New Testament, but the college at which I was teaching had a greater need for Old Testament teachers. Lots of people don’t like the Old Testament for lots of reasons.
The text I selected for us today from Leviticus is an example of one of the reasons. As you heard it this morning, I’m guessing most of you probably were thinking some version of “yuk!”. I understand.
But I chose that reading to make a point that I hope will help us understand the gospel text better. We all have heard this parable called the prodigal son.
Prodigal means lavish; even wastefully lavish, extravagant. If this is the story of the prodigal son, then yes, it is a story about a recklessly, self-indulgent young man who extravagantly wasted his whole inheritance.
But the way Luke has recorded this parable, it is not about one son, but two, and a father, so there are three characters; this parable is about all three.
My hope is that we can hear this parable the way Jesus’ original audience would have heard it, with their pre-understandings in their context, and see what Jesus is doing, which was radical in its time, and still matters deeply to us.
First, this quotation from New Testament Scholar John Dominique Crossan:
“If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed.”— J. D. Crossan, The Power of Parable, Kindle ed. p. 46
Let that sink in a minute. “If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed.”
Jesus is radically changing his tradition in ways that fundamentally challenged ideas and perspectives that had been settled for centuries. And thank God he did, because instead of destroying his Old Testament, he re-framed it in ways that make it possible for us to continue to draw wisdom from it.
The Man with Two Sons
So, the story starts out “There was a man who had two sons.” What provoked the parable? Criticism Jesus was getting for welcoming the hated “tax collectors and sinners” that he famously ate suppers with. That was too much for the “Pharisees and the scribes”.
The Hebrew Bible has several stories of a man with two sons. Abraham has Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac has Jacob has Esau. You can just hear the “Oh no!” as Jesus begins, “a man had two sons.” They know that the elder is going to have a problem. The younger is probably going to come out on top.
But in this story, the younger brother is the problem child. We know this story well; the younger son, it turns out, abandons the family and its traditions in every way possible.
He dishonors his father — which, in an honor-shame culture was like a Class 1 felony that you never live down.
He abandons his people, moving away from the Promised Land to a distant foreign country.
There, he abandons all the morality of the Torah by his “dissolute living.”
Then, broke, he has to become a debt-slave, feeding animals that Jews consider disgusting, and that the Law of Moses forbids; pigs. And, as if it could not get any worse, in a time of famine, he fantasizes eating “pods that the pigs were eating.”
Listening from the Purity Perspective
So how would Jesus’ original audience have heard this? They would have been horrified. Their whole religious landscape was comprised of two categories that everything fit into: pure and impure.
That is why we read that text from Leviticus — it is a perfect example of how they saw the world. If you touched something impure, it made you impure, and you were guilty of that impurity, even if you were unaware of touching it.
Everything was either pure or impure: plants, animals, and even people. If you were impure, you were guilty. And if you were guilty, you needed to “confess the sin you committed” and pay the penalty by sacrifice. Everyone knew that is how it worked; that is what God expected; that is what the Law that God gave Moses, on Mt. Sinai, said, so there is no questioning it, ever.
So, Jesus told a parable about a son who was as impure as he could possibly be. He has committed a “prodigious” quantity of sins; he is guilty. He needs to confess his sins, and then he needs to pay his penalty, back home in Jerusalem at the temple.
In the story, as he sits, hungry, in his pig pen, he composes his confession. He says,
“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.’”
But no one hearing the parable would think that plan would be successful. No dishonored father would take him back, confession or not. His record cannot be expunged. No one else in the village would hire him either. Once you have done time like he has, in a foreign country with its impure people and its pigs, you never get restored.
The Prodigal Father
So he returns. And now the story gets completely absurd, in the minds of traditional people listening to the parable. The father becomes the prodigal. He is wastefully extravagant in his welcome of his son. He even dishonors himself by running to meet him in the most undignified way. He touches him — even embraces him, becoming impure in the process. He restores his status as son in the family, and throws a feast of honor.
That is too much for the older brother. He is scandalized. He refuses to join the party inside the house. So now, the older brother has become the outsider in the family.
He wags his shame finger in front of his father, who has come out of the house to plead with him — as no honorable father of the time would have done.
The father lets him rant on, accusing him of injustice. Now, the older brother is being prodigious as he launches invectives against his father.
Then, after all of that, the father says to him,
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
He says, in effect,
“Even after shaming me, by making me come outside, and shaming me by your verbal assaults and accusations, you are still my son, and I am still with you, and all that is mine is yours.”
So, who are the characters in the story? Jesus is replying to the criticism that he has included impure people to his company and fellowship — tax collectors (we may as well say Roman collaborators) and the generic “sinners.”
The attacking scribes (Torah scholars) and Pharisees (the self-authorized purity police) just like the older brother in the parable, are the responsible ones who have kept themselves pure, and have kept and the family honored all these years. They are scandalized by Jesus’ failure to uphold the purity code.
But look what Jesus has done in this parable: he has totally reframed the notion of sinfulness and guilt. Instead of impurity, Jesus has invented a whole new category: “lostness.”
The father, in the parable, tells the older brother what Jesus is telling the Scribes and Pharisees about the impure people he has been hanging out with:
“we had to celebrate and rejoice, [these people were] dead and have come to life; they were lost and have been found.’”
This is the third in a series of three parables of lostness and found-ness that Jesus told, according to Luke. First was the lost sheep, found by the shepherd. Second was the lost coin, found by the woman of the house, and now the lost son, found by his welcoming father’s love and forgiveness.
What has become of his need for confession? His father interrupted his speech before he could finish it. What has become of his impurity? It is simply and completely ignored. What has become of his guilt? He is not guilty, just lost. What is the remedy? Forgiveness that needs no temple, no priest and no sacrifice.
What was the motivation of the father? It says,
“while [the returning son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion”
The Compassionate God
What defines God’s relationship with us lost ones? Compassion. There is no judgment, no shaming, no bargaining or deal making; simply, compassion. The lost son has been found; the broken family has been restored.
This, I hope you can see, from the perspective of the tradition, is a total re-reading. Some aspects of the tradition have been destroyed. The purity pursuit has gone down in flames. But the story of the creator God, who loves all the children of the world with extravagant compassion, has been saved.
“If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed.”
Why it Matters
So there are two ways this story matters to us. First, it has to be the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. What is our truest self? Sinners? No, our truest selves are children, loved extravagantly by a compassionate God. Do we get lost from time to time? Of course we do. But when we are ready to come back home, we will be welcomed with open arms.
Second, this changes how we see others. Some folks are still in a lost condition. Are they “sinners in the hands of an angry God”? No. They are lost ones that need to come home to love.
This new perspective has radical implications. Who are the “prodigals” of our times? Who are the impure, dishonorable ones in our culture? Unfortunately, many people are, but chief among them are former convicts, especially convicted felons.
Our culture has made it nearly impossible for them to get any but the lowest paying jobs. After serving their sentences, we make them pay fees and fines, court costs and reparations, and if they cannot, then, in states like ours, neither can they vote.
For all kinds of reasons, most of them completely unjust, there are a disproportionate number of people of color who are convicted felons who are not able to vote. You can make up your own mind if this is accidental or not, but that is our society. It looks very much like a society of older brothers and their wagging fingers.
I do not believe Jesus would treat convicted felons the way our society does. Therefore, I feel called to work to undo some of the built-in, systemic injustices that cause so much harm.
Yes, there are people who have gotten themselves lost along the way, but there is also the possibility of redemption. As a Christian, I feel called to believe in redemption. Justice does not have to be merely retributive; justice can be restorative when we, like God, have compassion.
[ For further reading on the subject of our criminal justice system and its effects on people, from a Christian perspective, I recommend Rethinking Incarceration: advocating for justice that restores, by Dominique DuBois Gilliard. I supplied the link, but consider shopping local. ]