Jesus told this parable a long time ago. It still gets told over and over in different ways, in literature, in song, in real life. There is something so compelling about this story that even people who aren’t Jesus followers know it. As familiar as this parable is, I have never had an opportunity to preach on it. So this week I got to turn this story upside down and inside out to see what new things we might shake out of this familiar parable.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is the third in a series of parables that Jesus tells as the “sinners” gather around him. The religious leaders are there too, though they are scandalized that this rabbi would associate with the likes of these tax collectors and other sinners. Jesus hears their disapproval as they mutter under their breath and so Jesus tells three parables – as much for the religious leaders listening in as for his devoted audience.
The first parable is about a shepherd with 100 sheep. One of the sheep gets lost so the shepherd leaves the other 99 to go find that one lost sheep. A sheep doesn’t get lost on purpose, it is just part of being a sheep of very little brain. Nevertheless, the shepherd goes after it, though it might mean losing even more sheep in the process. The lost one is found and there is rejoicing and jubilation.
The second parable is the woman who loses one of her coins. It is no small thing to lose a coin that is part of her dowery. The loss of this coin threatens what little financial stability she might have in her old age. (Sharon H. Ringe | – http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2788) Unlike a sheep, a coin cannot wander off, losing itself. Does the woman see the loss as her fault? All the more reason to persist in looking for the coin and then to have a celebration when it is found, sharing what little she has with her friends and neighbors.
The third parable is about this family, two sons and a father.
We might wonder what is going on in this family that the younger son is so desperate to get away. Why does he so badly want to see the world? Is he just naturally curious and adventurous? Does he feel beat down by his older brother’s devotion to the rules? Is there conflict with his father? Does he bear so much ill will toward his father that he asks for the inheritance, almost as if he wishes his father dead?
The younger finds out that adventure is okay but not quite what he is hoping for, especially after running out of money during a drought. He hits his lowest point, in a pig sty, salivating over the pigs’ food. It is here that he remembers what he knows best. He remembers home. He makes a plan to return home, to grovel. He fully anticipates that he will be a worker under his brother’s supervision. It will be a miserable life but at least he will have something to eat, somewhere to sleep.
What about the father? For some reason, he cooperates with the son’s foolish idea of cashing out his inheritance. The father has enough confidence in who he is that the choices of this son, though they are a slap in the face to all he has raised him to be, do not send the father off the deep end. He does not try to stop his son from leaving. He does not go looking for his son nor does he send out a search party. He stays home. He waits and watches in hope that his son will one day return. When the son does return, the father doesn’t send the servants to fetch the son; the father runs down the road himself and throws his protective and loving arms around his long lost child.
We get practically the whole story before we know anything at all about the other son, the older brother. He has stayed home. He has put in his time. He prides himself on doing the right thing: helping his father whenever and wherever he is needed. It is natural for rivalry and tension to happen in families. Sometimes jealousies continue even as we get older. Perhaps these brothers are stuck in some deep dysfunctional grooves.
But really, how unfair is it that this younger sibling would run off, taking his share of the inheritance, and disrespect the whole family by living life in the gutter. Could anything be more disdainful of the family’s Jewish tradition than living and eating with pigs? Or sleeping around! That kind of impulsive behavior and irresponsible decision making deserves to be penalized not rewarded. What is their father thinking that he runs to meet the scoundrel with open arms of welcome and love. What could be more ridiculous and infuriating? Can it even be called love when you give a pass to behavior like that?
The grumbling of the older does not deter the celebration. “The lost has been found, let the festivities begin.” For this most special occasion, the father even instructs that the fatted calf, the prize of the herd, be butchered.
The menu is one more thing for the older brother to complain about. It might also raise questions for modern day vegetarians and vegans. The brother, however, doesn’t care so much about animal rights as his own rights. He has done everything by the book, helping his father, overseeing the workers and the fields, ensuring that the estate thrives and grows. He has never strayed and yet in all the years of effort he has given to keep the family business going, he has never gotten a party like this. Never even a puny little goat to share with his friends.
This good-for-nothing brother wanders back home and their father keeps saying, “Rejoice with me! My son, your brother, was dead but he has come back to life. He was lost and now is found.”
In the past I have read this story almost as if there are only two main characters: the bad boy who runs off and the father who prepares a grand welcome home party.
But this time I notice the setting for this parable: The tax collectors and the “sinners” were all gathering around Jesus to listen to his teaching, at which the religious scholars murmured: “This person welcomes sinners and eats with them!”
And then the parables begin.
It is clear, is it not, that the “tax collectors and sinners” are wayward, and Jesus who sits right there with them, is the one who welcomes with open arms. It is pretty easy to quickly move on from there and decide who else we think wanders far from God and ends up looking despicable in the pig sty. We who sit here, in church, get to decide who is lost. Maybe those of us who grew up in church would even rather read it this way – with just two characters, the “prodigal son” and the loving father.
But as long as we are paying attention to the intro, we better acknowledge those other listeners, the religious leaders, who are probably more like the obedient, older son. Poor guy, overlooked again, an afterthought. What do the religious leaders and the older son do, what do we do, with this rejoicing and overflowing grace? If we are as good and faithful as the older brother we may be suspicious of this gracious welcome home. It doesn’t even feel like grace. It feels like a cheap trick. What good does it do to be a faithful and obedient sheep/coin/son? The only reward is the same invitation to the party that any neighbor get when the sheep is rescued. The only recognition is a nod from the party planner thanking us for showing up. Don’t we deserve more than that for toeing the line?
In some of us, the older sibling is very strong. I am an oldest sister of two younger brothers. I admit that even in telling the story, I am determined to tell it right. I don’t want to wander too far off and make up details. That would be breaking the rules and its the bible for goodness sake. We must do it right.
Is it even possible for these two siblings to live together at home with their parent? Can the younger sibling that has strayed ever live peaceably with the older sibling that has never left home, doesn’t break the rules?
I wonder if there are ways that even within the home of each our bodies, these two siblings live in tension. Whether we literally wander off and get lost, or if we just get lost in our heads, there is often another part of ourselves waiting to scold us and berate us for being… human. Can we also hold within ourselves gracious forgiveness? Can we welcome both of these siblings, the whole family, to be at home within us?
My hope is that this congregation can be a church home where these two siblings can find a way toward each other. It is a high ideal, creating a place of worship and work for people who have struggles and foibles and quirks and whole families within themselves. Can we be a space for people who hardly ever step out of line far enough to even need grace? and a space for people who get lost so frequently they seem to use up every last ounce of grace?
In some ways we already are this kind of church home. Some of us have scary, impressive careers and some of us struggle to find work. Some of us have written books and some of us have learning disabilities. Some of us show up faithfully to worship every week while others of us struggle to crawl out of bed on Sunday morning. Some of us are here for the food and fellowship, others of us are here for a spiritual reboot. Some are here out of duty and some for the music. Some of us are wandering and feel lost and some of us are pretty sure we have been found. And there is room for more, for instance those who would rather use a totally different template and metaphor already!
We are given a clue as to which son Jesus identifies with. Twice the father in the parable says, “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and now he’s found.” Is Jesus the wandering one? Is Jesus, who will soon die and rise again, is Jesus the lost brother? Certainly the religious authorities see him that way. There he is, sitting with the sinners, just like the younger son hung out with prostitutes and gambled all his money away.
What a trickster, this Jesus. He is not only the one who welcomes us with loving arms but he knows what it is like to wander off and then be found. He knows what it is to be scorned by those who always do it right. And he makes room for everyone: the younger, the older, the parent.
At the end of the parable, both of the siblings are welcomed to the party. Both of them are invited to the feast. The younger one has returned home – surprised, overwhelmed and grateful to receive the love that is offered. But the older one? They stand outside the party, angry and bitter, protesting at the injustice of grace and love. How long will they refuse to join the celebration? Will this one who has never been physically lost ever find a way to come home emotionally? spiritually? Let’s pray that they will because in this home, none of us are lost, all of us are found.
“My child, you are with me always and everything I have is yours. We have to celebrate and rejoice! This child of mine was dead and has come back to life. They were lost and now are found.”