Texts: Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Imagine a young man setting out to establish himself in the world. He asks his parents for some money so he can get out on his own and experience life. Eager to move out, he wants to find himself in the world. So he leaves home, heads out to the big city, and with his new-found freedom, and an inability to create a budget or stick to it, he spends all of his money on things he shouldn’t have, with the result of losing everything he has. He becomes jobless, homeless, and hungry. Epic fail! So the son swallows his pride, figuring his best bet is to go back home and hope his parents take pity on him and let him move back in. There is nothing too remarkable about this story in our culture. The young man is on a quest to find himself as an individual. He fails at this project and has to return home. He might have hurt his parents in the process, but really, what child hasn’t hurt his or her parents at some point down the road? The parents welcome him back home, saying, son, we’re so glad you’re back, come in and you’ll get filet mignon and a big homecoming party! For many of us, this sums up the gist of the parable of the prodigal son, and it is a story many of us can relate to on one level or another. It is a story we have heard from a young age, a story told both within the church and without. The beauty of a good parable like the prodigal son is that it can speak to us, meeting us where we are, whether it is the 1st century Palestine or 21st century West Virginia. But there is also a danger that comes with a parable we are so familiar with. It can become limp and lifeless from so much handling. Because we have heard it so many times, it is easy to think that we have gleaned everything we possibly can from such a story, so we either just leave it on the shelf most of the time, or if we do actually pick it up, we skim it and think, yup, I’ve got it. It’s a story about how God will always receive us back home, no matter how far we have wandered. And yes, it is a story about that. But there is still more. If God’s word is living and active, then there is always more. We can never come to scripture and say, “Oh yes, I’ve completely gotten it now. I don’t need to search any further.”
Today we are going to search further this parable that has traditionally been called the parable of the prodigal son. Right off the bat, this traditional title directs us towards reading this parable in a particular light. We read it in light of the younger son’s journey that leads him both far and near. This story is about him! Of course, we also focus on the father and his willingness to receive his son back home. But a lot of the time, we forget about the older brother. He doesn’t seem to be as significant of a character as his younger brother. There are three major characters; a father, and two sons. This is a story about a family. It’s a story about a dysfunctional family. In fact, just for today, let’s re-title it “The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family.” I wish I could say I was creative enough to come up with that on my own, but I borrowed that from a preacher named Barbara Brown Taylor.
So this is the story of a 1st century, Middle-Eastern dysfunctional family. How might Jesus’ audience have heard this story? What would they hear that we can’t hear as readily today? Let’s try to hear this story with fresh ears, with the ears of a 1st century resident of Palestine. 1st century Palestine was largely agrarian society, where possession and cultivation of land was crucial to the well-being of a family and the surrounding community. Land was everything, and it took the cooperation of both the family unit as well as the surrounding community to live and prosper on the land. In this world, the community took priority over the individual and success came through cooperation and sharing of resources. This is something of a foreign concept to many of us as we have been instilled with the American value of rugged individualism. More important than the individual in the eyes of the community was the standing of the family name. So this brings us back to our parable today.
The younger son goes to his father and says, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” First of all, this is a big-time slap in the face to his father. The inheritance would have only been divied up upon the father’s death. In making this request, this younger son was basically saying to his father, “Father, I can’t wait for you to die!” If this father had been a typical Middle-eastern patriarch he probably would have slapped his son upside the head and said, “No way. You can just forget about that.” This son’s request is unthinkable in this culture, and the father would have been expected to refuse. Instead, the father in this story acts in an unexpected way. He turns his cheek to his son’s insult and grants his son’s request and gives him his inheritance, which, in this case, would have been his share of the family farm. And we know that this must have been a fairly wealthy family, since they had enough money to have servants and hired hands for the fields and plenty of goats and a fatted calf. So the son has his pretty hefty inheritance. But here is the real kicker. In order to turn his inheritance into liquid assets, he would have had to sell his portion of the family farm right out from under the rest of the family. Normally, under Jewish law, a son did not have the right to sell family property until after the father’s death. Not only did he take away the land from his family, which was crucial to their livelihood, he also took the profit from its sale and used it only for himself. Not to mention that when he sold the property, it would have become public knowledge within the community of what the son had done, and it would have shamed the family. It would have humiliated the father. It would have been shameful enough of an action to merit the younger son’s banishment from the community. But the younger son got out of dodge before any sort of banishment ceremony could have taken place. He took his money and ran!
Where does he run? A far-off city. We don’t really know too much about what he did or how he spent his money, but we know that he squandered away his inheritance quickly and soon became hungry and homeless. A detail is added to the story to tell us just how far this younger son has strayed. He takes a job feeding pigs, an animal that the Jewish people considered to be unclean or unfit for eating. The son has lost everything in a far-off land of pagan pig-lovers. Wow, he really is a long way from home.
Here is the point of the story where the prodigal son begins to realize he might have made a mistake in leaving home. It is a moment of repentance, but repentance that is only half-hearted at best. His reasoning for going home is not so that he can re-united with his father and re-establish that broken relationship. Instead, it is more of a business plan. It’s a plan to get food in his belly and to start getting a minimal paycheck as a hired hand. He doesn’t want to go home to become a son again, he wants to go home to be a worker. Nonetheless, hitting rock bottom has made the prodigal son realize that he needs to swallow his pride and head back home.
The prodigal son turns around and heads back home. He even plans out and rehearses the speech he will give to his father when he gets home: “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.” The first part of this speech is actually a quotation from Pharaoh when he asks Moses to lift the plagues on Egypt. We know that those words didn’t truly indicate a change of heart, but that they were meant to manipulate Moses to doing Pharaoh’s will. The son is doing the same thing here. He just wants to butter the father up so he will be more likely to accept the son’s proposal.
The son approaches his hometown. I mentioned earlier that the younger son was in danger of being banished from the community. In Jewish society in that day, there was something called the quetsatsah ceremony, which the younger son would have surely been confronted with if he ever showed his face around town again. He would have known this, and the father would have known this.
Let’s switch gears and look at the father now. All this time that his son has been gone, he has probably been looked down upon in his community. After all, he did not act like a strong Middle-eastern patriarch should have in granting his son’s request. Nonetheless, he was still a part of the community, even if everyone looked at him like he was something of a fool. Here we come to my favorite verse in the whole story: “While the son was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” This verse reveals a lot. First and foremost, the father obviously never gave up hope that one day his son would return home. If he didn’t believe that it would one day happen he would never have been looking in the first place. Who knows how long he looked for his son, glancing out the window, taking daily trips out to the gate of his property, hoping one day he would see his son coming. And one day, as he is scanning the distance, he thinks he sees something. Could that be his son? The father knows that he has to reach his son before the rest of the community could spot him and perform the banishment ceremony. So the father makes a plan: he needs to reach his son before anyone else can. So the father does something that no respectable patriarch would have done. He runs. The dignified, respectable patriarch would have waited in his home for his son to come to him, giving explanation for his actions, and then he would rebuke his son. But this father gathers up the hems of his robes and runs. He doesn’t care what the community thinks when they see him acting like a fool, running towards his son. For the father knows that if he can make a public reconciliation with his son then no one in the community would dare to suggest that they perform the banishment ceremony. To act in the way the father did was to act in a way that would have been completely humiliating. For the father, the priority was reconciliation, not his own power or position. He sought out his son at great cost to himself.
As he embraces his son, his son begins his rehearsed speech, but he doesn’t complete it. He does not ask to become a hired hand. Instead, he accepts his father’s love and consequently accepts to be found. This is the moment of genuine and complete repentance, and the restoration of the relationship which was always the father’s priority, even if at first it was not the son’s. The father then orders a banquet. This banquet is not just for the son, it is for the whole community. This banquet is meant to restore not just the son to his family, but also the son’s place within the greater community. It is a feast of reconciliation for anyone who will come to it.
But then of course, we have the elder son. He is not at all thrilled to see his baby brother. After all, he broke apart the family, took part of the livelihood and left the older brother on his own to care for his father and the land. And then he lost everything! It isn’t surprising that the older brother is angry at the father’s response. He has been shamed by his baby brother, why on earth would he want to welcome him back? Why would his father act in such a weak way? He tells his father just as much with angry words. But again, his father who should have rebuked him, offers him words of grace. Once again, the father demonstrates that he is the worst Middle-eastern patriarch that there is, as he continues to humiliate himself in front of everyone at the feast. This is a weak father who can’t even put his own sons in their rightful place! What are these words of grace? They seem like weakness, vulnerability. This father has no backbone or authority!
Yet with all of the events of this story and the actions of the father, it becomes evident that at the center of this story is the message or reconciliation. This reconciliation is costly to the father. It doesn’t come for free. He is willing to shame himself, becoming weak in the eyes of the community, in order to reconcile his family to himself.
We are in the midst of the season of Lent, in which we recall the passion of Christ: his shame, his weakness, and the high cost he paid to reconcile us to himself, to make us a part of God’s family. True reconciliation is costly. It is difficult. It requires vulnerability. For God, the cost of reconciliation was the cross, and as Jesus stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross, he did so so that we might come within the reach of his saving embrace. And he did this while we were still far off.
Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote the part of the letter to the Corinthians which was one of our Scripture readings today: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us, we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” What does it mean that this message of reconciliation is entrusted to us? Does it simply mean that we are to proclaim that God has reconciled us to himself? Or does it mean more? Where are there areas in your own life, in our congregational life, and in the life of our surrounding community that need reconciliation? The cost of reconciliation can be high. There is risk that comes with opening your arms to embrace another. As the theologian Miroslav Volf says, “I open my arms, make a movement of the self toward the other, the enemy, and do not know whether I will be misunderstood, despised, even violated or whether my action will be appreciated, supported, and reciprocated. I can become a savior or a victim. Possibly both. Embrace is grace, and grace is always a gamble.” Are you prepared for this message of reconciliation that has been entrusted to you?
We are in the position of the elder son from our story today. The father has given the message: “All that is mine is yours.” Now it is up to us to decide whether or not we will accept his words and reconcile both with him and with our brother. Are you ready?