Luke 15:1-2, 11-32
There are a couple things that I think are important for us to remember as we study a parable as familiar as this one, the one we know as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” First, we should remind ourselves that the world “Prodigal,” which actually doesn’t appear anywhere in the text itself, doesn’t mean “lost” or “wandering” – although because of this parable we have sometimes come to use the word that way. But actually, “prodigal” means “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant” or “having or giving something on a lavish scale.” We call a child genius a “prodigy” because they have intelligence on a lavish scale. Someone is prodigious if they produce a lavish or excessive amount of something. So the Prodigal Son may indeed be lost and wandering, but the focus of the title is on the fact that he’s excessive, reckless, and wasteful.
The second thing we have to remember is that the titles of Parables aren’t part of the Bible. They’re something we add on later. They’re very old, for sure, but they represent an interpretation. At some point, someone heard or read Jesus’ parable, about a father and two sons, and determined that the focus of the story was a reckless, extravagant son. But we could have just as easily called it “The Parable of a Father and His Sons,” or, “The Parable of the Cranky Older Brother,” or “The Parable of the Sacrificial Fatted Calf.” The title we use tells us to focus on a certain point of view in the story – but Jesus didn’t tell us what to focus on in the story – not with a title anyway. It’s hard to “unhear” the title we’ve given the parable for so long. But our best hope at understanding deeply why Jesus shares these words involves trying, as much as we can, to “unhear” what we think we already know.
So, we start with the first part of this parable. The beginning of chapter 15 of Luke tells us that tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus and his teaching, and the Pharisees and scribes, the religious elite, are grumbling, saying, with outrage, scandalized, “This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them!” In response, Jesus tells a string of parables. The first one is about a shepherd who has 100 sheep, and searches diligently for one who is lost. The second is about a woman who has 10 coins, and searches diligently for one of the ten that is lost. And then he turns next to this parable, beginning, “There was a man who had two sons.”
Jesus tells us that the younger of two sons says to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” Basically, he’s saying to his father, “Give me whatever I would inherit from you if you had already died.” If that sounds rude, it’s because it is. His behavior is tacky, hurtful, disrespectful. But the father complies. We aren’t privy to his reaction to his son’s request. The son takes his money and gets out of town.
Immediately, he squanders everything he’s just received through reckless living, and, unfortunately, this coincides with a famine in the land. He’s suddenly quite desperate. He goes to work feeding the pigs of a local farmer. And he realizes he’s looking rather longingly at the food the pigs are getting to eat. And suddenly, it occurs to him: People who work for his father have food and then some – but here he is, starving, and feeding pigs. So he comes up with a plan: He’ll go back home, and to his 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.” And with his plan in mind, he heads back to his father’s house. We never hear anything more about the younger son once he’s been greeted by his father. We don’t know how he reacts to his father’s welcome, or his brother’s anger. So what we have to think about is this: his decision to leave home, and his decision to come back again.
Many times, we read of or think of this story as a story of repentance. After all, the younger son turns back and heads home, and turning around and going back in God’s direction is at the very core of what it means to repent. But, although we like to read it into the text, there’s nothing in this parable that tells us that the young man feels sorry about what he’s done. Instead, we really only see that he has enough sense to suspect that he’ll find some degree of mercy at his father’s home. He gets more than he expects, undoubtedly. But out of all the places he might look for help, he’s most confident that he will get it from his father.
So what if the younger son doesn’t come home because he’s repentant? What if he hasn’t turned over a new leaf? What if he’s as much of a jerk when he gets home as he was when he left? As I was thinking about this, I was thinking about how much emphasis we put on our ability to be good. We strive, I hope, to be good. We admire true goodness when we encounter it in others. But Jesus never seems to talk about people’s goodness. In fact, one time when a person refers to Jesus as good, Jesus says that no one is good but God alone. What Jesus does commend in others is their faith in God. Again and again when Jesus offers healing, he will says, “Your faith has made you well.” Faith, not goodness. Faith, deep confidence in the power of God, in the love of God, in the healing work of God in the world – this Jesus commends. In this parable, which of these two sons has faith in the love, or at least in the mercy of their father? The “good” son? Or the “bad” son?
I don’t suggest that we give up on seeking after goodness. But I do suggest that we continue to wrestle with – and let go of – our idea, our insistence that we can access God’s love, or more of God’s love, or more of God’s love than that other guy at least if we could just be good enough to deserve it.
We’re going to skip ahead a bit in our passage, past the father’s greeting of his returning son, to take a look at the older son, the big brother in this text. After the younger son has returned home and been warmly greeted by his father and taken off to a grand party, the text shifts focus to his older brother. The older son is in the field, walking back to the house, and he hears music and dancing. He calls a slave over to ask what’s going on, and the slave tells the older son: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” This makes the son angry, and he refuses to go inside. So, the father comes out, begging him to come in and join the party. But, the son will not be comforted. He says, “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!” We’ll get to the father’s response in a bit.
Now, we don’t get much insight into what life was really like for the older son, but it seems unlikely, from what we do see, that the father treated his older son like a slave, or failed to celebrate him in any way, ever. But it should be clear enough that this older son is very, very bitter, and very anger. When I think of him, I think of another of Jesus’ parables where a group of people is upset when someone else gets more than most think they deserve. In the Parable of the Workers in the Field, the owner asks his workers, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
Undoubtedly, the brother seems to be full of envy to the point of bitterness that his father is so generous with his younger brother. How about us? Are we envious, because God is generous? Envy is discontent/ill-will/covetousness because of what others have. To be envious because God is generous, we either have to feel like 1) We don’t have what the other person has. (Example: They have ice cream and I don’t.) or 2) Someone gave the other person part of what belonged to me – it was mine, and I want it back. (I had two scoops of ice cream and someone took one of my scoops and gave it to them.) In the older brother’s case, his response to his father’s welcome of his brother suggests that either he believes his father loves his brother, and does not love him, or, his father loves his brother, and that love detracts from the love his father can give him.
I find the older brother endlessly relatable. Are we envious because God is generous? Yup! And what this means is that either we believe that other people being receiving God’s love and unconditional forgiveness is something we don’t have for ourselves, or something that only we should have, without having to share it with others. And either way, we’ve got a problem.
I think this goes back to the “being good” thing. We’ve tried to be good and others haven’t and they still get loved! But the fact that this truth drives us crazy? It suggests that our goodness is only for the sake of a reward, rather than an act of love. Our striving to “be good” is not an act of selflessness, not a gift to God, not an act of faithfulness if we’re in it for the reward.
Maybe each of us is a different kind of older brother. Maybe some of us really believe that we are unlovable, and are jealous of the love God showers on the younger brothers in our lives. And maybe some of us really believe that God’s love for us is somehow lessened because God loves others as whole-heartedly, as prodigiously as God loves us.
But I think that’s why we think of God’s relationship to us as akin to the love of a parent for a child, rather than say the love of a spouse for a spouse. Our understanding of love between spouses would indeed mean that the impact of the love would be lessened if duplicated. If you love your spouse and your five other significant others equally, that love doesn’t seem very strong. But no, God’s love for us is like a parent for a child. It can’t be divided or subtracted just because all of God’s children have it.
The older son is a prodigal too – because he’s being recklessly wasteful with the love he has, has always had, will always have from his father. He can’t see and doesn’t value what he’s been surrounded with and supported by all his life. And now he sees all that he has as diminished in value because his father has offered it to his brother too. Maybe he’s been very good, all his life. But he doesn’t have any faith in the love of his father, though his father has always been faithful. What a waste!
Finally, we take a look at the Prodigal Parent. The father who is reckless with love and forgiveness and welcome. Offering it without even needing to be asked.
When he sees his son coming home, he is “filled with compassion.” I’ve talked to you about that word before – compassion – and how often it is used of Jesus in the gospels. It means that your insides are literally moved and twisted up with the level of care and concern you have. He runs to his son, hugging and kissing him. He cuts his son off before he can even finish his prepared speech – the father doesn’t care, doesn’t need it, isn’t interested in it. It doesn’t matter. Instead, he plans a celebration: his best robe, a ring, new sandals, a feast, a party. For, as he says, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” He doesn’t receive an apology. He doesn’t ask for explanations. He doesn’t place conditions on his son’s returns or offer expectations of future better behavior. He just demonstrates in every way he can think of that he can think of nothing better than having his son back.
And then we see him with his older son. The father pleads with him. He’s begging him to understand. “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.” He can only try to explain to his son the impossibility of his feeling anything other than overjoyed that his younger son has returned. Any other reaction is unthinkable. Just as anything other than his total love of his angry older son is unthinkable too.
I can tell you that my mom’s favorite thing in the world is when all of her kids are together in one place and happily spending time together. And I can tell you that the most paralyzing thing for her is when her children aren’t getting along. We tease her, have teased her forever about which of us is her favorite (me, obviously.) But truthfully, we all know that there’s no such thing for her. Or rather, we are her favorites – each of us. Not split between the four of us, but each of us, 100% her favorite. There is no choosing sides.
That’s how much God loves us, and then some. Beyond our imaging. Beyond comprehension. God loves us perfectly. 100%. Not divided. Never wavering. Even when we run away. Even when we don’t deserve it, which is pretty much always. Even when we’re envious. Even when we waste God’s love feeling angry and bitter about who else gets invited to the celebration. Even when we’re unfaithful. Even with our feeble attempts at goodness. Even when we think we’re better than everyone else. Even when we’re not really sorry, and just hoping for a home-cooked meal. Even when we call God’s love into question, or throw it back into God’s face. Even when we hurt God and hurt each other over it.
God is the true prodigal, after all. Reckless with forgiveness. Wasting mercy on those who deserve none. Extravagant with love. Thanks be to God. Amen.