A Prodigal Father

Scripture (Luke 15:11-32) can be found here.

You should have come to Bible Study on Monday. Never before have we had such an energetic discussion. Together, we dove into this story—this perfect jewel of a parable—with all the heart, and soul, and mind, and strength of each person in that room. (Mondays at 4, except the 2nd Monday—in the downstairs Meeting Room, for all who don’t want to miss out.)

It may or may not surprise you that, for many of us in that room, there was an obvious connection to one of these brothers. And we had a passionate conversation about it… why, on the one hand, the older brother should, of course, forgive his younger brother, why he should greet him with the same open arms as their father, because forgiveness is at the heart of our faith, and so of course the younger brother deserves our sympathy. And, why, on the other hand, well, we just weren’t sure we saw actual signs of repentance in that ne’er-do-well. It just looked like base opportunism to us… and so, of course, the older brother, who sees his sibling clearly, is the one who really deserves our sympathy.

You’ve already heard the story, so let’s fill in some of the details.

In Jesus’ day, the traditions of inheritance dictated that the oldest son of a family inherited the largest share of the estate—usually, they received a double share, while other sons received a single share. (I am sorry to report that women weren’t even in the picture.) We learn in the first sentence of this story that “there was a man who had two sons…” That means, when the father divides up his estate, he would be giving his younger son one third of all his wealth. Even at half what his older brother inherits, that would still be quite a bit of money for his adventures.

And adventure he does! The younger son wastes no time: just a few days later, he packs up all his belongings, and leaves for a distant country, where, we are told in the very same sentence, he “squanders his property in dissolute living.” We don’t get the details here, but later on, his older brother is happy to supply them. For now, the Greek behind the English translation means things like wasteful, debauched, even riotous. Extravagant, which is the meaning of “prodigal.”

And the younger son’s timing in all this is such that, just as his money runs out, the country he’s in falls into a mighty famine, and he is forced to take work feeding the pigs on a farm. Remember, in this Jewish context, pigs are unclean animals; the young son has been flying high, and now he is brought very, very low. He’s desperately hungry, and no one in this land so far away from home offers him a thing. He is so hungry, the pig slop begins to look good to him.

And that’s when he comes to himself.

Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been in the middle of a mess, a horrible situation, a nightmare at least partially of your own making, in which, suddenly, you heard a still, small voice at the core of you whispering, Hey. Hey. You. What are you doing here? And in the memory of the younger son, there swim images of the hired hands on his father’s land, and they are gathered around a table and there is plenty of food for everyone.

And then the voice becomes louder, more insistent. GET OUT, it says. YOU KNOW WHERE TO GO, AND YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO.

Immediately the younger son begins to rehearse in his head what he will do, and what he will say. He has a speech all planned. He will acknowledge his wrong-doing—that he has sinned, a sin, perhaps, of selfishness, and also cruelty to demand his inheritance, as if his father were worth more to him dead than alive. He knows that he has all but relinquished the right to be called his father’s son, and so he won’t ask for that privilege. He will ask to be one of those well-fed hired hands.

Now, as we learned in our bible study last Monday, depending on where your allegiances are between the two brothers in this story, you might look at this speech as a statement of true contrition. That, in coming to himself, this young man has realized that he has truly messed up, and the right thing—the only thing for him to do—is to apologize and, essentially, throw himself at his father’s mercy. On the other hand, you might see the speech he’s rehearsing as a really slick “apology” hitting all the right notes that he knows his old man will fall for.

The younger son sets off on his journey.

And while he is still far off, his father sees him, and he is filled with compassion, and he runs out to him, takes him in his arms, and kisses him.

We have to at least consider the possibility that this father has been sitting wherever on his property would give him the best view of the road he saw his son leave on—that he has been sitting there, day in and day out, since the day the boy disappeared into the distance.

And so, the minute that familiar, beloved form crests the horizon, the father goes out to him. When he reaches the boy, out comes the well-rehearsed speech…

‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son…’

But his father interrupts him, yelling orders at nearby slaves.

Get him out of these filthy clothes and into a good robe! Put shoes on his poor feet! Get my mother’s ring for his finger! Let us prepare a table before him, in the presence of his enemies… Let us anoint his head with oil, and see that his belly is full and his cup overflows… ‘For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’

(Luke 15:22-24)

And the party starts.

There is no doubt in my mind that this parable is, at least in part, a story about forgiveness, about the grace we can offer to one another when we are hurting.

But let it be heard here and now, that this is first of all a story about the love and grace that are poured out by a prodigal God, an outpouring that may well be considered extravagant or even wasteful, but which it is in the very nature of God to bestow on us—deserving, undeserving, and everyone in between. This is a story about a God who doesn’t wait for us to come to our senses, but who seeks us out, who comes out to meet us, and clothes us with grace before we’ve even had a chance to utter our apologies and excuses.

But oh: the older brother. This is hard for him. At the end of a long day of working in the field, heading back towards the house, he notices—goodness gracious—there is a party! There is music. There is dancing! He asks a slave what is going on, and is told—your brother is home, and your father is throwing this party because he got him back, safe and sound.

And the older brother is exasperated. He is angry. He feels something more complicated than this story tries to unpack for us, but which, I am going to hazard a guess, is a tower of resentment constructed over the course of years, something recognizable to those who have always been “the good ones,” the ones who simply did their duty as they understood it.

He makes a decision. He’s not going in.

And so, the minute the father realizes that his older, beloved child is outside, kept away by his own rage at the celebration, the father goes out to him. And he comes alongside his son, and tries to get him to come in… but the older son has his own speech. Not necessarily rehearsed. Or maybe it is.

And that old resentment comes out, in painful detail.

And you kill the fatted calf for him, are his last, pained words. You give him a feast.

This is a story about forgiveness, and grace.

It might also be a story about how hard it can be to forgive.

It might even be a story about the stories we tell ourselves, so that we feel justified in saying, no. I will not go in to the feast. Not for him. Not for her.

‘Son,’ the father says at last, ‘you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate. We had to rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ~ Luke 15:31-32

There is no doubt in my mind that this is, at least in part, a story about forgiveness, about the grace we can offer to one another, even when we are hurting. But it is first, and foremost about a God who comes out to us with forgiveness and grace overflowing; as this prodigal father goes out to his lost-and-found boy; and also, as this prodigal father goes out to his other boy, the one who has labored under the delusion that he had to earn this love from the beginning.

And this is where the story ends—one son reveling in the feast, dancing, filling himself with the bounty offered by his father; and one son, outside—but not outside his father’s love, grace, and forgiveness. Outside by choice, not by necessity. Outside because of a wall inside him, not because of one his father has set up.

We are invited. We are invited to the party of forgiveness, of grace, of love. Older sons and younger sons. the dutiful do-gooders and the ones who struggle to find their way. The categories of “deserving” and “undeserving” are meaningless here, because this is about a grace so enormous it needs to be poured out everywhere, and for everyone. The invitation is an open one; the bounty poured out is ours. We are welcome, we are in, we are invited to pull a chair up to the table, and to put on our dancing shoes, and to revel in what God has in store for us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.