Prodigal Son Sermon from Luke 15:1-3; 11-32
The parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32 concludes our sermon series Bible Stories You Should Know. Jesus’ most familiar parable shows God’s delight when someone turns their life around. Yet there are dimensions of the story that leave us uneasy. As an older brother, the big brother in the story makes a valid point about fairness.
Did you know that parables are a distinctive form of ancient storytelling designed to leave us scratching our heads and thinking deeper? Diana Butler Bass [i] says the word parable is a construct of two words. Para means to walk alongside. And the second word means to throw down or to wrestle with. Parables take us out of the ordinary, and we wrestle with the story’s implications. So, let’s have a throwdown today.
God’s interest in reclaiming the lost
The parable of the prodigal son has a context that shapes its meaning. Luke 15 opens with conflict. Religious leaders grumble about the company Jesus keeps. He dines with sinners, tax collectors, thieves, and prostitutes. They assume like attracts like. In that day, eating with someone implies acceptance, a bond with someone. Upon hearing their grousing, Jesus tells three stories about the lost becoming found.
The first is about a lost coin where Jesus compares God to a woman who loses a coin and gets down on her hands and knees, searching all night until she finds it. The second is about a shepherd who leaves the flock to find the one that got away. Next, we have the story about joy for the returning lost son. The implication is clear. God seeks out those who are lost and celebrates when we get back on track.
Maybe you’ve gotten a little off the path and got caught up in something, an attitude or behavior that is not healthy. Today is the reminder that it’s okay to come back now. No need for guilt trips. Recently a guy wanted to look around the church because he had grown up here and hadn’t been back since. He joked about getting struck by lightning. People say that a lot. I just tell them God is likelier to hit them with a great party than a lightning bolt. It’s not about your past, but what lies in front of you that matters.
Asking for the inheritance now.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the younger son demands his inheritance. What kind of person demands his inheritance while the father is still alive? We don’t know. Maybe dad branded his cows with bumper stickers that read, “I’m blowing my kids’ inheritance.” The kid said, “Hey, give it to me. Let me enjoy it while—I’m still young.”
Dividing up a family farm was no small deal. It would be a great shame not to be able to hold your family together. So, we are reminded of free will and how God allows us to reject God.
It was insulting to ask for your inheritance before your parents die—it’s like saying, “You are dead to me.” Maybe someone you care about deeply has disowned you. Has stopped talking; has said by word or deed, “You are dead to me.” You want the relationship to heal. They are done.
What can you do? The father is under no obligation to indulge his child. But he does so anyway. He does not try to control, manipulate, or say, “You are just going to blow it. This land has been in our family for 1,800 years. Generations of men and women have worked, sweated, and bled for what you are about to receive. They have endured years of drought and floods, and poor harvest. God brought them through, and now you will blow it on things, not of God. If you do, don’t you dare come back? If you walk out the door, it closes behind you–forever.” No, there’s none of that. He lets the kid go and makes his own mistakes. Just as God gives us the freedom to make bad choices. It’s important to remember not to blame God for your choice to follow paths of your own free will.
The territory of dissolute living
The son leaves the country for the land of gentiles—rejecting his people (not just his father). Before long, he blows the money. Most people assume the word prodigal means one who goes away and returns. But it means spending lavishly or extravagantly. The son spends lavishly on “dissolute living.” Jesus doesn’t give us the particulars, but we can surmise it is seedy. When his pockets are empty, he works on a pig farm. If you are Jewish, feeding slop to the pigs was as low as you could sink.
Jesus said that one day, he “came to himself.” Other translations say, “when he was clothed in his right mind.” Hitting the bottom has a way of clarifying things. Most people are distrustful of it. Some folks would rather people continue to suffer for a long time for their bad decisions; they are unforgiving and would rather see you slop around with the swine. Unfortunately, many of those folks are religious—the kind that grumbled about Jesus eating with sinners.
That’s probably why Jesus told this parable to the religious leaders. It is possible for people to come to themselves, to want to change, to recognize that their choices have caused irreparable harm to themselves and others. Maybe today is a day for “coming to yourself” to realize there is a way up from the bottom. A friend who helps addicts tells them, “It never has to get worse for you than it is today. You have choices to make, but it doesn’t have to get worse.”
He concocted a scheme to become a hired hand on his dad’s farm. The son begins a journey home. But he has more than his father to worry about. The community had rituals to punish a Jewish boy who lost the family inheritance to Gentiles. Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor says,
If he ever shows up in his village again, then the villagers can fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal, and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people. After that, he will be a cosmic orphan, who might as well go back and live with the pigs.[ii]
The father looks like a fool to redeem his son
On the way home, we imagine that he prepares a repentance speech. But he never gets to deliver his speech. The father has been searching, hoping for the kid to come home. And he runs to his child. Taylor points out how surprising that is.
Then his father does one of those things that patriarchs do not do. His father runs to his son—runs so that everyone can see his pale ankles, runs so that his robes get wedged between his legs and flutter out behind him like an apron—he runs like a girl, like a mother instead of a father—he runs and puts his arms around his son, and kisses him right there on the road, where everyone can see them… If the father can get to the son before the village does, then he can save his son from being cut off. He can save his relationship with his son and his family’s relationship with the village all at the same time. This reconciliation will cost him his honor—his greatness in others’ eyes—but that is a price he is willing to pay. The father runs like a girl to greet his son, before anyone can treat him like a hired hand.[iii]
The father gives gifts to the son, symbols of authority, honor, and privilege. The best robe. That would be the father’s robe. He orders a feast. Kill the fatted calf. The whole community will be invited and see that my son is restored, not cut off. The restoration of relationships means more than the neighbors’ opinions. His son’s salvation costs him almost as much as his son’s abandonment of him in the first place, yet he never says a word about the price. He is the prodigal Abba. The cost is irrelevant. Restoring relationships is everything.
The brother’s grudge
If anyone ever deserved a happy ending, this father it’s this man. But you know what happens. The elder son shows up, hears the music and the dancing, and refuses to go into the house. No one asked whether he wanted to be reconciled with his good-for-nothing brother. No one asked him how he felt, being known as the prodigal’s brother or wearing the second-best robe. The elder son is the good son. He has done everything right and isn’t about to sit at the same table with the self-centered, pig-loving, sin-sick brother who has cost his family so much shame and grief.
The father goes to the infuriated son, risking the dishonor of leaving his party. The father is always trying to restore relationships, to keep the door open no matter what it costs him. He’s willing to sacrifice to sustain the relationship. We are challenged to be people who open doors. There can be conditions and appropriate boundaries we put on the relationship so we are not doormats. But we are the ones who should be ready to reconcile. If others don’t walk through that door, it’s their prerogative, but we didn’t end it.
Where is the justice in this story?
In the throw-down aspect of the parable, the older son has a point. Don’t people need to suffer consequences? Parents shouldn’t enable their kids. The righteous should be rewarded, not taken for granted! The older brother is right to point out the unfairness that the party is thrown in honor of the younger brother—it’s his calf! I always think of how my brother was a real pill, and my parents were always bribing him to behave and gave him a puppy for passing 4th grade. They didn’t even think of getting me anything. It was just, “duh, of course, you must pass 4th grade.”
God comes across as being unfair. I used to say, “If you read this story and put yourself in the role of the older brother, try again. We are all the prodigals. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we are welcomed back. The story is good news for us, not bad.”
Why bother being good?
But I know there is still this nagging question behind it, “If God takes us back, why not just squander life in dissolute living? Why be responsible? Why be a good person? Why bother? The father reminds the kid that he has always been in the company of the father and that all he has belongs to him. Maybe we take for granted the intrinsic goodness of a life well lived. You have the presence of God around you a community that supports you. Don’t you know how great that is? Don’t you know what a blessing it is to live with a clean conscience? If you’ve ever been prodigal and unable to sleep at night because of guilt, shame, or failure, then you don’t understand how good you really have it.
If you have never had people, a church that you can turn to when the chips are down and you need someone to embrace you, then you don’t know how good you already have it. If you don’t know what it is like to have one bad thing after another happen to you so that you think God is against you instead of for you, then you don’t know how good you have had it all along. Count your blessings and welcome home your little brother. He needs your compassion, not your judgment.
As Taylor concludes,
Meanwhile, there is a banquet going on. You can hear the music and the dancing even out in the yard, and there is plenty left to eat. Your father won’t make you go in the house. He’ll just stand in the yard with you to protect you, the same way he protected the brother. What’s left of his honor is in your hands. You can go to the party as you are. The father’s banquet is for the reconcilable, thrown for anyone who will come and not take for granted what he has to share.”[iv]