I was thinking of that commercial as I pondered our gospel reading today which contains the parable of the prodigal son. Sometimes, stories are so familiar that we no longer hear them when they appear in front of us. The words rattle by, but rather than listening deeply, we have a narrator’s voice in our heads speaking over the story line, and we fail to hear the true details of the story.
For instance, I wonder if everyone knows what the word “prodigal” means? When I taught in the parochial school for my first two years of teaching, the word appeared on my students’ vocabulary list in English class once, and most of my kids surprised me by saying that “prodigal” meant “lost.” If you only encountered that word in the title of this parable, that would be a reasonable assumption. But it is also incorrect. Someone who is “prodigal” is actually someone who is wasteful or extravagant with their money.
Most of my students admitted that the only time they had ever heard the word was in the context of this parable. And so we pulled the Bibles down from the tippy top of the shelf where they were stored in my room, blew off the inch-thick coating of dust on them, and cracked them open to where this story appears in Luke’s gospel. The first surprise my students got is that this parable comes hot on the heels of two other, shorter parables—and if you look, you will see that they are omitted in our gospel reading today, as well. But I think it’s helpful to hear those, too, so here they are.
Right after the grumbling about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them, we get not one but THREE parables. The first two are these:
4‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
8 ‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
THEN Jesus finishes up with the story of the Prodigal Son. The eliminated stories make very clear that all three parables are about rejoicing when the lost is found—for relationships that are restored. The application for our behavior then also has to do with rejoicing over the one who has repented instead of judging them and refusing to forgiven for their mistakes. These stories are about accepting repentance freely, rather than demanding punishment from those who have done wrong so that they “earn” forgiveness. The younger son has demanded the portion of his inheritance that would have gone to him—when his father died. The outrageous implication here is that he is not willing to wait and work and inherit, but in a way is wishing his father dead right now, because the only way someone got their inheritance was upon the death of their father.
Yet the father’s reaction is truly surprising: he goes along with this outrageous proposal, even though this request is an affront of the highest order and a violation of all duty and respect a son owed his father, at the very least. There are certainly times when parents acquiesce to a self-destructive course our children take (although MINE certainly never gently acquiesced to anything!) hoping that it will turn out all right and that perhaps they learn something without too much damage being done.
Of course the son wastes all his money, and in a bit of justice, a famine strikes the land he is in at that very moment. At first, perhaps his pride prevents him from immediately returning home when the going gets rough. It’s more likely that he fully understood that in his selfishness, he had initiated a permanent break from his family. Our story says that he was so hungry he considered eating the pods the pigs had to eat. Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine points out that early listeners to Luke’s gospel in the 1st or 2nd centuries might have recognized a rabbinic saying on Leviticus that opined, “When Israelites are reduced to eating carob pods, they repent.”(1)
The power of a hungry belly is a powerful motivator, and it is at this time that the younger son remembers that Daddy still has money. So when he gets desperate enough, he is willing to overcome this objection, and concocts a pretty little speech filled with false humility to evade the consequences of his actions. He asks to be taken back as a hired servant—NOT as a slave—so that he would still be able to earn a wage. So he’s not completely humbling himself. He rehearses this speech to sound convincing.
But even before he has really approached the house, his father spots him, and in his joy runs and embraces and kisses his son. Notice that after this effusive display of joy and forgiveness, the son’s speech changes. Instead of trying to negotiate, he simply acknowledges and owns his very great fault against both heaven and his father (Levitical law and custom), and acknowledges that he doesn’t deserve the status of son any longer through his offenses. I am convinced that it is at this point that the younger son’s rehearsed, cynical speech becomes a genuine plea for forgiveness. No longer is he angling for a job. He is simply acknowledging that he is completely wrong.
This is the turning point of the entire story. Finally, the younger son accepts the love his father has given him all along, and appreciates his own unworthiness. The father loves his son even when he has abandoned his family, and the father loves him now that he turned toward home, no matter what he has done.
Dr. Levine brings up a short tale from rabbinical commentary that applies to exactly this moment in the story: “A king had a son who had gone astray from his father on a journey of a hundred days. His friends said to him, “Return to your father.” He said, “I cannot.” Then his father sent word, “Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you.” So God says, “Return to me, and I will return to you.”(2)
Isn’t that beautiful?
But right on the heels of this beautiful moment, we have the resentment of the elder son, coming in grimy from his work to find a party for his no-account little brother going on. The elder son resents the fuss being made over someone whom he sees as being immoral and irresponsible without suffering any consequences. He resents that no one celebrates his work, but feels like his father and the revelers celebrate irresponsibility instead. The elder son expresses his resentment to his father, who again responds soothingly rather than in anger. The father reminds his elder son that, since the younger son has taken his part of the inheritance, everything he has left belongs to the elder son. All he asks is that the elder son to find it within him to rejoice that his little brother is at least back home, safe and sound.
The elder son only understands his little brother as being selfish and leaving him to do all the work around the place. And he resents the hell out of the celebration of one whom he thinks is unworthy and unrepentant. Yet, in his grousing, he too is just as ungrateful toward his father as his little brother was. So really, this parable could also be titled, “The Man Who Had Two Ungrateful Sons."
So how does this parable speak to us today? Most of us probably identify with the older son, but we should first remember that we actually behave more like the younger son. How often do we demand what we want, impulsively seek to fulfill our own desires no matter what the cost to others, and fool ourselves into thinking that we can be happy solely by concentrating on our own happiness? How often do we try to mask our real motives in an attempt to manipulate to get what we want? Isaiah 53 has an image that might illuminate the mildest form of this tendency to headstrong self-absorption: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way…”
The point of this parable is grace and mercy. It is an insistent declaration that God is not a God who stands aloof from us, but loves us unceasingly and calls us to return, again and again, calls us to repent—to turn away from what separates us from God, and to turn away from what separates us from each other.
It also reminds us that we depend on God’s help always in living our very best life, in which we ourselves are called to love and care for those around us without questioning whether they are worthy. Judging worthiness is not our jobs. Loving and caring for people IS, as disciples of Jesus and pilgrims on his Way of Love. No matter who they are, or how different they are from us. We ourselves have been recipients of an abundant grace— forgiveness from God that rejoices each time we turn, but a forgiveness we have to realize can never be earned by us. No matter all our striving, or even conniving, as the rabbi’s story reminds us, our own determination to repent will only get us half the way home.
God is that parent who sees the dust from our feet rising from afar, and runs out to us and throws his arms around us in an extravagant embrace, even when we are only halfway home. Jesus reminds us that God never gives up on us, just like in that rabbinical story:
Come back home, my child.
I can’t, I’m too far away.
Then start the journey back, and I will come the rest of the way to you.
It is God’s grace that brushes aside all our attempts to believe we can talk our way into being restored. Even if we truly think we have done things in our lives that makes forgiveness impossible, God still comes for us and rejoices at our return. In response to complaints that Jesus sits with those who have been judged unworthy, Jesus insists that the justice of God is always grounded in grace and mercy. No matter what anyone has done, God’s love calls us back with generosity and extravagant forgiveness—and calls us to do likewise. Coming half the way home is more than enough. We just have to turn and begin.
Preached at the 505 on March 30 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
1) and 2) Amy-Jill Levine, "What the Prodigal Son Story Doesn't Mean," August 25, 2014, at the Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-08/parable-and-its-baggage