Luke 15: 11-32
The Rev. Dr. Mary Abrams
Mar. 6, 2016
As children we all heard our parents saying the same things over and over again:
"Don't leave the refrigerator door open!"
"Say ‘please' say ‘thank you.'"
"Look both ways before crossing the street."
"Eat your vegetables."
"Do your homework first.”
And, as children, our tendency was to respond by rolling our eyes and saying a "Yeah, yeah, yeah." But there's a reason why some things are said over and over again; a reason why some things must be said over and over again. It's because we need to hear these important things! We need to hear them over and over again because we don't always "get it" the first ten times or more that we heard them.
Most of you have heard sermons on the parable that we read today of the Prodigal Son many, many times. So I ask you to bear with me and listen to another sermon on it again maybe for the tenth time or more. You just might hear something that you didn’t hear before, something that is important, something that you “didn’t get” the first nine times or more you heard it. And, though I certainly hope it's not the last time you hear of this parable, I hope that, from now on whenever you do hear it, you'll hear it as a parable that speaks of God's grace and forgiveness and unconditional love, both for sinners in need of repentance as well as for those who are steadfast and faithful in their devotion to God. It’s a story that not only invites us to accept forgiveness. It also invites us to extend forgiveness.
We know that one of Jesus’ favorite ways of teaching was to tell stories, parables. I’m going to start with why Jesus chose to tell this story. That is to set the stage for the story!
Sinners and outcast were coming to Jesus. And the Scribes and Pharisees, who were known for their strict observance of the Jewish laws, were grumbling about how "un-Jewish" Jesus’ behavior was: that Jesus "welcomed these sinners" and "ate with the outcast.”
So, Jesus was often seen among some pretty "unlikely acquaintances” for a Jew and he seemed to enjoy their company. He like being with them.
Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees didn’t often see things the same way. The Scribes and Pharisees had no love for these outcasts and sinners and felt that one rotten apple could spoil the whole barrel. Jesus believed everyone was a child of God, and therefore, worthy of God's love. The Scribes and Pharisees only loved those worthy of their love; those who followed the rules that the Scribes and Pharisees taught and loved those who believed their teachings. These people that Jesus was mixing with were scoundrels and misfits. The Scribes and Pharisees felt he had no business mixing with them!!!
So this is the setting in which the story of the Prodigal Son takes place.
• People who are squandering their lives in foolishness and sinful living.
• Jesus welcoming them with wide open arms.
And, the Scribes and Pharisees were threatened by the fact that Jesus was openly snubbing them and their beliefs.
In the parable the younger son wasn't content to plod along, day after day, doing his chores and helping run the family farm. He wanted to get away, see the sights, experience the world. I think many of us or our children have felt the same way. And so, one day he went up to his dad and said, "Father, give me my share of your property."
For this son to ask for his inheritance before his father died was disrespectful. It was as if he were saying, "I wish you were dead” Also by asking for his inheritance now, he was separating himself from his brother. The farm would have to be divided, and, obviously, he intended to sell his part of the property. He was ignoring the expectations that sons were to stay at home to provide for their parents in their old age which is part of the Jewish law to honor your father and mother. To ask for his inheritance at this point was to break the rules of social etiquette and subject the whole family, especially the father, to ridicule. The land not only supports the family, it represents the father's lifework, and without it the family could be living in poverty.
The younger son was determined to exercise his freedom though, and, as painful as it must have been for his father, instead of reprimanding his youngest son and saying “no” this loving father gave him what he asked for. According to Jewish law, the older son got two-thirds of the father's land, the younger son got one-third. Once the property was divided, the younger son sold his part, took the money and left home. He was off to see the world. We all have this tendency to be our own worst enemies don’t we. And we often suffer from our own bad choices.
This young man indulged himself with fun, friends and entertainment as long as he had money to burn. But, of course, the money soon ran out, and, when it did, the music stopped, and his friends were nowhere to be found. He was all alone and broke in a distant land, far away from home.
At first, he was able to pick up odd jobs, here and there. But then, there came a terrible drought. Times were hard enough for honest, hard-workers, who had family and friends nearby. It was just about impossible for people like our prodigal son. And so, in desperation, he took a job slopping the hogs. This was just about the worst thing that a Jewish boy could ever do. Jews avoided all association with pigs, but this young man was reduced to serving the pigs and caring for them. But, he was desperate. Even then, he was on the verge of starvation.
Then he had an aha moment. He said to himself, "How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough to spare, and I'm dying with hunger!”
So he decides to go back home to ask for mercy. He was stuck and had nowhere to turn. If his father would take him back, it would be better than what he had. So, he made up his little speech, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.” He gathered up his belongings, and set off on his long journey home.
Now this next part is the part of the parable that we love to hear. The father sees his son coming up the road. I don’t believe it is coincidence that the father was standing at that gate at that moment when his son appeared. If it were your son or your daughter, won’t you be standing at that gate every minute that you could, looking and hoping against all hope to see your child? The father had surely spent many long hours gazing down that road. I would have been if it had been my son. And when he sees his son he hikes up his robe and runs to greet him. That behavior is remarkable in itself, for a Jewish man to run was unheard of. To run would be interpreted as a loss of dignity, pride and self-respect. Yet, that's what this loving father did. I don’t think that he cared what other people thought. He ran to greet his son, and when he reached him, he threw his arms around him and kissed him. He was overjoyed that his son had come home. Can’t you just feel his joy. .
The son gave the little speech he'd been practicing all the way back but the father wasn’t listening. Because, no sooner than the words were out of the son’s mouth, the father called back to his servants and said, 'Bring out the best robe, and put it on him. Put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat, and celebrate; for this, my son, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.'
Now the older brother enters into the story. He has been out in the field doing what he does best, working hard, serving faithfully and keeping the family afloat, being the good and responsible son. Apparently in the excitement his father forgot to send someone to tell the him that his brother had returned. So, you can just imagine what went through his mind when he heard music and laughter in the middle of the working day. He called to one of the servants and asked, "What's going on?" And the servant said,"Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and healthy."
Well, of course, none of this made sense to the older son. Not only had his younger brother made a stupid mistake, he'd disgraced the family's name and jeopardized their future by selling off a third of the property. And, if it were true that he'd lost everything, well,then he got what he deserved. So, the older brother stopped at the fence and stood there, looking angrily at the party instead of going inside. He had worked hard all his life and followed the rules but his father had never thrown a party for him. I think many of us can relate to the older son. We’ve worked hard and have been obedient and it doesn’t seem fair to have someone who has not followed the rules, who has not worked for what he has to be given to receive more then we have. How is that fair?
His father looked up and saw the older brother standing in the distance, and so, he put down his food and drink and went out to meet him and asked him to join the festivities. The father’s joy is now shattered. He tried to reason with his first-born son, to make him understand just how much his brother’s return meant, and at the same time, just how much his faithfulness through all the years had meant. "My boy, you will never know how grateful I am for all that you are and all that you have done. Everything I own belongs to you. But please understand, your brother is important to me also. Even though he squandered everything he had, he is back and he is again a member of this family. I love him. But I love you too. Won't you please come in and join the party?”
The father is as full of grace for his now disobedient elder son as he was for his disobedient younger son. He comes outside to reconcile with the elder son just as he came outside to greet the younger son. The difference is that the younger son was open to whatever his father might say, but the elder son has hardened his heart.
That is how the parable ends. Jesus doesn’t tell us what happens to this family. He doesn’t tell us the outcome of the father's plea, but we are left with the impression that the father has one repentant younger son and one unrepentant elder son.
Apparently the outcome for the family was not important to Jesus. What is important is the message in this story. What was it the Jesus wanted The Scribes and Pharisees and us to understand.
We've been calling this parable the "Prodigal Son." But what exactly does the word "prodigal" mean? We seldom hear the word prodigal except in this parable and we mistakenly assume that it means "bad." But prodigal means generous, extravagant, unrestrained, or wasteful, sort of “over the top” behavior. So it is not necessarily bad.
We could call it this parable the parable of the prodigal family. The Father is a prodigal father in a positive sense: he is excessive, extravagant, generous and unrestrained in his love for his sons. And the two sons are both prodigals but in a more negative sense: they are “over the top” each in their own way. The younger brother was extravagant and unrestrained when he requested an early inheritance and then squandered it away. The older son is excessive in his self righteousness and anger at his brother and his father.
The sinner and outcasts, the Scribes and Pharisees, and Jesus are all represented in this story.
The younger son playing the part of the sinners and the outcasts and Jesus takes the role of the loving father. The first lesson we learn is pretty simple and easy to see. We learn that no matter how low we go, no matter how bad our sin is, and how many bad choices we make our Heavenly Father is not only waiting at the gate to take us back, but is so anxious for our return that he comes running to meet us.
We can all identify with this younger son because we have all sinned during our lives. As we look back, there are probably decisions that we have made and things that we have done that we wish had never happened, and we are grateful for the knowledge that God has forgiven us when we have asked.
That is the good news that God loves both the righteous and the sinner. But that is not the only point that Jesus was trying to get across. The second part of the story the part with the elder son is maybe the more important part and less obvious. The elder son plays the role of the self righteous Scribes and Pharisees. The people that Jesus was addressing when he told this story.
And most of us can also identify with the older son. We are not generally frivolous and irresponsible people. We are solid citizens, hardworking. We live by the Golden Rule, as best as we can. We obey the Ten Commandments, most of the time. We work hard, go to church and raise our families. We try to do our best. We admit that we are not perfect, but somewhere, way down deep, we think we are pretty close to being perfect, just like the older son. And like the older son we are often quick to pass judgement on others. To think we are better and deserve more because of our good behavior.
You see, sins of the spirit do not amount to all that much in our eyes. If someone pushes dope, is a thief or a murderer, we and everyone else recognize the sin and we do something about it. But no one is ever arrested for stealing the laughter from a child's eyes with their angry words. No one ever went to jail for killing a marriage with constant bickering and bad temper. It is not a criminal offense to not love your neighbor as yourself. And the result is that we do not think too much about those sins.
But Jesus did. He saw all the sins of the spirit, the self-pity, the anger, the pride, the envy, the lack of compassion, the self-righteousness, and all the rest. And just like our parents who told us a thousand times to shut the door, or not to hit our sister because it was important, Jesus tells us again, maybe for the thousandth time, to love one another because it is important. He was telling the Scribes and the Pharisees, and us, not only that God loves us and forgives us but he is telling us that we are to love each other and we can not love each other if we do not forgive each other. Like the loving father who forgave both his disobedient sons. Both sons showed him disrespect, embarrassed him in the eyes of the community. But he did not pass judgment on them and condemn them, he forgave them both. We are not to pass judgement on others, that is God’s job. If we let God do the judging then we are free to forgive and in forgiving we can love our neighbor. And when we love our neighbor we can join the party, celebrate and experience the joy.
Are there sins of the spirit that are keeping you on the outside looking in, missing the joy? Has your heart been hardened to someone who has hurt you keeping you from joining the party? Maybe you can try forgiveness as the loving father did and celebrate with God.