Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Luke 15:11-32 The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother
Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me." So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘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.’ ” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “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!” Then the father said to him, “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.” ’
Today’s reading may be a familiar one to you. It’s usually called The Story of the Prodigal Son. It is familiar enough that if you say the word “prodigal” outside of a church situation, people will think of this story, or at least know that you are talking about someone who left, maybe not in great circumstances, but decided to come home, despite the risk. I wonder, though, and have for a while, if we shouldn’t be calling this story something else. A while ago, I read that Dr. Fred Craddock called this parable The Parable of the Loving Father in his commentary on Luke. Given that’s it’s paired with two other sermons where someone desperately looks for something that has been lost, I’m inclined to thing Dr. Craddock is right. Because this story isn’t only about the son coming home. It’s about the generous father who welcomes him back.
Now, just a few things have happened in the world since last Sunday, so, let’s have a little reminder about what happened just before Jesus told this parable. First, we need to remember that Jesus was teaching and the tax collectors and sinners were among those who come to hear him teach. Tax collectors worked for the brutal Roman government and often used their power to take more from the regular people than they should have. Scholar Fred Craddock noted that tax collectors, in addition to being assumed to be corrupt, were doubly critiqued as treasonous for being willing to work for a Gentile government against their own people. Craddock also argues that sinners is a specific term for people who are known in the community to not be following their religious laws. According to Craddock, these folks’ flouting of the law was so widely known that they would not be welcome in the synagogue.
The respectable leaders in the community have concerns. They want to know why Jesus is hanging out with people who are so contemptable. They want to know what he’s preaching that make those who have done something wrong feel welcome to sit and listen to him. Jesus offered up three parables by way of explanation. Today’s reading is the third. Last week, we learned about the shepherd who bravely sought out his lost sheep and the woman who turned her house upside down to find an important coin. In both of those stories, the response of the seeker is to celebrate finding the lost. In today’s reading, there’s a party for the lost, too. But, we have a few more details in the story. There’s a father who loves his son and a son who has realized he made a mistake and wants to come home. But, there is a third figure, too: an elder son. He’s the major difference in structure and narrative from the first two stories. He never got in trouble. He’s been doing his darndest to be a good son. He’s the respectable pharisees and scribes. And, his feelings about his brother’s return need to be addressed, too.
A very smart colleague of mine, the Rev. Dr. Emily Heath, once preached a sermon on this scripture that is one of my favorite sermons about this story. In their sermon, Dr. Heath noted that so many times when they’ve heard this sermon preached, it’s not been a sermon about the prodigal who comes back but about the annoyed son who had stayed and been responsible. The moment I read that, I nearly shouted, “me, too!” Who else has heard a sermon about this scripture turn into a sermon about how to deal with the responsible brother? Who else feels like the responsible son instead of the party-animal son? Anybody else find themselves feeling particularly compassionate for the son who stayed home? I think that’s a pretty justifiable response to this story.
Dr. Heath wondered in their sermon if this response says more about the kind of churches that they have found themselves in than it does the actual scripture. Those churches, like this one, are filled with responsible, care-giving, stable people... people who try hard, and often succeed, in living up to the best values of their faith. Many of our churches are filled with responsible siblings, and Pharisees and scribes . . . people invested in living lives that reflect their commitments to God and to their families. And, they’ve been trying hard for a long time. They feel like part of their call is to be responsible. And, when you try to be responsible, to not disappoint your family or your church or your God, when you’ve mostly tried to do the right thing, it can really hurt when someone who has not tried so hard gets celebrated or gets centered in a story. Jesus knew that. But, he also knew that his ministry is not just to the responsible and the upright. His ministry, and God’s love, is for the lost and the cast out. The respectable people of Jesus’ time, and probably our time, too, need to tend to our resentments and our suspicions if we’re really going to engage with Jesus’ ministry. We can’t follow him if we always think we’re in the right or if we, who have been called right, can’t make room for those who have been called wrong.
So, what if we listen to this story again, this time paying most of our attention to the generous father. Dr. Craddock noted something in his commentary that is worth remembering. Notice that the father in this story crosses his threshold twice. Twice, he goes to a son and reiterates his love and care for that son. Most of the time, we just talk about the way he rushes forward and embraces his younger, desperate, and often foolish son, the son who has come home hoping for little more than the station of a slave. We talk, in wonder and befuddlement, about his great grace in welcoming this son home. Because this son was lost... like alone in another country and tempted to eat hog slop lost. His father must celebrate now that he is found. The shepherd celebrates finding the lost sheep and the woman the lost coin. It makes sense, just by comparison, that this father would cross his threshold once and then throw a party to welcome home the lost. But, he crosses over the threshold a second time. And, that’s what makes this story unique.
When the elder brother realized that there was a party and got too mad/resentful/jealous to attend, the father didn’t let him stay outside, fuming, while the party went on without him. Just as before, the generous father left his home and went to his child. Jesus even says that he pled with his elder son to come inside. The father even took the brunt of the responsible one’s anger, listening, truly listening, when he shared his frustration at how he had always worked, and worked hard, even comparing himself to a slave, and never felt appreciated for his steadfastness. This father and son probably worked beside each other for years, and familiarity can breed both resentment and a sense of entitlement. Maybe the father thought, of course, this son will be here. He always has been here. Maybe the father forgot to express appreciation or care for the one who was always there. Or, maybe the elder son expected too much gratitude for simply respecting his father and working like an adult. Either way, there was a rupture between how the elder brother assumed the father should respond and how the father ended up responding. The generous father knew he had the power to mend it.
He goes to his son and says, “you are always with me,” a statement that says as much about the depth of their bond as it does about the elder son’s individual choice to stay, and then he says, “all that is mine is yours,” affirming that he will honor his responsibility to his eldest while also noting that what he has would be impossible without his son’s work. In this lovely bit of mending, the father tells his responsible son that he sees him and appreciates him. But, as the scholar Amanda Brobst-Renaud states, he cannot imagine a celebration without both his sons. His elder son needs to be at the part. That night was about celebrating restoration. And what was restored was not just the relationship between father and son, but also, potentially, between brother and brother. Celebration is not just for the ones who have never strayed. It is for the ones who have come home. And, this celebration could have never happened had the elder son not worked so hard to help his father flourish in the younger son’s absence.
In Dr. Craddock’s commentary on Luke, he states that Jesus’ actions here are intended to explain something about not only how he lived his life but how the church is supposed to live out his mission. It’s not that the church replaces Christ as the one who is seeking out the lost, it’s that the celebration of restoration is likely happening within church, as the body of Christ. Jesus always seeks out the lost and welcomes them home with joy. Are we living out our mission with an eye out for the lost who are coming home? Are we seeing the times we, both as individuals and as a church, are the lost ones, straying from the generosity and responsibility that Christ calls us to? Christ is clear that his church doesn’t have to be perfect, but, that there is also a need for restoration. When are you seeing Christ’s restoration at work? And, how are you, and we, making sure that we celebrate the return of the lost?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Amanda Renaud-Brobst: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3992
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5307
Rev. Dr. Emily Heath: https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2016-03/enough-about-other-brother?fbclid=IwAR1kwvrh_qNk3iQMHqxrCSf4rlmNQ3glnHpSajFeqrbMZzSyR6NMTAGgpqs
Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press: 1990)
Scripture Reading: Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And 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.” Just 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.
‘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? When 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.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
Whenever I read these stories about sheep and coins, I think about rhinos. Yes. Rhinos. I think I’ve told you this story before. When we went to South Africa, we met some people who were like the shepherd who went looking for that one lost sheep, except it was a baby rhino. On the very first ride we took around the small game preserve where we were staying, we saw a white rhinoceros and her very young baby. The baby was the size of a very large dog, like a bigger version of our dog, Sugar. The mom was, well, rhinoceros-sized, huge. One of the first things we learned about the large mammals in South Africa is that baby rhinos make great little squeaking noises when they are impatient for their moms to do something. The little one we saw was impatient to keep roaming in the bush and had very little interest in standing next to the pond with land rovers full of people watching. Our guide, Tina, told us how this little rhino had once been lost.
She pointed to the mom and we could see that she looked a little swollen. She had developed an infection called mastitis that makes it painful and difficult to nurse. For the rest of the story to make sense, it’s important to remember something: Rhinos are endangered. The last Northern White Rhino died the year before we went to South Africa. We were looking at a couple Southern White Rhinos. They are threatened, but safer, at least for now. There are considerable conservation efforts going on all over South Africa to protect the species. As Tina put it, “Every rhino matters.” For those of you who are avid outdoorspeople or hunters or who have worked in conservation, you know that sometimes good conservation is not interfering too much in the lives of the animals in your care. That is true on the preserves we visited, too. But, when an animal as endangered as rhino is sick and when the illness can affect a calf, the rangers will attempt to capture the animal and provide a medical intervention.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to take a very annoyed cat or scared dog to the vet. If you have, you know it’s pretty hard. Now, imagine that the scared dog is the size of a Toyota Prius and has a horn longer than my forearm. And, it’s wild. And, it has a baby to take care of. They have to use helicopters and tranquilizer guns and cranes and trucks for these trips to the vet. In the midst of catching the mom, the baby got away. For three days, she was in the bush by herself. But, remember, they will go to extraordinary lengths to save a rhino. They looked and looked and finally found her. Her mom got treatment and she got to be reunited with her mom. What was lost, was found. Any resources expended in the search were worth it.
In our reading today, Jesus was, sadly, not hanging out with rhinos. Jesus was teaching and spending time with sinners and tax collectors. Scholars are quick to point out that we don’t know what the sinners have done, though we can assume that they are not guilty of the run of the mill mistakes that all people make. These folks are called sinners because they living consistently outside their community’s shared religious laws and ignoring their shared social obligations. Dr. Lois Malcolm notes that people who only look out for their own interests are called sinners in Luke 6:32-24. The details aren’t of what they did aren’t as important for us to know as the fact that the community, the respectable people, considered the ones who were eating with Jesus to be sinners. And, if you wanted your reputation to be good, you didn’t hang out with such people. So, why was Jesus spending time with them?
In her commentary on this chapter, Dr. Amanda Brobst-Renaud reminds us that there is an old cliché that says, “Bird of a feather flock together.” How many of you have heard that phrase before, particularly from parents who were worried about your misbehaving friends? Jesus’ critics, in this case, the respectable members of the community who were working hard to follow God’s laws and take care of their neighbors, wondered why Jesus was spending time with people who weren’t doing the same. It is also not surprising that they would be critical of Jesus for spending his time with sinners and tax collectors. It is one thing to argue, in good faith, with a Pharisee. Disagreement and discussion of religious law was a thing devout people did together. It is a whole other thing to willingly consort with tax collectors, traitors, who helped the Roman Empire. What was the content of Jesus’ teaching that sinners found it so compelling? What kind of example was Jesus setting with the company he was keeping?
Jesus often taught in parables. He decided to respond to those grumbling about him with three parables. The first two are our scriptures today. He said to the Pharisees and Scribes, which of you, having one hundred rhinos wouldn’t rent a helicopter to look for the one sick one to take it to the vet? Wait... he didn’t talk about rhinos. He talked about sheep. The people he was teaching knew more about sheep than rhinos. Who among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them doesn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one until they find it? And, when they find it, lays it across their shoulder and rejoices? Doesn’t that shepherd return to their friends and say, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Dr. Brobst-Renaud argues that the pharisees and scribes would assume that looking for the sheep was worth it. Every sheep is important, even the one that has run off or has been frightened away. Every sheep, even the ones who make our lives harder with their choices, deserves to be searched for. Even if you fear that you won’t be able to find it, you look. Because that’s what shepherds do.
Then, Jesus told a second story. It was also not about rhinos. It was about coins. Jesus told a story of a woman who had two coins and lost one. We should understand that one coin was a fair amount of money. Dr. Brobst-Renaud said that one coin was at least a half day’s wages for most laborers and possibly a whole day’s wages. We don’t have a lot of background on this woman, just that she lost a coin. Maybe she’s rich because she has 10 coins laying around. Losing a half day’s work is still a lot. Maybe she’s poor and she has been scrimping and saving. It would be devastating to lose so much of it. While details of her life aren’t clear, what is clear is that she is frantic to find that money. She lit a lamp so she could see. She cleaned everywhere, searched carefully, until she found it. Then, she calls out to her friends to celebrate with her that she has found it. Whether this is just a bit of her wealth or a whole day’s labor, she celebrates. The coin meant something to her. She was not afraid to celebrate finding it.
Isn't this an interesting way for Jesus to describe his ministry? The Pharisees and the scribes were the 99 sheep and the 9 coins, safe were they were supposed to be. Jesus isn’t most concerned for the ones who are safe and sound. He is first concerned for, and orients his teaching towards, those who are lost, either because they are excluded or because they have chosen not follow the central tenants of their faith, love God and love your neighbor. Because Jesus knew that the sinners and tax collectors were God’s children, too, he made sure that his energy was spent making sure they are found.
Imagine hearing, maybe for the first time in a long time, that you are worth so much that you will be sought after frantically. Imagine hearing that you are worth the price of the oil in the lamp, the time spent cleaning in the dark, and the dangerous risk of a trip out into the bus. Imagine hearing that God’s greatest joy in not in hanging out with the righteous, but in finding the lost and bringing them home. In telling these two stories, Jesus made clear that the most care must be taken in searching for the lost, caring for the endangered, and in healing the relationships with the greatest histories of harm. Even if it takes a helicopter and a couple tranquilizer darts. The risk of the search is worth it.
Now, I think the rhino/sheep/coin connection I’ve made isn’t perfect. Rhinos are endangered for several reasons, none of which are the fault of the animal. Between the poaching, the colonization, and the human-caused climate change, rhinos aren’t simply running off, like the sheep. They are dwindling because of human actions, because we are sinners who are most concerned with our own well-being. But, sinners do not have to be without hope. Remember, as Dr. Caroline Lewis notes in her commentary on this passage, Jesus is trying to find us, searching urgently, relentlessly, tirelessly. And, we can live our lives different for having been found. Maybe we’ll even end up doing some of the looking alongside Jesus. Because those baby rhinos aren’t going to find themselves. And, neither will the lost sheep among us. So, who’s up for a helicopter ride?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.