Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
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:
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.” ’
One of the most wonderful and most frustrating things about parables, or really any story, is that people often hear and understand them very differently from one another. Take for example today's Gospel reading. It is familiar to many. If you know this story, I bet you've heard it called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. I'm going to suggest that we would do better to call it the Parable of Loving Father, because, man, does this dad love his kids. Let us start with the beginning of this story. Jesus had been out preaching when sinners and tax collectors came close to hear him. Usually these folks would be avoided by a self-respecting member of the community. Jesus never seemed to avoid them. The respectable religious leaders did not approve, especially since Jesus ate with them.
As the outcasts came near, Jesus told three parables about lost things being found. First he spoke of a sheep, one of many, who is lost, and a lowly shepherd who goes looking for it. He finds it and celebrates with his friends. Then, he tells a story about a poor working woman who has lost a coin. When she finds it, she throws a party with her friends, a party that probably costs more than the coin is worth. Then, with both cultural insiders and outsiders listening, he tells one more story, this story about the Loving Father. There was a man with two sons. The older worked closely with his father and held a place of privilege. In their culture, upon his father's death, this son would inherit two-thirds of his father's wealth. The rest would be split among the remaining male heirs, in this case, one younger son. The younger son, either because he was wicked enough to wish his father dead or foolish enough to think he could survive on his own, asked his father for his share of the inheritance. The father, surprisingly, agrees.
This wouldn't have been so simple as running to the bank and taking out cash, or even going into the treasure pile and picking some choice gems. In order to split the inheritance, this father was going to have to arrange for the sale of a significant amount of property. This would not be done simply or easily. But, the father does it, and gives his son the money from the sale. The son then makes what is likely the second most foolish decision he ever made in his life: he leaves. Maybe he was ashamed by what he had done and could only bear the guilt by leaving. Maybe he hated the system he lived in and knew he had to get away. Maybe he was an adventurer, and headed out, never looking back to the dull life he was leaving behind.
He was living in a country far away and he spend all of his money. Now, I learned this week that how we understand him to have spent his money may depend what language we are reading. According to a scholar named Mark Powell, if you are reading a Western language, like English, you may understand this young man to be spending his money on dissolute living... like prostitutes, booze, or other debaucherous behavior. That kind of translation supports an interpretation that understands this man as wicked. However, if you are reading in an Eastern language translation, like Arabic or any number of translations, like Armenian, Persian, or Georgian that are influenced by an ancient translation from Syriac, you will understand him to have simply wasted his money, but his waste is not connected to immorality. It is more like he got out on his own for the first time and was completely unprepared to handle the responsibility. Or, maybe he spent money on stuff he didn't need instead of saving it while he got established in his new home. This kind of reading makes him look more foolish than wicked.
In a world where most people are poor, the younger son might have been able to survive with no money. Plenty of people did all of the time. But, then a famine struck. Have you ever caught that part of the story before? I sure haven't, or I haven't really thought it was that important. That scholar, Mark Powell, said that it's common for Americans to skip over the famine part and remember the wicked behavior part. Powell interviewed a bunch of folks from St. Petersburg, Russia, a city that suffered a terrible war induced famine during World War II. They always remember the famine. Today, let's take our cue from the Russians. Imagine that, after spending your whole life in a family that always had enough, to suddenly find yourself not only broke but also in the midst of a great famine. How could you even hope to recover? He finds a farmer wealthy enough to still have a herd of pigs and also be able to afford to hire a farmhand, and went to work for him. Remember, too, that this young man had spent his whole life being told that pigs were ritually unclean. He was so desperate that he was willing to live a life defiled in order to survive. This is the kind of decision that hungry people often have to make.
Like many of our minimum wage workers of today, even though he was working hard, he still didn't have enough to eat. He found himself coveting the carob pods he threw to the hogs, food most saw as only fit for animals and for the desperately poor who were treated like animals. Notice, too, that the scripture said, no one gave him anything. Powell said that Americans often miss that part, too. It took him talking about this scripture with a group of Tanzanian seminaries to really start thinking about what means in this story that in this time of great desperation, no one could would share with this hungry young man. Maybe he had been a jerk to them when he was wealthy. Maybe they didn't trust him because he was from away. Maybe they were too broke themselves to feel like they could help. Either way, he was starving, and starvation can make you re-evaluate your choices. Scriptures says, "When he came to himself," that is, when he remembered something important about himself that he had forgotten, he remembered that his father treated his field hands fairly. He hoped that if he went back to him and apologized, he could at least live there as a servant.
This next part is the real good God part of the story. As the son stumbles towards home, his father sees him. Like the shepherd who rejoiced over the lost sheep and the woman who rejoiced over the lost coin, this man rejoiced over his lost son. Scripture says he was filled with compassion and ran to him, hugging and kissing him. Respectable men did not run. Respectable men also weren't so easy on such a foolish, possibly wicked kid. And, yet, he ran and he gave his son a robe and a ring, symbols of his restoration to the family. He even threw him a party! A really big party! Makes you wonder if maybe the younger son actually learned his partying ways from his dad.
We may find ourselves, all too often, in the place of the elder son. We might say, sure, let the boy come back. Repentance is part of our faith tradition. We believe that people can ask and be forgiven. But, this party, this party is not only unnecessary, it is unseemly. It is a slap in the face to all the ones who stay and work hard and do what is expected of them. In the same way that the father came towards the foolish son, he also came towards the angry one. He said, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine in 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." In this one family, a family that seems very much to be a stand-in for God's kingdom, recovery of this lost is most important. The ones who have stayed can know how beloved they are. The ones who have returned, the lost ones, they are the ones who need a celebration. They have forgotten or never knew that they were loved. So, now, God shows them.
Whether we are Americans who are glad to see him change his wicked ways, Russians who are glad that the fool has returned to the ones who will help care for him, or Tanzanians who see the father's house as a place where all of the most needy are cared for, regardless of how they come to be in need, we can all learn something from this vision of God as loving parent, quick to celebrate and joyful at finding a lost child. God is not interested in deciding who is a winner or a loser. God is interested in loving those who are present, and seeking out those who need to be found. This is a love that is extravagant, all-encompassing, and maybe even a little foolish. And, we are called, as God's children, to figure out how to spread around some of this extravagant love that we have found. Maybe we have been lost and are now found. Maybe we have always known how beloved we are. Either way, this love is not simply ours to hoard, like the ones who wouldn't feed the young son as he drudged through a pig pen. This love is love to be shared. We, too, can say, "Come on home. Invite your friends... maybe even your enemies... probably especially the people who look like they don't deserve it." There's a party we're going to help throw and everyone... everyone... everyone is invited.
Pastor Chrissy consulted these sources while writing this sermon:
Sharon Ringe: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2788
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4553
Sermon Seeds: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_6_2016
Keith Anderson: http://www.onscripture.com/dismantle-prison-political-polarization
David Lose: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2462
Mark Allan Powell, What Do They Hear? Bridging The Gap Between Pulpit and Pew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007)
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
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.