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)
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.