NRSV LUKE 15:1-3, 11-32
15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 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. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 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. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’
20 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.
21 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.’ 22 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.
27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’ ”
I know that you, like me, are blessed with many family members and friends, beautiful people whom you dearly love and with whom you love to spend time. But every once in a while at least one of them will do something, say something, or act in such a way that you just want to take them and shake them and ask them, “How old are you? Are you ever going to grow up?”
I know that sounds bit judgmental, like we know what’s best for everyone when we are still trying to get our own acts together. After all, everybody has their own ways of doing things and if they are not hurting anybody else we should just leave them alone. But sometimes these lovely folks in our lives do things that drive us nuts. We wonder how they could possibly have done or said or suggested something that is so far out in left field, something that just doesn’t make sense. We shake our heads and fuss and fume about how they could have taken up with that other person, how they could have taken part in that activity, how could they have not seen how dangerous, destructive or disturbing a particular activity was. ‘When are you going to grow up,’ is often the first thing in our minds, even if we do not say it out loud.
Sometimes we feel that way about someone else, sometimes we feel that way about ourselves. We are all trying to figure out this thing called life, what it is about, how to navigate through it, and sometimes we make crazy decisions that leave others to wonder about us, “When are you going to grow up?”
I think something like that is going on here with arguably the most famous of Jesus’ parables. It is a timeless story, one that has been preached on interminably, and I am under no illusions that thus one will top them all. That’s what makes a great story; you just can’t find the end of it because there are so many parts here that touch us where we live.
For one thing there is the beginning, which is very important to keep in mind because it sets the context for the whole thing. Jesus is having a good time with tax collectors and all kinds of sinners. The good folks, the ones you would really want to hang around with, are very disturbed by this. ‘How dare he associate with all of these disreputable people,’ they wonder. Maybe even a few of them said, “What’s the matter with you, Jesus? When are you going to grow up?”
It’s the old struggle in the church of who to hang around with, who to associate with, who to eat a meal with. There will always be those who know exactly who the right kind of people are that we need to include, and who are the wrong people good folks like us need to avoid. But Jesus tells his story with that struggle in mind, and he doesn’t really end the struggle. He just tells the story as a way of saying that maybe that struggle is not the only thing to keep in mind.
It’s a story that we know so well we probably could have read it with the Bibles closed. But that’s always a mistake; there is always something new the Bible has to teach us, and sometimes we need to listen with a new set of ears. One source that down through the years has helped me to gain a deeper appreciation of what these words mean has been the work of one of our longtime mission workers in the Middle East, the late Dr. Kenneth Bailey. Many years ago he wrote two books about the parables of Jesus found in Luke from the perspective of the people who live in the Middle East, and especially those of the basic country people; how they would have heard these words, and what their understanding of them might have been.
It’s a story of three people – a father and his two sons. As the story progresses we can be tempted to psychoanalyze what kind of relationship these three had that resulted in all this turmoil. But we just have the story as Jesus gives it to us. And it starts off with the youngest son coming to his father and asking for the inheritance that would fall to him. It’s more than ‘just give me my stuff, Dad.’ This part of the story is scandalous in Middle Eastern culture; a culture filled with the constant quest for honor and avoidance of shame. As Dr. Bailey pointed out when asking an elder in a Middle Eastern village if anyone there would have made such a request, the elder said definitely not. Why not? The elder said, “This request means he wants his father to die!”
It’s the kind of request that would make you want to shake the kid and say, “Are you out of your mind? Are you ever going to grow up?” But that’s not the response of the father. Even though he would have been justified for telling the kid to go back to work, the father gives the young man all of his inheritance. The boy then leaves the family and the community – something else unheard of in that culture where mobility was not looked upon as the ultimate goal we often do. He goes to a far place and spends his inheritance in dissolute living. Interesting how Jesus does not spell out exactly what he spent his money on, just that it was undisciplined and careless. The older brother has his own ideas based on his own prejudices, but that’s for later in the story.
A famine arises and the young man is out of money and out of luck. He reaches the very bottom by hiring himself out to feed pigs, an unclean animal by all proper Hebrew standards. The fact that he would have eaten the pig’s food means that he is utterly desperate and has come to the point of doing the unthinkable to stay alive. It’s not just that he has had some bad luck; he has become something other than what he was called to be.
But he comes to himself and decides to head back to his father and ask to be taken on as a hired hand. Was this real repentance, a real desire to be sorry for what he had done and make a change? Or was he being manipulative? Did he think I’ll just play on my Dad’s bleeding heart, he’s got to take me back. We don’t know any of that. We just know that he finally realized and re-embraced who he was and headed back home.
It was as he was on his way, turning around the corner and seeing all the familiar landscapes again, that something incredible happened. Jesus says that the father “saw him from afar.” That means that the father did not blow the young man off, he did not think the boy was dead to him, like the billionaire ‘sharks’ say to someone who rejects their offer on cable TV. The older man was actively looking for him, maybe peaking behind the curtains every day, maybe many times every day, seeking to see the familiar form of this young man who had turned his back on everything and everyone.
But even with that the father’s love remained, and moved the old man to do something radical. Dr. Bailey reminds us that older Middle Eastern men do not run anywhere, because to do so would be to show off their ankles, something which is a strict cultural prohibition. So to run, and to run through the middle of town, is something that would be totally scandalous and unheard of. Staying back in the house, ready to shake the kid a few times and question how old he was, that would be the least the older man could do. But to run through town, and embrace this wayward, narcissistic kid?
And yet that’s what the older man does, and he doesn’t even let the kid get his speech out. He gets a big party going for the young man, and it is while the party is going on that the older brother shows up; the good brother, the mature one who stayed there and worked hard and kept his nose clean and did what he was told. The loyal son, the one we would want to be like. The one who maybe we think got a raw deal out of all this. Perhaps we felt some kinship with this brother as he listed all of his good acts and his condemnation of his brother; “this son of yours,” a statement which disavows any connection, any relationship with the younger son. How dare you bring him back in and celebrate, the older brother seems to say.
But he really has no call to be sanctimonious. Because this brother has rejected his father’s love, too. Dr. Bailey said that the place of the oldest son when the father is having a party is at his father’s right hand, ready to greet the guests. He has rejected and shamed his father every bit as much as the wayward boy had done. The big difference is that the younger brother acknowledged his waywardness. The older brother in his smug arrogance and self-righteousness doesn’t have a clue.
Again, the father would have been justified to be aloof from this impertinence. But he doesn’t do that. Once again he goes out to a wayward son. He could have stayed inside and disciplined him later, but this father’s love is not like that. It will not let him stay aloof. It will not let him keep these young men alienated. It will not take them and shake them and badger them with lines about ‘when are you going to grow up.’ The love of this father is so strong that it sends him out to embrace both of these sons with a love that will not let them go, even when they have let him down.
It is that way because, when you come right down to it, this is not a story about either of these sons. I know it’s called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but he is not the center of the story any more than his uptight brother is. The central figure is the father, the gracious father, the one Jesus lifts up as demonstrating God’s passionate, faithful, reaching out, doing the scandalous think kind of love that will not stop, that will not let go.
It’s tempting for us to see ourselves as one of the characters, especially the sons. Some of us see ourselves as the obedient, loyal older son; some of us see that the younger, impulsive, carefree son is more like us. But the reality is that we are both of them. We all have our moments of being arrogantly loyal, while judgmental of others; we all have our moments of not caring who we hurt as long as we get our needs met.
But the other and deeper reality is that even when we have disappointed those closest to us, as we all have; even when we have disappointed God, as we all have, our loving Father continues to race through town to embrace us – a God of mercy and love who continues to defy cultural norms and comes out and begs us to come in and enjoy the party. In this Lent, may we sense and feel that divine Love that will never let us go; a love that will surprise us; a love that will welcome others to share in the warmth and grace. Even when we don’t grow up. Amen.