In response to complaints from religious leaders of the time, Jesus tells three parables in the 15th chapter of Luke. The first is about a lost sheep and a shepherd who leaves 99 others to go find it. The second is about a lost coin and a woman who searches her house for it and then throws a party when it’s found. The third is about a lost person, the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, our reading for today.
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. 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:
11 “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.’ ”
Along with the Good Samaritan, this story is at the top of the list of best known parables of Jesus. So much so that if you were to ask people on the street for a definition of the word prodigal, it wouldn’t take long for someone to say that it describes someone who goes away for a while and then comes back. Many of us associate the word only with this story.
In fact, prodigal means “wasteful, imprudent, extravagant.” We’ve assigned that word to the second son in this story after zeroing in on one half-verse, out of the more than twenty in the passage, that says, “he squandered his property in dissolute living.” We—not Jesus or Luke but we—have called the son prodigal, wasteful because it comes so naturally to us to name personal neglect of fiscal responsibility as a root problem. It’s true that it is a problem—in this story and in real life—but we need to be clear that singling it out as the main problem is our choice. Others might not make this choice. Theologian Mark Allen Powell famously found that Christians in Russia, for example, are likely to tell you that the issue for the second son, the main reason why he ended up living with pigs is that there was a severe famine in the country. Did you catch that detail? It’s just as prominent as his squandering. Similarly, Powell found that readers of this story in Tanzania would probably point out that “no one gave him anything.” That’s a direct quote from the Bible. Why are we not as shocked by that fact? Why not call this the parable of the mean and selfish townspeople?
Instead, it has been handed down to us as the parable of the Prodigal Son. I wonder how the first audiences heard it. Where did they see things begin to go bad for this guy? It may have been when he asked for his inheritance early, effectively stating he couldn’t wait for his father’s death and needed to get on with it, breaking a couple of commandments in the process—honor your father and mother and do not kill. Let’s be clear: his request was a matter of life and death.
On the other hand, I suppose they could have been impressed by his assertiveness and sense of adventure. He took a bold risk that very well could have paid off for him and his whole family if he had just been a little smarter at managing his money. We all know stories like that where such impetuous demands are characteristic of the story’s hero, not the villain.
In any case, something seems wrong to me with any reading of this rich and complicated story that makes it only about a wasteful, foolish son and what he did. For one thing, we don’t need a story like this to make us feel bad about our own poor financial decisions. That message already surrounds us. Part of the reason this congregation started talking about payday lending and started a financial services organization is that there is such shame in our culture around financial issues. It’s because people don’t want to admit that they’re in financial trouble that they become vulnerable to predatory loans. These seemingly easy solutions mean not having to tell your friends, parents, or spouse that you’re short on rent again. But who in this room or in any room has not made a choice with their money that they regret? Most of us have, but we don’t talk about it because we so often think that it reveals something of our character. That’s why many people unnecessarily deal with their financial issues all alone. If only they knew how many people are in the same boat.
So was the son wasteful? Sure. But is that quality of his unique enough to define him and this whole story, I don’t think so. Nothing is that simple.
Instead, if anyone is going to be called prodigal in this story, my vote is for the father. When the lost son comes back, the dad didn’t just forgive him. He ran out to him and immediately called for a party and to barbecue the fatted calf. He brought out the best robe and ring, signs that this son was again his heir. He never even asked if the money had been squandered or invested. It’s as if the money didn’t have anything to do with their relationship, on his end at least.
Now this kind of behavior is wasteful. It’s foolish. Who’s to say he wouldn’t get burned again? Everyone must have been thinking of that possibility as they followed instructions and rushed to prepare the feast. Even the father himself had to have known the likelihood that his son would get restless again. He was wasteful but not naïve. Maybe that’s why only a slave had the guts to go tell the older brother about the evening plans underway. Everyone knew that this party was bound to bring up old anger and resentment that had been residing just under the surface all these years. The elder son had operated his whole life under the impression that one’s relationship to the family was built on such things as work, obedience, respect, and responsibility. He had followed through on all of this and kept his bitter anger to himself. Yet not once had he been given such a party. All the attention he had received over the years added up wouldn’t total the treatment his misfit brother was now getting.
Of course, he was right to be upset. The father had not been fair. So when that older son got the news about this ridiculous, wasteful party in the works, he must have looked around for some empathy, but almost everyone was already at the feast. Maybe he hoped the slave would at least have rolled his eyes as he conveyed the news about what was going on, but not even the slave acknowledged the foolishness of his father’s actions. And then maybe it dawned on that older son that all of his pent up anger and resentment had just left him feeling alone. Maybe he realized that though he never left home, he was lost.
The father came out of the party to talk with him. Yes, he said that all he had was his son’s. But then the story comes to an end—much too abruptly, as is often the case with parables. I want to hear more. More honestly, I hope for something more. To be sure, I hope that the younger son who returned home from his wilderness wandering had found what he needed and stopped hurting himself and others, though I expect it wasn’t that easy. I hope that there was reconciliation in the family—among siblings, among parents and their children, though I know forgiveness is a long journey.
I guess above all, I hope that the older brother didn’t stay outside of the party for very long but just long enough to tell his dad how very lost and lonely he felt. I hope in that moment he had the courage to weep at his father’s feet, just as his younger brother had earlier that day, that he could unload the burden of rejection and sorrow that he had been carrying all these years, that he could say how much he had longed for a party of his own and how hurt he was that it had never come, that he was hungry for something, too. I hope he did that because I’m just so sure that if he did, if he was honest about these things, then he would also feel the embrace of compassion. He would be welcomed home.
This parable, famous as it is, still leaves me with a lot of questions. And maybe that’s its purpose. It interrupts me in my busy routines and asks me to reflect a while on my assumptions about blame and fairness and about who deserves what. It invites me into an economy of grace that I still find so troubling and amazing. It reminds me that life together is risky and challenging and sometimes painful. Often we are left with no good choices for protecting ourselves and others from hurt. Still, in the end, life together in all its complexity is worth celebrating. Life together is to be treasured.
Thanks be to God for such grace-filled interruptions.
Thanks be to God for a love that abides.