Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The story of the prodigal son is so familiar, most of us could give the highlights of the tale if we were woken up in the middle of the night. Boy takes inheritance, goes and wastes it, comes back, father welcomes him, older brother gets mad, father tells him that he’s been welcome all along.
It’s interesting because as this story becomes familiar and as we hear about prodigals returning more and more often, we begin to miss the sharp edges of the story. The edges that made the story shocking to Luke’s original audience, the edges that made the story uncomfortable to Jesus’ original audience.
This story is full of inappropriate behavior. Let’s start with the younger brother. A man needed two sons to take care of him in his old age. Two sons were needed to keep track of the family land, to keep the lineage going, to uphold the family’s good name. When the younger brother asks for his inheritance, it’s unbelievably bad behavior. I’m talking, selling the fishing boat for cash to buy drugs and wrecking the car on the way to the drug deal and then trying to beat up the police officers before running naked down the highway kind of behavior.
When the younger son asks for his inheritance, he’s telling his father, “I wish you were dead already, so I could have what’s coming to me. But even if you were dead, I don’t respect you or the family enough to keep your property the way you want it.” So the father has to put out a for sale sign, so to speak, so that someone will buy half his land, so that he can give the younger son “what will belong to him.”
Can you imagine how this looked to the neighbors? That the son doesn’t respect his father at all. That the father must have messed up in raising the son to have this kind of behavior and surely has no spine to stand up to him now. Imagine how the clotheslines buzzed when word came back about the son’s behavior, all wine, women and song. And then, of all things, slopping pigs- the dirtiest of animals and the lowest of work.
Jesus’ audience would have cringed at these details and they would have expected the moral right about now to be about tradition and respect. But Jesus goes on. The father, already embarrassed and reduced in social standing, is moping about and spends times daily looking for his son. Maybe he goes to the market each day, instead of sending a servant, hoping to hear some news about his younger boy. He’s spending enough time watching the road that goes in and out of town, where he last saw his son skipping off into the sunset, that people have noticed and they click their tongues. Yet still, he waits until the day when he will either see that familiar gait, way of walking, even before he can recognize the face or until the day he dies, which ever comes first.
The son decides to come home. And as he’s rehearsing his speech, “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.” As he’s looking down and concentrating on one foot in front of the other, he’s suddenly bowled over by his own father who has run (run!!) out to meet him. For ears in the ancient world, this is one of the most horrifying parts of the passage. Men did not run. Older men, respectable men, men of a certain age, did not, for any reason, run. It was beneath their dignity and unimaginable.
But here’s this father, who perhaps has practiced speeches of his own, who is so relieved to see his son that propriety has no place. He sprints to his son and throws him back a few paces with a full tackle. He’s got his arm around his shoulders as he brings the son back up the road, past the gaping neighbors, past the shocked servants and into the cool of the house, away from the hot sun. Here he offers the young man a drink and then starts giving orders for a party, stat.
Jesus’ hearers were confused. This story is now well off the beaten path. There’s nothing here that makes any sense. A party? For this embarrassment of a son whom the father should have spat on and refused even to take as a servant? This son who disrespected his father so and who fed pigs (pigs!) had the nerve to come back?
And then here comes the older brother. The brother who has upheld the family name, who is enduring the embarrassment of his brother’s behavior and the public commentary on his father’s mourning actions. This brother has been out in the fields, hears a party getting started, sees the neighbors coming with covered dishes and asks a servant, “Hey, what gives?” The servant catches him up and the brother blows his stack. He makes such a scene and throws what my grandmother would have called a hissy fit. He refuses to enter the house.
So his father goes out to him. In the ancient world, hospitality was everything. How you treated guests in your home reflected your status and your social understanding. You would give guests food you had been saving, the good bowl or cup, the freshest straw. Hospitality was the cornerstone of society. To leave guests during a party one was hosting for any reason was very embarrassing and wildly inappropriate. But the father goes out, goes out to get his older son, who is devastated by anger.
And the father is shocked not by the son’s behavior, but because this son hasn’t realized that the same extravagance could have been his all along. Jesus’ listeners and Luke’s readers would have reached the end of this story and been appalled and overwhelmed. Was Jesus really saying that the kingdom of heaven would be like this? That pig feeders would be welcomed? That people should embarrass themselves in this way?
What was Jesus saying? And what does it mean for us? I’m sure you’ve heard the interpretation that some of us are prodigals and some of us are older brothers and that God, our Father, longs to welcome us all home. And this is true.
However, at some point, we will be each person in this story. At some point, you will be the prodigal. Maybe you won’t be considering pig slop, maybe you will just have gone far enough that the return trip to ask for forgiveness, to accept a reduced status, is humiliating to contemplate. It can happen when your spiritual life isn’t what it should be, when you’re estranged from a friend or family member, when you’ve wandered and squandered for whatever reason… we will all be the younger brother.
And at some point, we will all be the older brother. We’ll judge the people who don’t come to church as often, who don’t raise their kids the way we would raise ours, or who act in ways that are embarrassing to behold. We’ll be mad at who gets the same treatment as us, at who gets better treatment, at who gets the recognition we deserve, at who gets the party we didn’t ask for, but wanted someone to read our minds that we wanted. We will all be the older brother.
And at some point, we will all look down the road, hoping to see that figure coming back to us. We will have spent of ourselves extravagantly in a relationship, with a parent, friend, colleague, child, sister or brother, and they will have taken what we shared with them and left. We’ll try to move on. We’ll put on a brave face. We’ll stop talking about it when people want to stop hearing about it, but each day, we’ll look at our mailbox, our inbox, our answering machine, for a message in a bottle, a smoke signal or a distant approaching figure, thinking, “Maybe today is the day that they come back.” At some point, we will all be the father.
And in each of those times, at each of those places, our Creator is with us, calling us to the only true home we have. Down and out, dutifully working, regretful and mourning, Jesus remains with us. As John tells us, “Through him, we have received grace upon grace.” And it’s because of the grace we receive from God, that we are able to extend any kind of grace and love to one another.
How do we know love except that God first loved us? We can’t let the story of the prodigal become passé because it points to a kind of love that’s costly, embarrassing and everlasting. It’s a love that so rejoices in homecoming, a love that abounds in forgiveness, a love that throws aside social protocol to embrace an outcast, to embrace anger, to enfold hurt. It’s a love that is about the resurrection of relationships.
In the midst of what the world, ancient and modern, believes is powerful- money, physical might, death. The story of the forgiving father, the prodigal son, the self-righteous brother, is an embarrassing story. The story reveals a God who is willing to enter the world, take on human form, be down and dirty with all kinds of people, eat with sinners, touch lepers, talk to women, to overturn traditions. And the way the world responded to this God in Jesus was to say, “I want you dead.” But the way God responded, the way God responds, is to say, “But I want you to live.”
The story doesn’t go on to talk about when the father sat down and had a reckoning with either of his sons. Jesus didn’t offer an epilogue or a postscript. It’s just love. It’s a God who’s willing to go all out, no holds barred, if you don’t get it this time, I’ll give you one more chance, again and again. It’s a little embarrassing, this boundless love. There should be some people who just don’t receive it.
But it’s amazing love, amazing grace. Amazing grace for parents, for children, for sinners, for saints, for those who come to work early in the morning and those who join in but an hour before the end of the day. We think we know how the story of the prodigal works, but we don’t. Because, in reality, we’re surprised by grace… every time.
Thanks be to God. Amen.