Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The gospel story we read this morning is one of the best-known stories in the Bible. Even in the secular world, references are made all the time to “the prodigal” or “the prodigal son,” a phrase that has become idiomatic for lost things, sometimes for lax morals or licentiousness. In religious vernacular, for sin.
Certainly when we think of the prodigal, we associate him or her with undesirable living, and sometimes, as one who has returned to the fold following a period of misadventure. We’ve each probably known someone like that at some time in our lives. Perhaps we’ve been that person.
Perhaps even now we relate to this story of the Prodigal Son because there is some aspect of the story that is, today, part of our experience of family or other relationship. Many of us know the prodigal experience all too well. Something is lost. Someone is lost; missing; as good as dead.
It might be a child who has rejected us and our sense of values; or it might be a sibling from whom we are estranged. Some of us might have experienced this kind of separation from parents or from friends, we might have suffered hurts that have never healed and cannot now be healed – because it is too late. We never got to fix what was broken, and now, a scar resides deep within.
Perhaps we are the ones who have “fallen from grace” through bad decisions we have made, by falling in with the wrong people, because we have gone to bad places in our lives, suffered failures of our own making, or adopted harmful habits.
And so it is that we might approach this story and the accompanying scriptures we read this morning with a bit of empathy for the different characters; we can imagine all too well what it is like to be in their shoes.
It’s easy to place ourselves somewhere in this story. Yet this story does not stand alone, and to fully appreciate the gospel good news for us today, it is helpful to know the rest of the story.
The context of today’s scripture is that the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about the social activities of Jesus. He has been spending time, even eating with tax collectors and sinners. He has been hanging out with outcasts; undesirables.
Jesus has allowed himself to be in the presence of the unclean – those no self-respecting Jew would even acknowledge. The thrust of their argument is that if Jesus parties with and favors those people, what kind of Jew, what kind of leader, what kind of savior can he possibly be?
If we were to receive such criticism, we might be tempted to respond, “Back off boys! I will love who I want, embrace whom I choose, do as I please.” We might expect Jesus to respond, “I will redeem those whom I choose. They will repent because of my saving mercy. They will become more like you and me.”
Instead, Jesus tells three parables – stories in which it is unquestionably clear that God loves differently than we do, God behaves differently than we do, and God values sinners more than we could ever imagine, which is good news for all of us.
As Jesus moves from story to story he barely takes a breath. He begins with a woman who finds a lost coin – just one coin among many she may own – because of its importance to her.
He moves on to tell about the celebration that goes on when one measly sheep out of an entire flock is found after wandering away and becoming lost.
And finally, he tells about the biggest party of all, this huge bash given in honor of the most unlikely of recipients: one that was not simply lost, hadn’t just wandered away, but has behaved in the most outrageous manner, has sinned against his father so egregiously, that disinheritance and banishment is all he really deserves.
What makes this story so interesting and over-the-top is that all of the characters behave in such outlandish, ridiculous and outright scandalous ways. As it is told, this is a story of extremes. The father’s over-the-top forgiveness and love for his sons is bookended by their outrageous behavior.
The younger son isn’t just a bad boy. He doesn’t just wreck the family chariot or steal money from the father’s purse. In any age this son’s behavior would be frowned upon, but remember that the story is written in a time and for a people where every action and interaction is deeply inscribed with honor, status and rank being conferred or denied; and people live and die according to such things.
The younger son treats his father with the ultimate disregard. He treats his father not only as if he wishes he were already dead, but as if he were dead to him. He violates the 4th commandment. He does not honor his father. He tells his father he wants what he has no right to ask for.
Rather than treat his father with honor, love and respect, he spurns him; he spits on a grave not even dug yet. That is the strength of his wrongdoing; his sin. It is, frankly, an unforgivable sin. Once his father gives him what he wants, this son essentially wipes the dust of their relationship right off his feet. He takes off for faraway places.
At the end of the parable we have the elder son, who also treats his father with disrespect and disregard. Many of us might sympathize with this son for the injustice he feels has been dealt him. Yet still, he dispels his wrath upon his father, dishonoring him, disregarding his status, ignoring the respect which he is due, and denying his father’s right ultimately to do as he chooses with what is his.
His father is throwing a big party. Everyone has been invited. All of the neighbors are there. There is a banquet table heaped with the finest food, and the best wine is being poured. And this son refuses to go in. In a culture where honor is everything, this son scorns and shames his father. At a banquet where the patriarch would expect to remain reclining at the table throughout, he makes his father go out to him; he makes his father plead with him.
Even if we feel for this son and the hurt he must feel, part of our take-away from this story must be that even this son, the one who has worked hard, done what is right up until now at least by his accounting, even the one who by every measure of society has lived righteously – even he displays appallling behavior and fails to show his father the absolute honor and loyalty to which he is entitled.
Each son in fact has behaved shockingly disgracefully.
Sandwiched between the shenanigans of the two sons, comes the father. The bridge between these two sons is a father who behaves most unexpectedly of all. His behavior is the most surprising and scandalous of the three.
By every measure possible this man is of high rank and status. A strong sense of propriety is expected – no – demanded of such a person. And yet by every measure of respectability, especially those in the Ancient Near East, he has behaved the most scandalously and shamefully of all.
First, he reveals himself to be a fool, “dividing his life” – his goods- his property – and his wealth to his sons before he is dead. Disregarding the wisdom and religious teachings of the day, he makes himself dependent on these sons of his.
Here are the words from Sirach, which guided these relationships and was deeply inscribed in the culture:
To son or wife, to brother or friend,
do not give power over yourself, as long as you live;
and do not give your property to another,
in case you change your mind and must ask for it.
While you are still alive and have breath in you,
do not let anyone take your place.
For it is better that your children should ask from you
than that you should look to the hand of your children.
Excel in all that you do;
bring no stain upon your honor.
By every measure of respectability and honor, the father has been the fool.
Despite his abandonment by the younger son who squanders everything with “dissolute living” – we can read that as licentiousness, debauchery, despicable lifestyle and behaviors - when his son returns but is still a “far way off” the father, filled with compassion, races toward him. He doesn’t wait for the apology, the excuses and that the rest. It is clear he has been watching – and waiting – and hoping – for his son’s return.
Men of high status don’t run. Certainly in that world they didn’t. They don’t hike up their robes, exposing their ankles and who knows what else for all the world to see.
Men of high rank don’t throw themselves at anyone, let alone those who have so completely wronged and shamed them. Before this son could even begin speaking – apologies, groveling and all the rest of it – his father has not only forgiven him, but embraced him, and conferred high status on him – he gives him robes and a ring and throws the biggest, most extravagant party you can imagine. His joy is overflowing.
Everyone is invited!
All those neighbors who have surely noticed his son’s absence all this time, who have likely heard stories about him, are invited to help him celebrate his son’s return.
Then, when his elder son himself acts shamefully and dishonorably, forcing his father to come to him and refusing by his choice of words to confer respect to his father, his father reaches out to reestablish the family bond. How does this father, who has been so wronged, forgive so completely, love so fully that he again makes himself absolutely vulnerable to those who have not earned it?
The past few weeks the adult group in our Sunday morning faith connections, has been considering the topic of forgiveness. Through rich conversation we have discussed this complex topic – how hard it is, how multi-faceted our experience and understanding of it is. And here in this parable we read of a forgiveness and compassion, driven by divine love, which is above and beyond the scope of anything we can imagine.
Through this parable, Jesus reminds us this is what God does for us. God esteems those who deserve none of it. God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness, measured in worldly terms and measured by the human yardstick are stupid; ridiculous; foolish and even scandalous.
But as the father indicated that it was necessary – “we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life.” We are reminded of the reality of the divine necessity of Jesus’ journey – that there might be rejoicing and celebrating over finding what has been lost, and the restoration of that which has been dead. We recall our confession that even when we were dead in sin, God forgave us – and gave us Jesus.
The love of God transcends even our deepest brokenness, transforms us despite our most profound failures to be the people God created us to be. We cannot understand it. We cannot measure it. We can only grasp it, accept it, give thanks for it, and celebrate it.
The love of God is a mystery to us. How and why God chooses to love so truly, madly and deeply and forgive so completely, so absolutely, is beyond all human knowing. But isn’t it a source of joy and wonder that through Jesus this is exactly what God does?
God’s love is scandalous. God embodying our humanity in Jesus is ridiculous. God enacting our salvation through Jesus’ victory over death is stupefying. And yet this is what God does, for the sake of love. Despite where you see yourself in this story remember this: God loves you – and God waits for you, forgives you, and embraces you, conferring the high status of “my beloved” upon you. It’s true; God fiercely, vulnerably, courageously, scandalously, ridiculously and gloriously loves you. Period.