Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (NRSV)
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable:
“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 traveled 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[e] 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.’”
What an obnoxious man. What an obnoxious and irresponsible man. What was he thinking? Can you believe he did that?
Oh, sorry, some of you have blank looks on your faces. You know who I’m talking about, right?
You might assume I’m referring to the younger brother. After all, he’s the one who goes to his father and demands his inheritance (which is essentially the same thing as telling his dad he wished he was dead). And then he goes off and loses all his money on gambling and other examples of loose living. There he is starving to death and thinks, “I know, I’ll go back to dad, say I’m sorry and then he’ll forgive me for my unforgivable actions.” And by the way, we can’t even be sure that his apology was sincere. And then, what, he thinks he’s worthy of the huge celebration his dad throws for him? Give me a break. Yeah, he’s pretty obnoxious and irresponsible; but actually he’s not who I’m thinking of.
You might assume I’m referring to the father. What a gullible and irresponsible dope. What, he can’t say “No” to his son? He didn’t have to give him the inheritance. Oh, and don’t forget that when he saw his son approaching, he ran to him. A dignified and wealthy man of his time would never run. It’s so inappropriate – it was something only poor people would do. And he certainly didn’t have to forgive his son. Well, not only forgive, but throw a party? Give him the best robe and the best meat? Certainly not! He can’t even be sure that his son’s apology is really sincere. What a obnoxious and irresponsible man. The word “prodigal” means “wastefully extravagant.” Maybe the story should be called the “Prodigal Father?”
Sometimes I scratch my head wondering why this is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible because it bears such little resemblance to what actually happens in the world.
First of all, in the real world, people rarely go to such great lengths to say they are sorry. Most people just can’t bring themselves to say that they are sorry; even when they know they are wrong. As a society we put such a high value on winning that we condition everyone to be afraid of saying “I’m sorry.” We are taught that it is a form of weakness and vulnerability.
The other thing that is odd about this story is the enthusiasm which the father displays. Is anyone really that eager to forgive someone who has offended them? I mean, if someone told me they were sorry I would be happy, but I certainly wouldn’t go throwing them a party. I wouldn’t hold them in higher esteem than I did before they wronged me. There’s still a little bit of guilt we can hang over their heads, right?
Well, maybe this is exactly why this is such a well-known story – because it illustrates just how radically different God is from what we would expect. The world teaches us to believe certain things about human nature. But here, as the Word of God often does, we are confronted with the true reality and the good news that God is not beholden to our ideas of justice and forgiveness.
No matter how low we are; no matter how much of God’s blessings we have squandered; no matter how captive we are to sin; God is ready to run to us with open arms, sweep us off our feet, and throw a feast in our honor. The apostle Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. There is no “rock bottom” from which God cannot pull us out.
As it turns out, the prodigal father and the prodigal son are actually very accurate representations of the Christian faith.
So, which person is actually the obnoxious and irresponsible one in the story? The older brother. Boy, jealously does not look good on him, does it? Why is he so bitter and ungrateful? Just a reminder, this family is rich… filthy rich. And his dad says, “Everything that is mine is yours.” But is that enough? No, he wants a party too. He just can’t allow himself to forgive his brother so he goes off and throws a temper tantrum in response to the extravagant love demonstrated by his father.
Whereas the father and the younger brother show us how ridiculous the Christian faith looks in relation to worldly standards; the older brother shows us how ridiculous worldly standards of entitlement and justice look in relation to the Christian faith.
The older brother felt entitled to something greater than the grace and blessings which he had already been shown. And that is perhaps the greatest sin of all. What could our lives look like if we lived them in full realization that the love, acceptance, and grace we so desperately seek for our lives is found in God alone?
May you, like the younger brother, be surprised by the extent of God’s grace and love.
May you, like the father, breathlessly pursue opportunities to lavish forgiveness on those who have wronged you.
And may you, unlike the older brother, be eager to celebrate with those who experience God’s grace that is freely bestowed equally to all people.