Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 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 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.’ ” (NRSV)
Grace to you and peace from God our creator, from Jesus Christ, our redeemer and friend, and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.
Have you ever been hungry? (Many answered yes.) I mean really hungry? So hungry you couldn’t think straight? (Still some answered yes.) So hungry you were just skin and bones? (No one answered yes.) So hungry you were desperate? (Everyone was thankful to say, No.)
Today’s gospel is a story you are undoubtedly very familiar with. You most likely know it as The Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it could have been called The Parable of the Resentful Older Brother or The Parable of the Generous Father or any number of other names. What we call it forms what we pay attention to, so
It is rather interesting that we know this parable so well, but there are many fine details that we just gloss right over.
Why was Jesus telling that parable? What was the context? Who was his audience? And what was his point?
Notice it starts off saying ALL the tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear Jesus teach. Jesus was attracting a crowd of undesirables and the religious people didn’t like it. They could not fault him for teaching them, but eating with them was another story. You see, table fellowship is really important in Jesus’s day. Who you will eat with says a lot about you. That is why the Jews wouldn’t eat with Gentiles. It is related to why some foods were considered clean and some unclean. It is a constant reminder of separation and sacrifice, what it means to be the people of God, a people set apart. There are just some things a good Jewish person was not supposed to do… and eat with undesirables was one of them.
So the scribes and the Pharisees were grumbling. And Jesus wanted to teach them a lesson. So he told them this parable.
Now there are a few important details I want to make sure you notice, and some important background information that really makes a difference in how we understand this parable.
In Old Testament days, the oldest son, no matter how many other sons and daughters there were, was the one to inherit the property and the family. It was his responsibility to hold the land in trust for the good of all. He was to head the family and make sure everyone was taken care of and everyone got what they needed. That didn’t always happen though. All too often the older son took more for himself and his immediate family. Or favoritism and rivalries made for some other pattern of uneven distribution of wealth. So by Jesus’s day, the laws and practices had progressed to be more equitable. Each one would inherit a portion, but the older son would inherit a larger portion.
The younger son in the parable was still out of order demanding his portion when his father was still alive. He was effectively telling his father, “I wish you were dead. I want your wealth more than I want you,” It is a cruel thing for a son to tell a father. But the father didn’t flinch. He gave the his son what he wanted. He would certainly have had to liquidate some of his property to do so. Undoubtedly he would have had to sell some property or livestock off in town. People would talk. They would be the subject of gossip. It would have been demeaning. But he did it. And then his son went away.
And yes, the son squandered his money living it up. The scripture says ‘dissolute living.” Maybe he did spend it on prostitutes as his brother accused, maybe not, but whatever he did, he didn’t invest well. It is not how any parent wants their children to live out their lives. He ran through it all of the money. Maybe he could have kept things going indefinitely, but there was a famine, and things got tight for everyone. In a famine, there is just not enough food to go around, People, lots of people, have to do without.
So he was hungry.
And while he had a job, it was a terrible job.
And he got to dreaming of home where even the servants had bread enough to share.
And so he decided to go. Not because he was guilty for having wasted his life away and with it his father’s hard work and legacy… not because he missed the people… because he was hungry.
He had eaten with everyone else, and what did he have to show for it? Nothing.
It was time to go home and eat with his people again.
He prepared a speech. He practiced it all the way home. But he never got to give it.
His father saw him coming from a long way off. I imagine the father was always looking down the road. I imagine it started off as hope his son would come to his senses and return, but had eventually just turned into a habit. BUT THIS TIME, this time someone WAS there. It was the unmistakeable figure of his son. He ran to him. As he got closer he could see the young man was in rags. He was dirty and skinny. His dad called the servants to bring him some decent clothes and some shoes and clean him up and feed him. FEED HIM for goodness sake. Put some life back into that boy!
The final touch though was putting the ring on his finger. The son was back in the family.
It would have been easy for the scribes and the Pharisees to get swept up in this story of a father and his son, of the love the father has for the wayward and willful son. Everyone most likely knows a family who has had trouble with one of their kids. They would probably have felt the father was over exuberant, but they could understand that as well. Good father’s love their children and never want to be estranged from them.
But the story isn’t over there. Jesus has more for them.
As you well know, the older brother was out in the fields and when he came in for the evening, he heard the hubbub and was curious. He wanted to know what was going on. He called the servant to find out and was immediately outraged.
He was angry and he refused to go in.
He was not about to eat with HIM.
There was no joy. There was no relief. Only judgment and resentment.
He couldn’t even share in the father’s joy.
He couldn’t think about what he’d had all along. All he could think about was what the other guy didn’t deserve. And it robbed him of his joy.
It is understood that the scribes and the Pharisees were being described in the older brother’s behavior. They couldn’t be happy the “sinners and tax collectors’ were eagerly hearing about God. They couldn’t recognize they’d had God’s presence and favor all along. They might have been grateful to have known the comforts of faith rather than be resentful of others finally getting some of that too. They could only focus on their own desire to be the center of God’s attention.
But this parable is big enough for all of us. Maybe there are some of us in this church who do identify with the older brother. You feel like you have been responsible church members for years, doing what needed to be done around the church. You have worked your fingers to the bone for this place… and does anyone appreciate it? Has ANYONE stopped to say thank you? And to all of you, I say Thank You. You have laid the foundation of this congregation. This congregation has benefitted because you are here.
But maybe some of you identify with the younger son. Maybe some of you, out there in internet-land are reading this because you are away from God and feel a hunger for something more in your life but think God couldn’t possibly want anything from you. I would say you are wrong. God loves you, and nothing you have ever done can ever change that. But even more than wanting something from you, God wants something FOR you. God will welcome you home just as soon as you take a chance on God and turn the corner toward God.
But there are some of you who are here in church who identify with the younger son. You may be further along the younger son’s story. Maybe you spent your time in life away from the fold of the church family and now you have come back. Maybe you had a speech ready. Maybe it still plays in your head, “I am not worthy… I am not worthy… I am not worthy.” But God has welcomed you back fully. I am sure of it. And you ARE worthy because you are a beloved child of God. God has made you worthy. The ring is on your finger. You ARE one of the family.
Or maybe you identify with the people of the distant land. There is a famine, maybe not literally, but you fear there isn’t enough to go around and you are struggling to survive yourself. You cannot help some alien that doesn’t even belong in your country.
Or maybe you identify with the servants who were sent for the robe and the sandals and the fatted calf. You are here to do what the Father bids you. Maybe you don’t understand why the Father would do that. Maybe you know it isn’t your place to judge or to ask questions, but that it is your task to be obedient.
Or maybe, just maybe you identify with the father. Maybe you have been in the position to yearn for someone to return to you. Maybe you have been accused of being overly generous. Maybe you have been in the position to forgive much.
This parable IS big enough for all of us, just as Jesus’s good news is sufficient for all of us, no matter where we find ourselves in life. So now, in this time of silence, consider that no matter what is going on in your life, no matter what thoughts are going through your head, God’s love is big enough for you. God’s love will never run out for you. And God’s love is for those who are not you, too. Sometimes we need to ponder the mystery that is God’s love for the unlovable, the sinners and the tax collectors, the wayward sons and the resentful brothers. God’s love is for all of us.
A minute of silence
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Blessings to you,
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.