Sermon for March 31st, 2019
Nowhere in Jesus’s story this morning does he say: “let me tell you a tale about a prodigal son.” That is the parable we get in our gospel this morning though, the parable of the prodigal son, one of Jesus’s most famous tales. And even if you don’t know the scriptures that well, chances are you have probably heard of the prodigal son, or you have heard the word prodigal used to describe someone who is going through a phase of estrangement or wanton living. But when we get down into the text and read the actual story in Luke’s gospel, the word ‘prodigal’ is nowhere to be found. That is a title that we Christians have given this parable; it isn’t one that Jesus uses. So we need to be careful when reading this parable that we don’t let the title we have given it misguide us as to the subject of the story.
Who is the subject of this parable? Who is this story about? If I asked you to tell me what the parable of the prodigal son was about, what would you tell me?
You would probably say something like this: it’s about a son who asks for his inheritance early, goes out and squanders it. Makes lots of bad decisions, gets down on his luck, and decides that he needs to beg his father for help and is welcomed back and forgiven. Sounds about right, no?
But, no. That’s not exactly right. Listen to the first sentence of Jesus’s story again: “There was a man who had two sons.” Now I need you to think back to grade school for a minute. Put on your grammar cap. I know you never thought diagraming a sentence would ever be something you needed to do in real life, but diagram that sentence. Who is the subject?
There was a man who had two sons.
The subject of that sentence is the man, the father, not the sons. So don’t be distracted by the title. What Jesus wants to talk about is a father and how he relates to his two sons…that’s right, both of his sons, because the story doesn’t end when the younger son comes home. There is another scene with the elder son and in that scene you can see that the elder son has been estranged from his father too, even though he has been living under the same roof with him for all these years.
So this story is about a father. It is about a father that has two children, two sons, and although these sons are very different, they are both really cut from the same piece of cloth. They have one thing in common: they don’t understand love. They both have a loving father and neither one of them understands what that means. This story is about a father with two sons that do not know how to appreciate his love. This is a story about a father that needs to teach his children what it means to love and be loved, and what it means to live in relationship with him.
Let’s look at the story again, a little more closely.
Here we have this younger son, who looks at his dad as some sort of vending machine. He starts out thinking that his father owes him something. He says I want to get what is coming to me and I don’t want to wait. Friends, a word of warning: be very careful when you start thinking that you deserve something; be very careful with entitlement and asking to get what you deserve, because you just might get it. Well the son gets the money he asks for, moves away, makes tons of bad decisions, squanders the money, hard times come and so does hunger. So this younger son decides on a plan: he will return to his father’s house. Why? Is it because he loves him and misses him? Is it because he appreciates all that his father gave him and wants to honor him? Is it because he realizes that he did something wrong and wants to be forgiven? No, it’s because he is hungry. He thinks that if he can just be one of his father’s servants, or hired-hands, then his father will feed him. It’s this for that: I will do this for you, if you do this for me. I will serve you, you will feed me. That is how the younger son sees the father; not as a creator to be loved for his own sake, but as some sort of meal ticket. Yes, he repents and comes home, but his act of repentance is all about self-preservation, not personal growth, not love of another. If that younger son’s belly had been full, would he have returned to his father?
But he does return home, and you know what? The father doesn’t seem to care what his son’s motivation is. This is his child whom he truly loves. He runs out to meet him and showers him with affection, before the son can even get the words “I’m sorry” out of his mouth. This father is no fool. I’m sure he knows just what has motivated this child to come home, but it doesn’t matter. And he would have every reason to treat him liked a hired hand, or a servant, to make him work for his food, but he doesn’t do that either. This is his child whom he loves, and regardless of what his motivation is, he is home now. He is back in his embrace, and that means more to the father than anything else. That is what this father’s love is like.
But, as I said, the story doesn’t end there, because the older son was still out working in the field. He missed this reunion scene between his father and his brother. He comes home from a long day of hard work and he hears partying and dancing. He says “what’s this all about?” And they tell him that his brother has returned and his father is celebrating and they are having a great big BBQ. And the elder son, probably stands there looking at his dirty over-worked hands and thinks “where is mine?” Where is my fatted-calf? I have been here all along working like a slave for this man and not even a roasted goat. I didn’t go out and squander my inheritance. I didn’t go out and make one bad decision after another. I have worked hard for all that I have. I have worked hard for my father all these years, like a slave. He does not deserve these blessings. He didn’t do the work. He does not deserve this party; it is so unfair. When the elder son opens his mouth, you begin to see just how alike he and his brother really are. They both see their relationship with their father as some sort of exchange of blessings for labor: I do this for you, and therefore you will owe me this in exchange. They both at some point think that their father owes them something. This elder brother may still be living under the same roof as the father, and maybe he hasn’t made all the same life-choices as his sibling, but where is the love? where is the joy? where is the recognition of the relationship that he has with his father? This child doesn’t understand love, or relationship, or joy, so even though he is living under the same roof, he really is just as estranged from his father as his brother that was living in a distant country.
Now we could spend all day talking about these two sons and their various faults and shortcomings, but who is the subject of Jesus’s story? The father.
Why is Jesus telling this story? It seems to me that he wants his listeners to understand what the father’s love is like. He wants them to see the great joy that the father has in his children, even when they don’t deserve it or don’t know how to share it.
Who is Jesus talking to? Looks like a mixed crowd to me. There are some tax collectors and sinners who for one reason or another have felt compelled to listen to Jesus; who are drawn to him for various reasons. Then there are the Pharisees, the religious and faithful, who are a little resentful that Jesus is giving so much attention to these folks that haven’t been living right and haven’t paid their dues. I think Jesus is talking to both of them.
He wants to tell them a story about a father with two sons. They are sons which he truly loves; they are not his hired-hands or his slaves. His love for them is not based on their good decisions or on their hours spent in the fields. His love isn’t something they deserve, it is just something that is. The father’s great desire is to be with his children, and for them to share in his joy and love, not just with him, but also with each other. The father wants his children to love each other the way that he loves them.
It’s an important story that Jesus tells here and we need to pay close attention to the subject of this tale, because when Jesus teaches us to pray beginning with “Our Father” it might help us to know exactly the kind of father he is talking about.