May 10, 2015 by jmar198013
This is the text of the sermon I preached today a the Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA. They are a warm, beautiful, diverse, and responsive body of believers, and I believe God is doing and will continue to do some amazing things with and through them.
Today I’ve been asked to talk about one of the parables of Jesus. Before I get into that, I want to talk about what a parable is, and what a parable does. When I was a kid, our Sunday School teacher gave us a working definition of a parable: An earthly story with a heavenly meaning. I’ll tell you what, that sure did impress me back then. But the older I got, the less sense that explanation made. The more I got to know the parables, I came to see them as earthy stories with earthy consequences. In the world of the parables, widows have to lobby heartless bureaucrats for justice. People wake their neighbors up in the middle of the night to sponge some food. A Wall Street banker receives a bail-out after getting himself over-leveraged, but refuses to give his Main Street neighbor any debt relief. A homeless man starves to death in front of a wealthy man’s gated community. This is stuff we see every day. This is the world we live in. We get used to this stuff; acclimated; de-sensitized. Maybe we even get downright cynical. Our senses have been dulled, and what the parables are meant to do is shock us into wonder. Into action. Out of complacency. Because what Jesus does is step in and—not invest these commonplace scenarios with an otherworldly meaning, but flip the script with a heavenly plot twist. Parables inject a thrust of grace into the mundane and ugly realities. They tease us. They provoke us. They invite us to hope that another world is possible. When the parables grab hold of our imaginations, we find that we have so much to learn about God and the world and how things really work. We also find that we have so much to unlearn.
So the parable I’m supposed to talk about today is found in Luke 15.11-32. It’s a famous parable, commonly known as the Prodigal Son. Even people who have never set foot inside a church building know it, and are profoundly moved by it. But before we hear the story, let’s talk about why Jesus told it in the first place. Because you can’t really understand a scripture until you understand what it is responding to. In order to see what the text means, first you have to see what it does. In Luke 15.1-2 we read that, All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So basically, the Moral Majority was scandalized that Jesus offered hospitality to bad people. You know, any time the Pharisees showed up to dinner, there was always going to be a food fight. And not the fun kind where someone gets a pie in the face. A fight over food: what food is being eaten, whether your hands had been properly washed, and especially—as we see here—who you are eating with. Jesus was eating with tax collectors, and in that culture, sharing a table with someone was a sign of solidarity. To be fair, tax collectors were a nasty bunch. They got rich off the misery of others. Then again, so did the Pharisees. In Mark 12.40, Jesus said that Pharisees are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. At least the tax collectors had the common decency to go forth and sin boldly. The Pharisees did their dirt slick. So why exactly did Pharisees look down on tax collectors? Because tax collectors violated the Sabbath and handled pagan currency. I know—priorities, right? So anyway, the reason Jesus told the story we’re about to hear was to set the Pharisees straight on why he ate with tax collectors and sinners. And now, on with the story.
“A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.”’ So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”
So we have this story about what was lost being found. But is that really all there is to it? Most people hear this parable as a story of sin, repentance, and grace. I suspect most of us have been trained to put ourselves in the place of the lost son. We want blessed assurance that even if we wander into the far country, Father God will welcome us home. Obviously, repentance and grace are essential to the story we Christians have to tell. And certainly, we have all experienced a God who welcomes us back after we have wandered. That’s our story, it’s true, and we rightfully celebrate it. But is that what this parable is really about? If that’s all there is to the story, then why include the part about the older brother? We’ll get to him soon enough, but my point is, there’s more going on in this story than we might realize. Now perhaps some of you are thinking, Well, preacher—of course the story is as simple as being lost and being found. Of course it’s all about repentance. After all, Jesus told two stories to the grumbling Pharisees before this one. One was about a shepherd who finds one of his lost sheep. The other was about a woman who finds a lost coin. And he concluded both stories by saying something like: there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents (Luke 15.10 NLT). But in the story of the lost son, Jesus never uses the word repent. He does say that when the young man ended up starving in the pig pen, he came to his senses. But that’s not repenting; that just means he finally became aware of how much trouble he was in. His experiences had made him wiser, but we are not told they have made him better. Furthermore, what he decided to do to get out of the mess seems much more calculated than repentance. I’ve heard one preacher describe the Prodigal’s strategy like this: “I’ll go to Daddy and sound religious.” Maybe the repenting was him going back home, but let’s be honest: he went home because he was hungry. The younger son feeding pigs obviously represents the tax collectors and sinners Jesus was eating with. They were working to make the Romans fat, and had totally lost themselves along the way. Jesus saw that they were hungry, and—like the lost son—no one was feeding them. So he welcomed them to his table. He didn’t seem to be overly concerned with why they became tax collectors. Who knows, maybe their mothers were widows the Pharisees had cheated out of their property. And then perhaps some publican recruited them to collect for him, promising them it was a way out of the ghetto. Things like that happen every day, don’t they? Anyway, maybe one thing this story teaches us is that we have misunderstood repentance. Maybe repentance is a lifelong process that begins with walking back towards home. Maybe God doesn’t care why we turn around or how we begin our journey, as long as we come home.
Then again, maybe the parable of the Prodigal Son isn’t really about the Prodigal. After all, Jesus didn’t tell the story to reassure his tax collector friends that God really did love them in spite of their sins, did he? No—he told the story to the scribes and Pharisees. They were scandalized because he welcomed sinners and ate with them, and this parable was Jesus’ answer. If the Prodigal Son represented the tax collectors and sinners Jesus was eating with, then the older brother stood for the Pharisees and scribes. The older brother was wrong about some pretty crucial stuff. For one, he was wrong about his brother. The older son accused his brother of gobbling up their father’s estate on prostitutes. But he had no way of knowing that. We’ve all done that sort of thing, haven’t we? We see a single mother, maybe with several kids, and we make assumptions about her character. Or perhaps we see some dudes hanging out on a corner, and we immediately conclude that they are lazy and up to no good. We write people off before we even hear their story. That’s what the older son did to his younger brother. And that’s what the Pharisees had done to the tax collectors and “sinners.” But what’s worse, the older brother was wrong about his father. He resented the father’s unconditional welcome of his shameful brother. He resented his father for giving the younger brother the favor that only he had earned. He was wrong about his father because he didn’t really know how to be a son. Look, he says, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. These are the words of a slave, not a son. The older brother was great at obeying instructions, but his attitude, his relationships, and his priorities were a mess. I suspect that the older brother would not have been so angry if his father actually had let the Prodigal come back as a day laborer. He saw himself as a servant first, and a son second. He wanted his brother to feel the same way. He didn’t understand that the music and dancing and the fattened calf were not for his brother. They were for his father, for the whole family, for the whole village. We had to celebrate and be glad, his father tells him; because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found. In the same way, the Pharisees just could not understand what God was doing through Jesus. They would not celebrate with Jesus over the lost sheep of Israel coming home. Because the lost sheep coming home didn’t look like they wanted them to. They’d rather these little brothers and sisters come home clean and sober and groveling and at least halfway to holy. Not still smelling like a pig pen. Okay, now here’s the important part: whenever the Pharisees show up in the Gospels, it isn’t so we can boo them and cheer for Jesus. The church doesn’t get to say, God, we thank you that we are not like this Pharisee. The Pharisees are there as a warning for us. Because it’s awfully hard to stop being the Prodigal Son without turning into the elder brother. The father wanted his older son to know that he couldn’t be a good son without also being a good brother. Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see that. And he wants us to see it, too.
But in the end—and this is the point we often miss—I would argue that this parable isn’t really about the Prodigal Son, and it isn’t about the elder brother. Remember how the parable begins: A certain man had two sons. The story is really about the father. From beginning to end, it’s all about the father. You know, really we could call it the parable of the Prodigal Father. See, prodigal can mean something negative: reckless and wasteful. And the younger son certainly was those things. But it can also have positive shades of meaning: lavish and extravagant. And the father most certainly was those things. You know, we read of the father’s compassion when he sees his lost son returning. How he recklessly runs to meet the boy, embraces his, and kisses him. He doesn’t care where he has been or why he’s come back. He meets the kid right where he is and demonstrates publicly that he welcomes and accepts his son. But there’s even more going on there. This story was told in an honor and shame culture. When you did something that shamed your family, it also shamed the whole village. And squandering your father’s property in Gentile territory was utterly shameful. Honor and shame was the glue that held the village together, and if you lost honor, you might find that the fire department didn’t show up when your house was burning. So when neighbors saw the young man who had brought shame to his family and village coming home, things would get ugly quick. People would be cussing at him, giving him the finger, threatening him, casting stones at him. The father’s fevered running and public embrace of his son was an act of compassion, but it was more. It was a sign of protection. The father needed to show the neighbors that he welcomed his son so they wouldn’t lynch him before he even got to the house. The father also found a way to use the honor and shame system to his younger son’s advantage. He placed his own robe and signet ring on the boy to show that he was fully reconciled back to the family. He placed shoes on him because slaves didn’t wear shoes, and he wanted it known that this was a son, not a slave. And he hosted a feast for the entire village so that everyone could see that his son was welcomed. In that honor and shame culture, no one would have dared to shame their neighbor publicly by refusing to join the feast. Not to share in your neighbor’s joy was dishonorable behavior. And so by welcoming sinners and eating with them, Jesus—the Word of God become flesh, the image of the invisible God—was doing for them what the father in the story did for his younger son. He was showing them and everyone else that God fully accepted them back. And in the parable, everyone in the village plays along—except the older brother! He is the only one who dared to shame his father by not celebrating. But watch what the father does. He doesn’t yell him. He doesn’t disown him. The text says the father came out and begged him to come join the feast. He says, we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours . . . was lost and is found. The older son is wrong, but the father doesn’t punish him. He invites him to celebrate with everyone else. And that’s where Jesus leaves the story—this extravagant father lavishing grace on this resentful son. Jesus is offering the same invitation to the Pharisees: We have to celebrate. The lost sheep of Israel have been found. But he’s also offering them something far greater: a new way of seeing God, and seeing themselves. The father in this story—that’s what God looks like. And you are sons, not slaves.
The parable ends with the father telling his older son that they have to celebrate and be glad, because his lost brother has been found. Jesus doesn’t say how the older son responded. Did he join his father and the village in celebrating? Or did he continue sitting in the dark, outside the feast, consumed by resentment? Jesus ended the story that way so that the Pharisees could be given a choice: Would they embrace what God was doing in Jesus’ ministry to tax collectors and sinners? Or would they reject Jesus, and thereby reject God’s invitation to join the feast? Well, we know how they responded. But now the story is not about the Pharisees, either. The story now comes to us. And at some point in our lives, we are all going to be the Prodigal Son. At other times, we will be the elder brother. We all need to be forgiven and reconciled. The father of the parable met both brothers right where they were and showed them a patient, welcoming love. And I would offer that this is exactly what the story means for the church. We don’t give up on the tax collectors and sinners. We don’t write off the broken and the weak. We don’t assume that just because someone has done terrible things that their card is punched. And we welcome them however they come—just like the father did the Prodigal. At the same time, we don’t give up on the elder brothers and the Pharisees. We don’t berate them for not yet being able to get over their worldview or their fears or even themselves. We continue to challenge them; to try to provoke in them a different way of seeing; to show them that being a child of God means being a sibling even to their weak and sinful brothers and sisters. We invite them to join us at this great feast, this celebration, this homecoming—just like the father did with the older son. In closing, I would offer that the truth of the story is embodied every Sunday, when we gather to share the Lord’s Supper, at the table where we all—Prodigal Sons and elder brothers alike—find ourselves welcomed and accepted.