We are in the middle of our Lenten journey and we continue to explore texts that challenge us and show us that our path is often unsettling. We’re on a rocky road, such is life, but we are not alone. Today we encounter what might be the most famous story that Jesus ever told. It’s the parable of the prodigal, and it is designed to shake you up and offend you. Are you ready?
There are so many ways to preach this text. I’ve heard it said that if you could only have one text, one parable, one example of Jesus’ teaching, that this story of the prodigal would be the one to pick because it has it all.
I was chatting with some colleagues the other day and we were sharing what way the spirit was leading us to preach it.
One sees it as an exploration of family dynamics – of fathers and sons and their relationships.
Another sees it as an exploration of the power of forgiveness – how each of us has a deep and profound need to hear and know that we are forgiven by God and those we’ve been in conflict with.
Another sees it as an exploration of the need to turn and repent, and I tend to come at it as an exploration of God’s character, but the most intriguing part of the discussion was debating who the prodigal was. Is it the younger son (that’s the standard read on it), or is it the older son, or is it the father?
No matter how you choose to approach it you have to begin by acknowledging that this is a fantastically offensive parable. As you heard it all sorts of indignant alarm bells were probably going off. Everything about it offends our sensibilities.
I mean, imagine a younger son going to his dad and ostensibly saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead, because then I could have my money and be done with this family.” Offensive!
And then the dad actually does it – giving his son his inheritance, probably liquidating his assets in order to do so. Offensive!
Then junior goes off and blows it all and devises a way to come crawling home to daddy.
And instead of being angry, or lecturing him, or punishing him in any way the father comes barrelling out of the house and runs and embraces junior and throws him a huge party. Offensive!
And we haven’t even got to the part that really and truly offends us yet!
Just what does prodigal mean anyway? The dictionary says it means to be wasteful – to take something of great value and treat it dismissively. So ask yourself: who is treating something of value wastefully in this story? The younger son, obviously.
But I’m most intrigued by the older son. Looking at his life, can you see anything of great value that he has treated wastefully? He’s been the dutiful son. He’s worked in the family business. He’s stayed home and not gone off carousing or sowing his wild oats. He’s the good kid. He’s the responsible one. (Here comes the part that will probably offend you!) And for me he’s a bigger prodigal than his little brother.
That’s right. I’m saying that the older brother is the real prodigal here. No he didn’t go out and waste money on wine, women, and song. Frankly, that’s pretty boring and cliché. Young, stupid person thinks they know better and goes out and makes huge mistakes and comes running home when they hit the wall. Yawn. And really it was just about money. He wasted material things, not anything really important or valuable. For the really shocking example of wastefulness we have to look at the older brother!
Having said that I don’t want to imply that the younger son’s story isn’t important, because it is. It’s a magnificent story of God’s forgiveness and acceptance. Not many of us have gone on such a bender that we’ve blown all our money and hit rock bottom. But church history is filled with great stories of reformed alcoholics, and drug addicts, and criminals, and all manner of unpleasant and nasty people who were saved – and that’s wonderful and beautiful. Thank God those younger brother prodigals have found their way back into the arms of God – a God that doesn’t lecture or punish them but comes running down the road while they’re still a long way off and embraces them wholeheartedly.
Did you catch that part? The father comes running down the road (certainly nothing dignified or stern about that!) while the wayward son is still a long way off! And the kid never even got to say his well rehearsed line about how sorry he was. The father didn’t care. All he needed was to see the turn and he came running.
That’s the kind of God we’re talking about! God doesn’t wait until we’re all better and cleaned up and perfect – God is waiting to come running the moment you awaken and make the turn.
Ok, I’ve stalled long enough. It’s time to offend you! Most of us here probably identify really strongly with the older brother. We are good United Church folk, taking care of business, meeting our responsibilities, being charitable, attending church, and generally being the pillars of our community.
So how can I say that the older brother is the bigger prodigal? What exactly is he being wasteful about? What thing of great value is he treating dismissively? Let’s look at his story.
The older brother who’s out doing his duty hears the racket from the party and asks what’s going on. When he hears about the father’s extravagant welcome home to his kid brother he starts to sulk and won’t go and join the party.
The father comes out and pleads with him (we’ll come back to that in a second) but the elder brother will have none of it. All he has is self-righteous indignation.
Luke 15:29-30 “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!”
It offends our sensibilities, doesn’t it? Be honest, when you hear this story you feel just like the older son. We instinctively think that he has every right to be ticked off with the father because he’s always done his duty and the other one didn’t and now the other one is getting rewarded. And now some preacher’s going to stand here and tell you that the older brother is the one who’s done something wrong.
Listen to the father’s reply to the dutiful son: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” [Luke 15:31] Allow me to translate.
“Son, you are the dutiful one, and that’s good, but you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons, and that’s bad. You are just as attached to money and material things as your little brother is. You don’t have to spend all your money to be possessed by it. I welcomed him home because he finally figured out what you haven’t figured out yet. He realized that whether he had wine, women, and song or not the really important thing was to be with me.
“You’ve been here in my presence the whole time but you haven’t realized it. You’ve been going through the motions but your heart hasn’t let me love you. It’s harder to realize your need when you think you’re already meeting it. But I can tell from your reaction to this that your heart is not producing the fruit of the Spirit. There’s no love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, or self-control in you. I’m offering to surround and infuse you with love, but you have to let me do it.”
Interesting that the older brother gets a lecture and the younger brother just gets a hug. Why? Because the younger brother accepted the offer made by the father. He had an awakening. He made the turn. He realized he was on a path that led away from resting in the love of his father and changed his orientation. In churchy language that’s called repentance – not in his words but in his heart.
Did you notice that the father came to the older son too? Did you notice that the father was pleading with the older son? Pleading! It’s emotional, heartfelt; the father is in pain because this son who is so near is actually very far. The older brother, even though he was standing right there with the father the whole time, was actually still walking away or turning away from the love that was being offered to him. How sadly wasteful.
This is the challenging part for us. Many of us have been in church our whole lives – but attendance doesn’t guarantee that we ‘get it’. God is making this offer to us every single moment of our lives, and we need to be constantly accepting it – day after day after day. God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness are absolute, total, and radical. God’s grace is mind-boggling. It is extended to absolutely anyone and everyone who will turn and receive it. But to receive it you have to open your hand. You have to awaken to the Really Real that you’re actually immersed in. It’s got nothing to do with your duties or your actions – it has everything to do with your heart.
Whether you are more like the younger brother or more like the older brother you run the risk of being a prodigal – of taking something of great value (God’s loving presence) and treating it dismissively. We all do. It’s human nature. Too often we take the most important things for granted. Thankfully the Holy Mystery that we name God is not offended so easily, and is constantly running toward us with arms extended yearning to embrace us and shower us with love, even while we’re still a long way off.
Such an offer, such a gift, such an incredible outpouring of grace, forgiveness, and love seems incomprehensible and offensive to prodigals like you and me. But it’s true. Thank God!