The Prodigal Story

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, The Prodigal Story, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday March 31, 2019. The Reading was Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.

Missing the Story

Our bible reading today is the Prodigal Son.

How many of you would switch off at hearing that? That you’re so familiar with the story that you don’t actually need me to read it out? I’ll admit that I did that. When I saw what was the bible reading for today, I initially skipped it and didn’t read it through.

We all know the story. The son asks his father for his half of the estate, goes and loses it all, comes back, and asks to be a slave, and the father welcomes him back into the family. In the mean time, the elder son hears there’s a party happening, and refuses to come back in, and so the father goes out to him.

And we’re so familiar with this story, that we’re probably very familiar with the interpretation. The Father is God. The prodigal son is the Christian. The elder son is the Jewish people.

But if we believe that scripture is the living word of God, and that it continues to teach us and continues to show us new insights into the nature of God, then we have a duty to read it and hear it through fresh eyes.

And so, I’m not going to read our reading for today. Not right now. I’m going to shake things up – give my sermon first, and then we will read the scripture. Because I want to give you some information about the three characters that may change the way you hear this story.

The Prodigal son

Let’s start with the central character. The prodigal son. The younger son.

It’s important to note that the prodigal son is the younger son. You see, the younger son generally wouldn’t have as much rights as the first born son. The first born was expected to carry on the family name, to look after the family, and as such, they would command the lion share of the inheritance. Some jewish writers have suggested that in a two son home such as this one, the elder son might be expected to get at least two thirds of the father’s property.

So we have a son who isn’t owed as much. And he has the gall to tell his father, “I think you should be dead.” When he asks for his inheritance, that is what he is saying, because, normally, you don’t get your inheritance until the person involved is dead.

How do you think your parents would have reacted if you said to them, “I wish you were dead, give me my inheritance now.”

When the son gets his inheritance, again, he doesn’t do what would be expected. Normally, you would get the property and then use that to build up your own base, your own family estate. It would stay in the family. Yet he sells it. Somehow, he manages to get cash for it, and leaves the village – again, something that just wasn’t done.

The son goes away – to a gentile town. Now the Jewish people were deeply insular people. All through Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Leviticus, there are plenty of laws that were designed to keep the Jewish people separate. Part of that was to allow them to grow and find their own land, and not get distracted by the various other belief systems that were in existance at the time. And so this would mean that they would avoid the other nations as best they could. They would take the long path to remain in Jewish land, as opposed to the shorter path which crosses Samaritan land. So for this son to move away from his Jewish village into a gentile land was just unheard of.

The NRSV tells us that he squandered his earnings in dissolute living. The greek word is used three other times in the New Testament. Ephesians 5:18 is related to drunkenness, Titus 1:6 is related to rebeliousness, and 1 Peter 4:3 sums up gentile debauchery as “licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry.”

And then, on top of everything else, he runs himself into such dire straits that he has to tend to pigs. Now remember, the Jewish people didn’t eat pigs, but they were also seen as an abomination, with Rabbis declaring “None may raise swine anywhere” and “Cursed be the man who would breed swine”. But not only is this man taking care of these abominations, but he is so desperate that he contemplates getting down on the ground and eating like a pig. And it’s at this that he comes to himself, pauses, and recalls how his father treated his slaves, and surely it would be better for him to be his fathers slave than to be in this abomination of a situation.

The Elder Son

Now I’m going to jump around a bit and focus on the Elder Son. Remember, I’m just giving you some background information that I hope will allow the reading to speak to you in a way that it never has before. So Let’s look at the Elder Son’s role.

We first hear of the Elder son in verse 11, in noting that the Father had two sons. So obviously there had to be an elder one and a younger one. But we then don’t hear anything from him until verse 25. But I want to pose a few reflections that cover the elder son in these intermediate verses.

As I’ve mentioned, the Elder Son would have been entitled to Two Thirds of his father’s estate upon his death. In some ways, the younger son taking his inheritance early might work out better for him, because you have to assume that the father’s estate will continue to grow, so two thirds of his estate now, will be worth more in 10 years time, and he no longer has to share the profit with the younger son. But at the same time, the ability to turn a profit on that land is reduced, so the elder brother may be upset that he may not get as much as he had hoped. This story also calls back to the story of Esau and Jacob, where Esau sells Jacob his birthright, and then Jacob tricks Isaac into blessing him, instead of the first born Esau, who then threatens to kill Jacob. So you can imagine that the elder brother might not share the same love for the younger brothers actions at this point.

So the elder brother stays. Perhaps he is given the management of the property, and he is effectively running it, as the Father is constantly looking out to the horizon. He probably knows about everything that is going on. And it seems like he is an active brother as well, getting out into the fields and working alongside the slaves. Perhaps he could see the land that had been sold off, with someone else farming it, and it makes him upset every day.

And then one day, he hears music, he sees dancing coming from the house. He is the eldest son, he knows everything that is supposed to be going on in the house, but doesn’t know about this party. And he is the eldest son. There should be no party without him present, to be excluded from that would be a great insult. So he asks a slave and finds out what is going on. How humiliating must that be, for the eldest son, the heir apparent, the effective manager of the property, to have to ask a slave what is happening on his own property?

With all of this happening, is it any surprise that the elder son became angry, and refused to go in to the party?

The Father

And finally, we get the father. His role is indeed interesting, so let’s look and see what is happening in this story for him.

As I’ve already said, the younger son’s request was effectively him saying to his father, “I wish you were dead”. But his response is one of love. He would have been completely within his right to refuse the request. He would have been completely within his right to punish the boy for having the audacity to ask such a question. But he doesn’t.

I wonder how the community around him would have reacted. He allowed his son to walk all over him, to treat him like dirt. Would the community have supported him? Or would they have ostracized him?

And then, when he sees the son returning, immediately he is filled with compassion. He crosses the threshold of his house, and runs. He runs. That’s something that people never did. Why? Well, as hard as it is for me to say, being a runner, but for the people in that day, it was highly impractical and highly embarrassing to run. The clothing that they would be wearing was a robe. Now, I’m sure you’ve all got the picture of the robe I’m talking about in your mind. Think about how you are able to walk in one of those robes. You’re not able to take large steps, before the back of the robe catches on your back leg. And in order to run, you’re taking long strides. So in order for the Father to run, he may well have had to hike up his robe, perhaps wrap it between his legs to protect his modesty, and run. It would have been highly embarrassing. So why would he do such a thing?

Well, the traditional reading has always been that it was because of his love for his son. Sure, fair enough. But I want to take it one step further for you. This son not only insulted his father, and his family, but also the community. When he left them to go to a gentile land, it was a slap in the face for all of them. And so, you can see that once the community got sight of him, they may not be filled with the same compassion that the father was. So one interpretation has been that the Father, filled with compassion and love for his son, embarrassed himself and ran in order to protect his son from the community. He wouldn’t have known what his son had done while he was away. The son’s return was unexpected. The Father didn’t know what had been done. What abominations the son had been involved in. But his love preceeded all of that. And the son didn’t even have the chance to tell him much more than a sentence of confession before the Father is rounding up everyone for a party, and showing the community that this is what we do – when people return, we don’t hate them, we love them.

But the story doesn’t end there. The party is in full swing, but because it has happened quickly, the eldest son hasn’t been notified. And the father gets word that he is refusing to come in. And so the Father embarrasses himself once again, and leaves the party. As a host, you never leave the party, but the Father was willing to do this because of the love he has for both of his sons. He crosses the threshold again, and goes to talk to the son. He allows the son to have his say, to express his anger, and then addresses the tension between the two brothers.

Yes, there is tension between them. The younger son has travelled to a distant land, while the elder son has remained home. The younger son declares that he is no longer worthy to be called a son, and asked to be made a servant, while the elder son describes himself as slaving away and receiving nothing. The younger son was dead and then alive, lost and now found, while the elder son is always with the father. The younger son is the guest of honour at the party, while the elder son finds out about it from the slave.

Yes, the father threw the younger son an extravagent party, but he also reassures the older son that “all I have is yours.”

The parable closes posing a question. And this question is not: Which of these three characters are you most like? If you’re asking that question, then you’ve missed the point.

The parable closes by posing an unasked, and unanswered question. You see, we don’t hear what the elder son does. Does he come into the party? Does he stay out in the field in anger? That same question is posed to us: What will we do? I want to suggest to you that that answer has already been stated, by the grumblings of the Pharisees and scribes right at the start of this passage of teaching, where they say “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Perhaps, as we seek to follow Jesus, perhaps the answer to the question, “What will we do” might just be, “We will welcome sinners and eat with them.”

So with that extra insight into this reading, I invite you to hear the word of the Lord, with fresh ears, with new insight, and may the Holy Spirit guide your thoughts, feelings, reflections, and actions in response to this reading.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 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. 13 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. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 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. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 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. 21 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.’ 22 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’ ”

Luke 15:1-2, 11-32 (NRSV)

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