Luke 15:11-32 (NRSV)

The parable of the prodigal son.  A story I am sure most if not all of you are familiar with.  The dictionary defines prodigal as squander, recklessly extravagant, yielding abundantly.  Squander certainly has a negative connotation to it but recklessly extravagant and yielding abundantly can be both negative and positive.  So let’s see just who was the prodigal in this parable.

What led Jesus up to the telling of this parable was the Pharisees and scribes grumbling about the “social activities” of Jesus.  They say, “this man receives sinners and eats with them!  If he does this what kind of savior can he be?”  Jesus could have said, oh don’t worry, I will straighten out these prostitutes and tax collectors with whom I party.  But instead, he tells them three stories…all of them centered around parties.  The first story is a parable about the party where a woman finds a lost coin from her wedding dowry, the second story was about a party thrown after the finding of a lost sheep, and then he comes to the parable of the prodigal son.

Some say that this parable is Christianity in a nutshell.  At one time or another we can all put ourselves into this story and at moments become the prodigal son, other moments the son who stayed home, and still other moments, the father.

This parable is a story of grace.  The grace that is shown in this story is the father running out into the road to welcome home his son as well as the grace the father shows to his other son.  He wants to share the joy of the forgiveness he has shown to his wayward son with his loyal son.

In this story, one of the sons thinks of his father as just a source of his inheritance.  He doesn’t want to wait for his father to die to get what’s coming to him, so his father gives in and splits the inheritance between his two sons and the younger one takes off.  In verse 13 the translation from the Greek wording is that the younger son “squandered his property,” (the King James version uses “riotous living”)but the literal translation from the Greek is “scattered his substance”, meaning the younger son completely lost himself in his decadent living.  In his effort to be out on his own and do things his way, he has scattered his substance.  He has forgotten his identity to the extent that when he ends up in the pig pens and envisions going back home to his father, he sees himself signing on as a slave.  The younger son is feeling that being lost is worse than death.  This is an especially significant feeling when it has been brought on by one’s own lust and greed.  But when he finally goes home and is greeted with his father’s loving big bear hugs, he says nothing about becoming a slave but has reclaimed his identity as a son. Do you  get the feeling that the father had been watching for his son all along? He has accepted his father’s forgiveness.  It is a freeing experience to admit one’s sins and be forgiven for them.  Admitting means letting in.  We let in our sin and accept that we sinned and then we admit, or let in God’s grace to equalize that sin.  But admitting our sin does not earn forgiveness.  Notice that the father forgives his son before his son confesses. The confession is a response to the forgiveness.  It is a response to his father’s love.  It is not the confession that triggers the love but the father’s love that triggers the confession.  Repentance is certainly crucial, but it is not a precondition for grace.  Grace comes first.

Now we come to the infamous party.  We should notice that in many of Jesus’ parables when he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, he refers to it as a party- a feast with an open invitation.  We now see the second son sulking outside the party, complaining that his father has been unfair.  He distances himself from his brother calling him “this son of yours” instead of my brother.  He made the decision not to travel and squander his inheritance.  He chose to stay home and fester his resentment to his brother.  When his brother returns home, he refuses to go to the party and his resentment boils over to his father as well as his brother.  Notice that dad does not berate the older brother or defend the younger one. He just pours out his love for both sons, telling him that there is plenty for both.  This brother now has the choice of embracing the love that his father is showing his brother and become embraced with them both or he can run off and sink deeper and deeper into his resentment.  Jesus doesn’t give us an ending to this story.  He doesn’t say “And they all lived happily ever after”. This story ends with the older brother now being lost.  He is lost because of his inflexibilty, his envy, his judgmental attitude, and his resentment of his father’s generosity to his brother.  Both sons have shown no concern for their father’s feelings and distance themselves from him.  So who is the prodigal?  Or is the father the prodigal?  Is he the prodigal because of his extravagant and excessive love for one son’s loose living and one son’s moral rectitude?  Is he the prodigal because he impetuously met his son who left him to travel far away and encountered good and bad times, or because he risked going into the darkness to beg his son to come in to the party?

Jesus is telling this story to the Pharisees.  Maybe he wants them to see themselves as the older brother and see that they have the choice of joining with Jesus in his embracing of all people, or staying away and turning their noses up at the masses.  Resentment poisons us.  It affects our whole perspective, and as it has done to the prodigal son’s brother, it has turned a celebration into a reason for jealousy.  But God’s grace is always right there chasing after us, waiting for us to open up, even a crack, to be admitted.  You don’t just put on grace, like you would a piece of clothing. Grace is a process.  It is always there in our relationship with God. Grace is not forced upon us and is never withdrawn from us.

To quote 2Corinthians 5:18-20 – “…All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

Think about this….Is not Jesus a prodigal son?  In his book “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, Henri Nouwen writes: ‘Jesus became the prodigal son for our sake.  He left the house of his heavenly Father, came to a foreign country, gave away all that he had, and returned through his cross to his Father’s home.  All of this he did, not as a rebellious son but as the obedient son, sent out to bring home all the lost children of God…Jesus is the prodigal son of the prodigal Father who gave away everything the Father had entrusted to him so that I could…so that you could…so that we could…become like him and return with him to his Father’s house.”

So in this parable, who is the most prodigal of all?  I think the father.  In the end, each child has to deal with the father.  In each case the father gives them exactly what they need.  He gives the younger son acceptance to be back home where he has a place of belonging and he gives the older son reassurance saying, “You are always with me.  Everything I have is yours.”  Come in to the party.

We can substitute God for the father in this story.  There is a story about a kite that was flying, and the kite said to itself, “if only I could get rid of this string.  This string is holding me back and without it I could really fly high…there would be nothing holding me back.  One day the kite got it’s wish and the string broke. What happens?  Of course…the kite came crashing down.  What the kite didn’t realize was that the string was not only holding it down but was holding it up.  The son realized in the pigpen that when we cut the string of dependence upon God in search of more pleasure, the same string that seems to hold you down also keeps you flying high.  God wants us to trust Him and let Him hold the string.  Staying connected to God keeps us from falling.

God restores us in meeting us where we are through love and sacrifice.  It shows that God celebrates when wayward sinners come home.  This parable reminds us of the lengths God will go to make that homecoming meaningful.

Our challenge is to be like God, opening our arms to the lost, the bullied, those being discriminated against.

The Pharisees and the scribes were very religious people.  Their lives were centered around obeying God and all the religious laws. Their thought was that the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus was partying were the ones who were lost. Justo Gonzales writes in “The Christian Century”, In Lent it would be good for us to listen to the parable of the two sons while moving back and forth between seeing ourselves as the lost son who is received with open arms and the obedient one who apparently thinks he is more deserving.  Lent is a time to consider both the grace of God that has sought and welcomed us and the constant danger the religious people face, thinking that we are better.”

This parable is not just about you and me and our sins.  It is about God and His searching love of those that have gotten lost and bringing them back home to Him.

Sometimes grace so astonishes us that all we can do is change.  All we can do is repent.  Grace, once demonstrated and experienced, can change everything about us……everything.     Amen

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