University Congregational Church
June 30, 2017
“Re-Imagine the World: Prodigals Parable”
How many of you are the youngest in your birth order? How many in the middle? How many oldest or only children? There is something for everyone in our parable for today. It is the story of the prodigals. Often it is called the prodigal son parable – but many theologians note that because the word “prodigal” means having or giving something on a lavish scale, the parable has more than one prodigal in it! Both sons and the father qualify for that definition of prodigal.
The story has great elements:
• The love of a father for his sons
• It is a 2nd chance story
• It is a story of being lost and found
• It is a story of hope and reclamation
Listen and see if you can hear your voice in it as I read the story again.
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 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. 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. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 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. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 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! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
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. 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.’ 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.’”
Of course, when we hear this story, we hear it through our modern lens. But we should not imagine this as an American nuclear family. Consider that most Israelite families had many children. We don’t know about the make-up of the family – perhaps there was a mother (or multiple mothers), sisters, and other brothers. Parables tend to pare down the details that are not essential to the message.
We do know that this was a family with some wealth because they had enough to send the younger son of for an adventure. They also had slaves and hired persons, and very importantly, a fatted calf.
In the ancient world, fathers were not like fathers today. They were remote and strong figures of authority. They did not normally have relations of intimacy with their children. Fathers almost literally owned their children. Fathers determined their children’s fates.
While we might see the youngest son’s request for his inheritance as understandable, or even admirable (he is going off on his own to become a man), the ancients would have seen his request as an attack on the father. In their view, the son is asking his father to literally drop dead. The Greek makes this point clear: the father divided among them his life (bios).
The Jews who heard this story would have thought the younger son to be a despicable character. They would have attributed to him that he wished his father dead. Furthermore, when he spent the money and was reduced to feed the pigs, he had fallen far from family, but also from his faith. The pig was unclean and to be avoided. For him to feed swine means he abandoned the traditions of his ancestors.
Fred Craddock told a story about when he preached on this parable once and how a member of the congregation who was there told him he didn’t care for what he heard. Craddock asked, “Why?”
The man said, “Well, I guess I just don’t like the story.”
Craddock continued to ask, “What is it you don’t like about it?”
“It isn’t morally responsible,” said the man.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Craddock.
“Forgiving that boy,” continued the man, “It’s not morally responsible.”
Craddock asked, “Well, if you were the father, what would you have done?”
The man said, “I think when he came home he should have been arrested.”
So Craddock asked him, “What would you have given the prodigal?”
The answer from the man was, “Six years.”
This would have been the response of the people who first heard the story. Furthermore, they would have thought the father to be a fool. The Greek text describes the father’s actions in a series of verbs connected by “and”…
His father saw him,
And was moved to compassion
And running, fell on his neck
And kissed him.
Saw. Moved to compassion. Running. Fell on his neck. Kissed him. These verbs do not flatter the father. They do not add up to an honorable Jewish man. These were disgraceful acts for an older gentleman. In fact, in another gospel story, a woman anoints Jesus and kisses his feet after wiping them with her hair. The verb describing the Prodigal father and this woman is the same. This father was, well in modern language – weak, sentimental, even a bit demented.
The older son is an important part of the story. Chances are he is running his father’s business. He might be highly respected in his village. We know he is a hard worker – because he himself is working out in the field. He doesn’t even know a party is being thrown. He has to ask a servant what is happening!
And we realize something here that is important. Neither of the sons really wants a relationship with their father. They are both lost. They wanted their father’s things.
The father turns again to his dotage. He now calls the older son “my dear child”. This is another sign that the father is a prodigal himself. He has shown his lavish nature – giving away not only his possessions, but sharing his emotion freely and recklessly. Nothing they do can offend or insult him. He is willing always to put his honor in jeopardy for them. He topples the norm of hierarchy and how things are supposed to work in that world … all because he loves his children.
Jesus used this story to talk about God. For Jesus, the father in the story represents God. A prodigal God. One who is willing to love us through rebellion, through reckless living, through the abandonment of our faith, through our pride and self-importance, through our stubborn and angry rants. This is a God who loves lavishly and gives with abandon. This is a God who gives and gives and gives so that we might know something beyond our wildest imagination: Possessions are temporary. Love is eternal.
The prodigal father wants to free us from the lure of having and spending. The prodigal father wants to free his son from all the ties he perceived bound him to home. He wanted his younger son to experience freedom and his older son to experience joy. Both were tied to the money, the land, the work, the food, the way of living. But they did not know the eternal truth that their father did. Possessions are only good when they are used to bless others.
May we all become prodigals – ones who give lavishly and generously – out of our great love. May we, like the father,
• have compassion;
• run with excitement;
• and lavishly give what we have!
Scott, Bernard Brandon. “Re-Imagine the World” Polebridge Press. 2001.
Skinner, Rev. Dr. Dale. “God The Prodigal” Nov. 4, 2012.