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The Prodigal Son (3/28/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
I want to begin by reading the parable of the prodigal son. These are the words of Jesus as found in the 15th chapter of Luke:
There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son gathered all he had, set off for a distant country, and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with even the slop the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will go back to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” So he went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. “Your brother has returned,” he replied, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
“My son,” the father said, “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 again; he was lost and is found.”
This parable is so familiar, there is a tendency for preachers to skip over this story. What can be said about the parable of the prodigal son that hasn’t been said a million times before? But this is one of the most famous stories Jesus ever told, and there is a reason for its popularity. Most of us can identify with this story. As the story of our own lives have unfolded, we’ve played one of the roles—either the father whose love leads him to joyfully forgive a child who has strayed; or the prodigal son, who finds himself in need of great forgiveness; or the frustrated brother, who thinks it is a bit unfair for those who don’t play by the rules to get the same rewards as those who do. Many of us have played all three of those roles at one time or another.
At first, this prodigal son story sounds like one dysfunctional family. But honestly, I have yet to meet the family that is not dysfunctional. Most parents may look like Ward and June Cleaver to the outside world, but once you get beneath the surface you discover they are a lot more like Ozzie and Sharon Osbourne. For those of you who don’t have children or grandchildren addicted to MTV, Ozzie Osbourne was the lead singer from a sixties band called Black Sabbath, and his current claim to fame is having a reality television show in which he, his wife, and his two very messed up kids shout cuss words at each other—at least when one of them is not on sabbatical from the show, and either in jail or drug rehab.
Okay, there is a range of options for family behavior between the extremes of the Osbournes and the Cleavers, but make no mistake: if you are looking at the family down the street and thinking they appear to be something right out of Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best, forget it! Every family has their fair share of problems, and in this day and age you can bet that the completely “together” guy you think is such a great dad spends as much time acting like Ozzie Osbourne as he does acting like Ozzie Nelson.
Families are messy things. I mean, when you hold that newborn baby in your arms for the first time, you envision him one day saying something like, “I do solemnly swear to uphold the office of the President of the United States.” And then he drops out of high school and he’s saying those words no parents want to hear their adult child ever say: “Would you like to super-size that for an extra 49 cents?”
And here’s the problem. Our children do not learn from our mistakes. You and I—we blundered our way through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, and we expect our children to have learned our lessons through some from of psychological osmosis. But it doesn’t work like that. We genetically pass on the tendency to make stupid mistakes, but we don’t pass on the lessons learned from making those mistakes. No matter how much we may deny it, no matter how sincerely we believe our little angels were created on a level that places them far above and beyond the mass of carbon-based life forms that occupy this planet, there is hard and simple fact that we cannot get around: our children are not angelic projections of our imaginations; they are human beings.
And to make matters worse, so are we! And no matter how much we wish it weren’t true, human beings are pretty messed up. We’ve been fighting with each other since the moment we evolved into homo-sapiens. Over the centuries we’ve managed to work together and build some wonderful civilizations, but it never fails—one civilization comes up against another we start killing each other. History’s winners are generally the groups that are able to devise the most sophisticated and efficient ways of killing large numbers of people.
We live in the greatest nation that has ever existed on this planet, but open a history book. Chapter 1, the Revolutionary War; Chapter 2, the Civil War; Chapter 3, World War I; Chapter 4, World War II; Korea, Vietnam; the Gulf; Iraq…
We human beings don’t have an easy time getting along with each other. And if we can’t resist fighting with people on the other side of the world—people we can for the most part ignore—how in the world can we keep from fighting with the people we see every day—the people we are cooped up with in the same house, day after day and year after year? Especially when they haven’t figured out how to learn from our mistakes, and when they are creating flame-broiled hamburgers instead of foreign policy?
The story of the prodigal son jumps right into the middle of these messy family dynamics, and not only provides a lesson for how families should act, but turns it into a metaphor for our relationship with God. Jesus amazes me. There was a reason he told stories. We can relate to them. They stick with us after the fact. And subconsciously, we are still at work on a story long after we’ve hidden it away in the recesses of our minds.
I said that most of us can identify with one of the characters in this story, and some of us can identify with all three characters. Most of us have at one time or another been the prodigal son. The word prodigal means wasteful, or recklessly extravagant. It is not easy to walk that fine line between being wasteful and being miserly. The lesson of the prodigal son isn’t that we should all turn into Ebenezer Scrooge. But we certainly should appreciate what we have, and we should use our resources wisely.
Most of us learned the importance of spending our money wisely early on. Growing up, my brother always pinched every penny three times. He saved his nickels and dimes and ended up buying something really cool. I, on the other hand, with a love of candy and comic books, could seldom hold onto a penny long enough for the shine to wear off. I learned my lesson over time, but it was a painful learning experience.
As we consider the prodigal son, though, we probably owe it to Jesus to dig a little deeper. It may be that we should be cautious with our inheritance, but I have a feeling that’s not the reason he told the story. It is easier for us to relate this story to money than to life itself, but when you think about it, we really do spend our lives, just like money. It’s so true we don’t even think about it. How often have we heard something like, “How did you spend your day?” Or how often have we said something like, “I spent the whole week painting the house.”
We spend our time. In fact, time is the greatest commodity we have. The gift of life is the gift of time. The way we spend our minutes; the way we spend our days; it matters! It is the most important matter in the world. What, other than the way we spend our time, could Jesus have been talking about when he said, in the Sermon on the Mount, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
While we should never be wasteful with our resources, Jesus obviously was trying to get us to anchor our lives on something other than our material possessions. And when we think of it that way, who among us has not been wasteful with our time? We have all squandered away more hours than we would want to admit.
This doesn’t mean we are all meant to start doing our impersonations of Mother Theresa. Our happiest moments are not wasted moments—they are the reason we are here! Jesus said that he wanted us to have abundant lives—abundant lives! Jesus does not ask us to be poor—only to be mindful of the poor. Jesus does not ask us to be sick—only to be mindful of the sick. Jesus does not ask us to be homeless—only to be mindful of the homeless. It is not a waste of time to take a vacation. It is not a waste of time to read a good book. It is not a waste of time to gather with family and friends and celebrate life.
It is a waste of time to spend our days in a frenzy of self-gratification. And isn’t that what the prodigal son does? He takes what he can out of life—his entire inheritance—and with no thought of anybody but himself, throws away everything he has trying to make himself happy.
But it doesn’t work. In fact, he winds up at the lowest point a first century Jew could possibly get: trying to survive by feeding pigs—the most unclean of animals—and wishing he could fill his empty stomach with the slop the pigs were eating.
I doubt if many of us have been as low as the prodigal son. But most of us can identify some time in our lives when we felt as low, and as lost, as the prodigal son. In the story, he is a lucky young man, because he has a forgiving father. Not everybody is as lucky in their family life. There are parents who treat their sons and daughters like trophies, and want nothing to do with them if they bring anything other than glory to the family name.
But it should come as no surprise that the father in Jesus’ story is a loving and forgiving father. And that’s what we would expect, since Jesus’ favorite word for God was “Father,” and the God Jesus proclaimed is a God of love and mercy.
There’s an old saying that claims, “What goes around comes around.” This is a down-to-earth rendition of the law of Karma. But there is truth in it. It is usually used to remind us that the evils we put out into the world will come back to haunt us. But it is also a good thing, because there is something wonderful built into the fabric of our world. We are given the chance to make amends for our mistakes. Sure, we get plenty of chances to play the prodigal son in life’s drama, but the day comes when we are given the opportunity to play the forgiving father. I hope we all remember our days as prodigal sons when it comes time to be the forgiving father.
And there is no need to look deeper at the father’s role in the story, other than to say the “Father” of Jesus is the father of us all, and we can be extremely thankful that the nature of our Father is love and mercy.
We have one character left to examine: the brother. This guy is frequently overlooked, but he shouldn’t be. Because as our lives unfold, most of us play the brother in this story, day after day, year after year. I have a lot of compassion for the brother. He is obedient to his father. He lives a good and faithful life. He works hard. He doesn’t make trouble. He earns what he gets in life.
Honestly, he reminds me of most of the people I know. He is very much like you and me. This is a person of strong character. He causes harm to nobody, he does not take what is not his, and he lives his life honestly trying to be a good person.
But when he sees somebody getting over on the system, it makes him mad. In the story, it is his brother who does not have to pay the price for his evil ways. Of course, Jesus tells us we are all brothers and sisters, so for you and me, the story is not confined to people who share the same parents. We get angry that we work hard and play by the rules, and on both ends of the economic spectrum there are those who aren’t pulling their weight. On one end is the multi-national corporation that uses legal loopholes to avoid paying taxes, and on the other end is the person who has learned how to play the welfare system, taking away from those truly in need, just because he doesn’t want to work.
And you know what bugs us? You know what drives people like you and me crazy, both over the billionaire who stashes his cash in the Bahamas and the guy who would rather sleep ‘til noon than get a job? God loves both of them! In fact, God loves both of them just as much as God loves those of us who work hard, and pay our fair share of taxes, and go to church, and try to play by the rules.
It’s not fair. Really. We want God to forgive everybody that has sinned as much as you and me, but not those who have sinned more. We want God to draw the line between the loved and the rejected back there, just a ways, just far enough to make sure you and I are safely in, and those folks who don’t play by the rules are out.
That’s not the way God works. In the words of one of my favorite theologians (Capon), heaven and hell are both filled with forgiven sinners. The only difference is that the people in hell don’t want God’s forgiveness. We are all prodigal sons and daughters. But some people just won’t turn back to God. When we do, it doesn’t matter if we’ve been the prodigal son living among pigs, or the selfish executive who lives for self-enrichment, or the guy who would rather sleep all day than work. When we start walking back toward God, God knows. The story says it best: …while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
It’s really not fair. Thank God.