Watch the video of this teaching here.
The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is one of the best stories Jesus ever weaved. Jesus crafted stories like this one because they got people thinking and talking, which meant they likely grew. Behold the masterpiece:
“A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.
“A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.
“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’
“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’
“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on. ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’
“The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’
“His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”
What is your first take-home from this story – what’s the point? Are there any particular parts of the story that jump out at you? Why might that be?
Some notes that might help you appreciate the depths of the parable…
· According to Jewish custom at that time, the younger son would get only half as much as the older son in the story.
· Asking for his inheritance in advance was tantamount to telling his dad he wished he were dead, or “#@%& off!” It was probably the most offensive thing imaginable, and Jesus’ audience would have certainly gasped.
· If Jesus’ audience didn’t gasp at the son’s request, they surely would have at the response of the father. Nobody in the crowd would have expected the father to give the son a dime. More likely, they would have expected him to kick the brat out of the house. What the father did was unheard of.
· Everybody’s opinion of the son would have gotten even lower upon hearing what a louse he was with the money. As their opinion of him sunk, their sympathy for the father soared: what a painful, embarrassing slap in the face. Way to make your daddy proud…
· The son’s fate could not have been worse - or more deserved. Losing everything, he was serving pigs – an unclean animal in Jewish law. The fact that he wasn’t even eating as well as them highlights the depths of his despair.
· Apparently, none of the locals were impressed with him, either, since none of them offered him assistance. Perhaps they were a disgusted with him as his hometown crowd.
· The son’s waking up to his reality was the first step toward healing. He recognized that his choices were against the flow of God, and that he had hurt his father, too. Humiliated, he lost any hope of retaining his title. He was truly humbled, and finally humble.
· The fact that his father recognized him from a distance indicates that his love never faded – we can imagine him looking to the horizon throughout the day, hoping to see his son again.
· The evidence that he was filled with love and compassion is that he ran. In Jesus’ culture, elderly, stately men didn’t run. To do so would have been another cause for gasp – how embarrassing! But like a dog who hasn’t seen it’s master for a while (or sometimes five minutes), the father can’t hold his excitement. His love was bigger than his disappointment and grieving.
· The father didn’t give the son a chance to ask for a job – he was too busy reinstating him as “son.” The ring he slid on his finger was likely his signet ring, with which he conducted business. This was a full-on gesture of power returned, including access to his checking account. The younger son could, if he wanted, help himself to his father’s treasure all over again.
· The celebration was one for the record books. This was truly a thanksgiving banquet, and the community was invited. However prodigiously the son blew his money, the father was ever more prodigious in doling out cash for the party. Everybody was going to eat well that night. Everybody who wanted to celebrate, that is.
· The older brother got the news with no embellishment. Instead of rejoicing, however, he was angry, refusing to go in, which, in and of itself, was an act of great disrespect to his father.
· The father begged him to come in. Again, shockingly out of character for a man of his stature.
· The forthcoming vitriolic verbal assault on his father is shocking as well. The older brother had been carrying bitterness and hatred since the brother left. He didn’t view staying home as a great benefit, but may have thought his younger sibling got away with something glorious (which he therefore missed out on). We also get a glimpse on how he perceived his relationship with his father, and his opinion of his father – a stingy slave master. His words were as deeply cutting as his younger brother’s.
· The father’s response, yet again, is shocking. Jesus’ audience would have expected a father to put such an insolent son in his place – perhaps kicking him to the curb. Instead, the father treats him gently, with loving words – “dear son” – and reminds his son that he has his whole estate at his disposal. He tries to wake him out of his stupor, celebrating the fact that his son who had been dead to him was back among the living, something the older brother cannot appreciate due to his prideful hatred.
· We can only presume that the father went back inside to rejoin the celebration. We are left to speculate as to whether or not the older brother decided to have his own lame pity party or get in on the better one inside.
We’re all younger sons of God. It takes us a long time to admit where we have messed up, and longer to realize the source of our decision and the wake of wreckage our decisions have created. That’s how pride works. We think primarily about our perspective, our needs and wants, with much less thought about how our wishes impact those around us. We fail to recognize that we are connected to the whole. We are not isolated solo acts performing our way through life on the world’s stage. We are members of a chorus singing together. When we are full of ourselves, however, we truly stand out: off key, out of rhythm, wrong words, maybe even the wrong song! Everybody sees and hears except us. When we finally wake up, we realize our mistakes ultimately did more than hurt ourselves – they hurt the created order. That’s why it was an offense against heaven. To recognize that indicates that the son truly understood the depths of what was happening. This is the start of true repentance. Here are some popular ways we live out our younger brotherness:
· When a porn user realizes he has perpetuated trafficking with his clicks, has added to the voice that objectifies women, has hurt his personal capacity to love others, and has encouraged more of the same, he is on the right track. When he thinks it’s no big deal but should probably stop, he’s nowhere hear repentance. It offends heaven because the people on the screen or page are also created in the image of God, and yet they’re being exploited for our pleasure from a distance – it is abuse. Of course, we’re sinning against the objects of our lust, too, by consigning them to such a role.
· Or a person struggling with substance addiction can’t see beyond their nose, thinking that it’s under control, they can stop any time, and only affects themselves, they’re nowhere near recovery. The first step is to admit that we have a problem. Those closest to the addict are fully aware of the problem, of course, and have scar tissue to prove it. This is a sin against heaven because we are blaspheming the breath of God with our lives with every shot and messing with the whole story because we can’t do our part. And, of course, we hurt lots of people along the way.
· Or a person who has bought the lie that they are self-made, and that every luxury they enjoy is because of their hard work. Everybody could be as successful if they worked as hard, therefore if others don’t have it, they just haven’t worked hard enough for it. This leads to self-indulgent behavior and stinginess toward those in need. They fail to realize that they did not choose all the variables into which they were born, while others – most – in the world are born into circumstances that make it nearly impossible to succeed. Their arrogance offends heaven because it neglects the needs of others who really do need help. And it is a sin against the poor and hungry around the world who suffer while we gorge.
How are you like the younger brother? Have you come to your senses yet or are you still living in the pig pen?
We are all older brothers now and then. Whereas the younger brother was prodigious with his reckless lifestyle, the older brother was equally prodigious when it came to brooding. This is tougher to recognize, of course, but certainly exists today. His was a failure to recognize what he had all along, living on assumptions about his fathers’ character that were untrue and undoubtedly damaging to their relationship. His hatred toward his brother even while he surely noticed his father’s longing for his return likely consumed him. He wished his brother stayed dead, and was perhaps frustrated that his father didn’t share his frustration. The awful reality is that the older brother missed out on life the whole time his younger brother was gone, and was still missing out – all due to his pride. Here are some examples of how we play out this role…
· Family dynamics are messy. Hint: we all come from dysfunctional families. We may see the dysfunction clearly and/or read things into our experience that make us angry. Perhaps we feel there has been favoritism. Or maybe we’re sick and tired of our birth-order reality playing out year after year after year – when will I ever not be the baby brother;)? Or maybe we’re stuck in arguments that have lasted a lifetime and we can’t stand it anymore. Our resentment grows and grows, a wound we nurse along for decades. We don’t realize that we are offending heaven at that point. We are not being who we are created to be, we are stinking up the air space wherever we go, and we are contagious. Not at all what we were created for. And, of course, we are offending others with our thinly-veiled disdain.
· Perhaps we feel maligned by someone, and it feels unjust. We didn’t get the promotion. We didn’t get the bonus. We didn’t get the recognition we thought we deserved. We weren’t loved the way we wanted to be loved. We got sick while others stayed well. We stayed stuck while others thrived. We see the inequities in life and feel cheated. Life isn’t fair. We get grumpy and bitter. We stink up the elevator, offending everyone in the process. We hurt ourselves and others and the purposes of heaven, too.
· Maybe we feel angry at large swaths of people. Democrats. Republicans. Muslims. Undocumented immigrants. African Americans. Police. The 1%. Wall Street. Washington. White people. Evangelicals. LGBTQ community. NRA. And that’s just me! Just kidding… We hear reports (rarely good ones) that reinforce our poor opinions and our anger grows. We can’t stand them. We loathe them. They are the problem. They are the reason we are not happy. They become less than human over time as our hatred clouds our vision and hardens our hearts. We become the older brother – sometimes we’re taught, sometimes it’s caught. But we kind of wish they were dead. We offend heaven because we are equally created in the image of God and therefore have intrinsic value. Our hatred severely limits our capacity to thrive as we are created to do. And, of course, we offend the object of our hatred and those who like them.
How are you like the older brother? Have you come to your senses yet, or are you still brooding in the cold while the party grows inside?
The father in the story is, of course, the hero, and certainly represents God. The shocking truth about God according to Jesus in this parable is that at every turn, when we expect the father to by like us, he isn’t. When the father is horribly disrespected, when the ingrate returns home, when the older son can’t get over himself – our gut reaction is probably not as graceful as Dad’s. Instead of removing him from the will, the father gives freedom enough to allow the younger son to walk away (even though it must have killed him). Instead of making the returning son beg for forgiveness, he lavishes grace and restoration before he can ask for it. Then he blows a ton of cash on a party! Instead of getting bent out of shape at his older son’s obstinate behavior, he begs him to join the party. Instead of returning verbal blows after his older son’s assault, he gently tries to help him see reality in all of its beauty. Here are some examples of how the father still does this today…
The father doesn’t curse us. We walk away from God (circle one) weekly/daily/hourly/already gone. God gives us the freedom to take everything we have been created to be and do what we want with it. Sure, God’s love compels God to direct us and encourage us in the direction of Shalom, but it’s our choice in the end.
· When we make poor choices that hurt the cosmos, ourselves, and others, God still loves us, looking for us on the horizon.
· When we come to our senses and come home to all that God is and offers, we are met with a rush of the Spirit to restore us in every way, fully, so that we might thrive. All of the resources of God are at our disposal in that signet ring. We are not second-class citizens in God’s eyes. We are resurrected kids with a new look and new license.
· When we miss the party because of our hatred, God comes alongside us with love and grace, hoping to woo us back into the community of life. God longs for us to be part of the warmth of the family and friends – not left out in the cold. The invitation to come home is ever-present and unending. We will always be encouraged and welcomed into the grace-filled celebration, no matter what we say, or how ugly our attitude – the invitation to resurrection persists for older brothers just as much as it was for the younger.
How have you responded to this God of grace?
As people who strive to follow in the footsteps of Jesus (who was striving to walk aligned with God), how are you reflecting the father character in this story? Who are the younger brothers in your life who need you to be graceful as they wake up to the reality of their life choices? Who are the older brothers in your life who need to be gracefully and lovingly and gently encouraged to wake up to their choices? How can you provide the celebration of grace for all to enjoy?
You get to do this awesome stuff. So do it.
The God Who Yearns and Waits for Us – Walter Brueggemann
We are strange conundrums of faithfulness and fickleness.
We cleave to you in all the ways that we are able.
We count on you and intend our lives to be lived for you,
and then we find ourselves among your people
who are always seeking elsewhere and otherwise.
So we give thanks that you are God
Who yearns and waits for us,
And that our connection to you is always from your side,
And that it is because of your goodness
That neither life nor death
Nor angels nor principalities
Nor heights nor depths
Nor anything in creation
Can separate us from you.
We give you thanks for your faithfulness,
So much more durable than ours. Amen.