One day when many tax collectors and other outcasts came to listen to Jesus, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law started grumbling, “This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!” So Jesus told them this parable:
“There was once a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to him, ‘Father, give me my share of the property now.’ So the man divided his property between his two sons. 13 After a few days the younger son sold his part of the property and left home with the money. He went to a country far away, where he wasted his money in reckless living. 14 He spent everything he had. Then a severe famine spread over that country, and he was left without a thing. 15 So he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him out to his farm to take care of the pigs. 16 He wished he could fill himself with the bean pods the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything to eat. 17 At last he came to his senses and said, ‘All my father’s hired workers have more than they can eat, and here I am about to starve! 18 I will get up and go to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. 19 I am no longer fit to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired workers.”’ 20 So he got up and started back to his father.
“He was still a long way from home when his father saw him; his heart was filled with pity, and he ran, threw his arms around his son, and kissed him. 21 ‘Father,’ the son said, ‘I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’ 22 But the father called to his servants. ‘Hurry!’ he said. ‘Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. 23 Then go and get the prize calf and kill it, and let us celebrate with a feast! 24 For this son of mine was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’ And so the feasting began.
25 “In the meantime the older son was out in the field. On his way back, when he came close to the house, he heard the music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him, ‘What’s going on?’ 27 ‘Your brother has come back home,’ the servant answered, ‘and your father has killed the prize calf, because he got him back safe and sound.’ 28 The older brother was so angry that he would not go into the house; so his father came out and begged him to come in. 29 But he spoke back to his father, ‘Look, all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never disobeyed your orders. What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! 30 But this son of yours wasted all your property on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him!’ 31 ‘My son,’ the father answered, ‘you are always here with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be happy, because your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’” (GNT – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
I suspect you’ve heard that story before – the “Prodigal Son.” Did you hear the word “prodigal” in the reading? Nope. That’s a 16th century word that the writers of the King James Bible used. It means “wastefully extravagant.” Prodigal is an antique word, but it’s got a meaning we understand pretty easily: Out of control and with resources. And separated – the separated one who comes home. You could substitute the word daughter – gender doesn’t really matter here. It’s another story that makes me love scripture – we understood exactly what Jesus was saying. How many movies have you seen with this theme? The separated one comes home. For that matter, this could be a prodigal father or mother.
I think we know that if we’re being honest, we all have had a “prodigal” in the family or maybe you have been one yourself. In Southeastern Pennsylvania, they know the Amish word Rumshpringa – a tolerated time during teenage years when young people defy the expectations of parents and explore the world. Most of the time, they come back. Sometimes not.
Let’s stop for a moment and remember what starts Jesus telling this story in the first place.
One day when many tax collectors and other outcasts came to listen to Jesus, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law (religious leaders) started grumbling, “This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!” (Luke 15:1-2)
Jesus eats with people who have bad reputations. Jesus works on personal friendships with people who are on the outside of his religious world. Goes out of his way to have dinner with them. He hangs out with people who don’t present the right image to proper society. And he did it regularly. I don’t think you have to work too hard to translate this to today, to now. This man welcomes outcasts.
There have been lots of prodigals; maybe you’ve known one. The people of the early 1600’s in Europe might have had this kind of image in mind….
This painting is by Rembrandt, the famous Dutch artist, early in his career. This is his version of the younger son being prodigal. I think that also is pretty easy to translate that to today. Whatever image you apply to this guy being a “party animal,” or wastefully extravagant, it works. And we say, “Tsk, tsk.” By the way, he looks a lot like Rembrandt. Hold that thought. The Prodigal Son was one of Rembrandt’s favorite subjects, and he can help us understand what Jesus is talking about.
So Jesus is telling this story, probably over dinner at somebody’s house. There are these people standing against the wall with their arms folded: The scribes and Pharisees – the professional religious tradition-keepers of the time. Maybe they are just outside the door so that they don’t have to be in the same room. These are people who always try to do the “right thing,” especially on the Sabbath. They know how things in the temple are supposed to be done, and they know how we all should live, thank you very much, because they are experts in the Jewish law. That might be a little harsh. They’re just doing the best they can to keep order, something I think we all appreciate, and Jesus keeps coloring outside the lines.
“This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!”
He eats with people who don’t follow the Jewish laws or who aren’t Jewish at all, and as a community leader, he sets the wrong example. What he’s doing can only create division and hard feelings. But Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing, even if it’s testing the boiling point of the religious people.
Jesus looks at somebody like that prodigal and loves him. He sees how empty that guy’s life really is. He is on a search for people who need an inner makeover, and people who need the soul makeover aren’t hard to find. It’s so easy to find stories about somebody who’s hit rock bottom. These days we can’t get away from stories of people who lost it all. Or people who have everything, but can’t find meaning in life.
Maybe you can find yourself in this story. Look for the issues of trust here…
The Father. He’s tolerant and generous. He’s loving at his own expense, maybe too loving. He’s consistent with both his kids and gives them both the space to make mistakes. Obviously, he’s the God-figure in the story, allowing for plenty of free will. He has endured the pain of his younger son saying to him, in essence, give me the inheritance; you are as good as dead to me. I’m leaving. Can the father be trusted. Yes, but… he will love in an absurd, ridiculous way. He will love generously. He doesn’t care where his son has been on life’s journey, even if everybody else would throw him away.
The Older Son. He does everything he’s supposed to. He’s the typical first child. He’s the one who stayed home and took care of everything, worked hard, and never gave his father a problem. Somehow, he knows what his brother’s been up to even though he’s in another country. He’s responsible, but he’s also got harsh opinions. He looks out for himself and can’t bring himself to forgive his brother. He makes sure his father knows what a loser his brother is. Can he be trusted? Yes, but… he has his own issues that might make his relationships a little difficult.
The Younger Son. It’s so easy to put yourself in the place of the Prodigal Son. Who hasn’t come to a point at one time or another when the world seemed to be falling apart, or known someone who has had that experience, or is having that experience right now?
Far away from home with most of your options gone. Full of regret. It’s no accident that Jesus says he ends up feeding pigs. To a Jew, this means he’s working for a Gentile who raises forbidden food. He isn’t just poor, he is literally at the lowest level of the Jewish food chain. These are the consequences of his choices. But he comes home. He will need to talk through his issues. Maybe join a 12-step program. In the end he will need to forgive himself, let himself off the hook. He will need to rebuild trust with family and friends, and learn to trust himself again, and that only comes with time.
I have to admit, I’m a sucker for any moment on TV that involves a reunion:
~ Soldiers coming home from overseas and showing up at their kids’ school.
~ That moment in the weight-loss show when someone gets back together with family and friends after losing 100 pounds.
~ Any show with long-lost relatives. Family members who might have been unknown to each other for many years find a way to come together.
And I need Kleenex. There is this overwhelming emotion wrapped around that moment when it feels like some huge incompleteness has been made whole, and it was nothing short of a miracle.
God wants that moment with you. And with me. God went on an all-out search to find us, and Jesus makes it possible for us to have that reunion with God. That is what the cross and the empty tomb is all about.
Every time I hear this story, I see that younger brother coming over the top of the last hill on the way to the family farm. The father can only see a silhouette, but he knows who it is just by the way he walks. He drops whatever he’s holding and runs down the road to meet him and the son collapses in his arms.
Then I see Rembrandt again, I mean Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son 30 years later. He painted this version of the “Prodigal Son” in the last TWO years of his life (1668-69). The son is on his knees and his father stands over him with his arms wrapped around him. The expression on his face says that he’s not just glad to have his son home; he feels all the pain that his son feels. It’s night, and these two people are lost in their embrace. They ignore the judgmental people standing over them. The mother, the older son, and this other guy whom some think is the father’s accountant.
By this time, in some ways, Rembrandt had been the Prodigal. He had lived beyond his means, made some poor choices, and was living the consequences.
More than any other painting, “The Prodigal Son Returns” is about him. He is beaten, he is broken. Rembrandt is pouring himself out on the canvas. Rembrandt needs that embrace God wants to give to each of us.
The French priest Henri Nouwen was so affected by this painting, that he sat in front of it in a Russian museum for several days, then wrote a book about it. He said…
Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.
[Henri J. M. Nouwen (1992-04-01). The return of the prodigal son: a meditation on fathers, brothers, and sons. Doubleday Books. ISBN 978-0-385-41867-6. http://books.google.com/?id=b11CPgAACAAJ.]
Something that bothers me is that Jesus doesn’t try to describe what happens next. Does the older brother ever join the party? Does the younger brother mess up again? Which brother is the one who was lost?
His point was to show with this story, God’s deepest desire to embrace the fallen. He gave this little picture, this story, to show that God’s grace, God’s love, is amazing, beyond logic. His hope was that his followers would catch that vision. ‘This man welcomes outcasts/sinners and eats with them.’
God will show us where to build bridges among ourselves and who needs a tolerant welcome in our church. It is possible that our reputation should be: On behalf of the Christ we serve, we are people welcome outcasts and sinners. I have seen a sign in front of a church building that simply says, “Come Home.”
God, you are building bridges to us and between us. Through your Spirit, give us the courage to step over that bridge to you. O God, you have been kind to us so often, and we find ourselves taking your kindness and love for granted. When we drift away, you are worried about us, and you wait for us to come home. You’re patient; you let us learn what life is like without you. This is a good day to remember you love us as a father – with firm expectations and a firm hug. Now deepen our faith and help us teach our community how to love and forgive, and step across bridges to each other. Amen.