Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 Lent 4C
When I was about eleven years old, the daughter of a friend of my mother’s ran away from home. It was a typical, though heartbreaking story. Abusive older boyfriend, strained relations within the family, assorted illegal activity including drug abuse. There were months of worrying, handwringing, second guessing, anger and frustration followed by despair. Finally, the daughter came home and everyone celebrated! I remember my mother being so happy for her friend. Thank God Thank God she said! What good fortune that her daughter has come home!
I was angry. Quite angry actually. Oh, she’d come home alright. When she ran out of money and her boyfriend left her on the side of the road somewhere. I remember saying to my mother—you are the one with good fortune to have a daughter like me who is good! You never really give me credit for being a good kid because I’d never do anything like that! You do not know how lucky you are to have gotten a kid like me! Oh, I am lucky, she told me, but not because you’re good. I’m lucky because you are mine.
Well, that was sweet. But I was still mad.
You can see why I would identify with the brother of the prodigal son can’t you? I imagine a lot of us feel like that from time to time. And then we can hear those words from the beginning of our worship service: if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Hmmmm.
The story of the prodigal son is one of the most recognizable and beloved parables of Jesus. It is an allegorical story that shows us our relationship with God, reminding us of our unearned love from God. God’s amazing grace.
I once participated in a bible study that used this parable as its focus and it really helped to put this story into a new light. Several new lights actually. It was led by a Lutheran biblical scholar who has taught Christians around the world and he used this particular parable of the prodigal son to study the different ways we all read and perceive scripture. He asked three questions about the story and compared the answers from his students in this country, in Russia and in some African countries.
The questions were: What was the sin of the younger son? Why was he hungry? What is the point of the story?
First, what was the sin of the younger son? Most of the American biblical studies students answered in a way with which we may be quite familiar: he squandered his money on prostitutes and loose living. Some emphasized that the wastefulness was particularly heinous because it was his inheritance; the money his father had worked for and had given him. The younger son had not had to work for that money, it was a free gift and he just wasted it like a little spoiled brat! Others emphasized the prostitutes and risky lifestyle the son had adopted when he left home.
When the professor asked his Russian students, their response was probably something we would not have considered. The sin of the younger son was leaving the family farm. For a son to leave and take his share without having a family as a good reason to leave was nearly unthinkable. His labor would have been needed at home as would the resources he took with him. To abandon the responsibility he had to them was a great sin.
The African students were similar to the Russians with a little twist. His sin was leaving the family to go off on his own. Going off alone is not only risky, it’s irresponsible. It would also have been disrespectful for a younger son to ask for his inheritance before the father was ready to give it. Abandoning the family is a disgraceful thing to do and to do it purely out of selfish desire to be independent as the younger son did was nearly unforgivable. Plus, he went to live, not just in the next village with other family, he went to a distant land where he knew no one. It was likely a bad and evil place he was choosing as his new home, especially based on what happened next.
Why was he hungry? Well, the Americans return again to the underlying economic situation. This answer will likely seem familiar to us as well. He was hungry because he’d spent all his money on prostitutes and loose living. This was only further illustration of his sinfulness because if he’d been wise he would have saved at least some money and wouldn’t have been hungry but, because he was in a full blown sin-fest, he had lost everything!
The answer that the Russian students gave was a complete surprise. He was hungry because there was a famine. Now, I’ve taught bible studies on the parable of the prodigal son many times and cannot even count the number of times I’ve read the text and even translated it from the original Greek. But it had just never registered to me that there was a famine in the land. But there it was, it says so right there. There was a famine in the land. He was hungry not because of anything he did but because everyone was hungry. Because famines come. Because bad times happen to everyone no matter what. It was not his sin, it was life.
Well, if the Russian students’ answer was a surprise, all the more so was the answer from the African students. The younger son was hungry because no one would give him anything to eat. Have you ever noticed that part in the story? I hadn’t really. But very clearly it says: he would gladly have eaten the pigs’ food but no one gave him anything to eat. It was clear evidence that he had gone to live in a terrible, evil place because who would not give a hungry young man a meal to eat? Wasn’t there someone somewhere that would show him the kindness that was supposed to be automatic? The son had chosen to live in such an evil place that there was not one single person with the kindness to even give him a bite of food. They would rather feed their animals than help him.
So, what is the parable really about? What is, so to speak, the moral of the story?
For the American students, the answer was what I would guess all of us have heard most of our lives about this parable in one way or another. When the younger son realizes that he’s sinned terribly with his squandering of all the money on wine women and song, he comes home with a contrite heart, ready to beg forgiveness and the father receives him joyously. Return with humility, recognize your sin and confess and, when you do, God will forgive you and all will be well! God will be glad to take you back!
The Russian students said that the moral of the parable was that you are better off in your group and you can always return to it. Life is better, happier, survival chances are a lot better, and you are wiser when you all work together. God wants to welcome you back to the group and will always accept you back into the home. We might hear this at first and, with our love of individuality, not really understand. We might be tempted to reject this idea out of hand, perhaps even think of this as a secular and not religious or spiritual idea, but there is something important here about the church and the ability to grow and sustain our faith together more easily than alone. When the younger son was alone he was more vulnerable to both poor ethical choices and to real physical danger, but with a community around him, he was both safer and stronger. So it is with the church, too. It is easier to make good choices when we have others around us who also make good choices. Our faith grows stronger when we are able to build one another up in prayer, study and fellowship.
The African students had another perspective altogether on the meaning of the story. When you are lost, they said, God will always find you. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? I do not remember there being a search party in this story. Do you? There is no mention of anything like that. However, twice the father uses these words: he was lost and now is found. These words are the cause of the celebration! Not the repentance that the son plans to express by falling to his knees and begging his father’s mercy. The father never even knows what the son wishes to say before he is already in a dead run to get him. In fact, he never seems to even acknowledge his son’s words. He gives the instruction to kill the fatted calf, to eat and celebrate and says “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found!” To the older son, who is frustrated by the entire situation the father says “we have to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life. He was lost and has been found.”
The parable of the prodigal son is in a set of three parables told by Jesus in response to the harsh, grumbling criticism by the Pharisees of his associating with sinners. They are all about lost things. Lost sheep—the shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to retrieve the one who his lost. Lost coin—the woman who searches diligently for her one lost coin and then calls all her neighbors in celebration that she has found it. And this story, the lost son.
Regardless of all the differences in the cultural perceptions of this story and the many things we can learn about our own conclusions regarding what we assume about this story, it is ultimately about a son who had been lost to his family and has been recovered. Jesus does not call this the story of the Prodigal Son, we do. Prodigal means financially wasteful, living beyond one’s financial means. Jesus never uses this word. He never seems to make the story about being financially frivolous, running away from home, or taking the inheritance before the father was read. He seems to make it about the son who has been lost, being joyfully received home again! Because in the end, that’s what this story is about; not wasting money or abandoning family, famines or farmland, but about being lost and being found and the immense grace received regardless of the reason for being lost in the first place.
This story might be just a little hard for us to think about because we are all like the older son at some time or another. Or at least we perceive ourselves to be like him. If we are honest we may not want God to be like that forgiving father. We do not want those who do not deserve it to get a celebration; we do not want those who haven’t earned it to get attention and love. We want to think that the younger son’s seeing the error of his ways, regardless of exactly what that error was, and falling on his knees is the minimum requirement for coming back to work as a farm hand. We want to see justice. We want to be the ones with the reward for being good. It seems only fair.
But this parable isn’t about our justice or our idea about what is fair. It is about God’s idea of love. And this, regardless of how unfair it might appear from the older son’s perspective, is really good news for us all. No matter how much we may think that we are like the older son, there is always a piece of the younger son in everyone. It is that simultaneously saint and sinner thing that Luther talked about. There is always a part of us that is a runaway, that makes poor choices, that abandons and breaks the hearts of those who love us; there are always, throughout our lives, times when we make a choice that ends up not being the best one. This is the story of the lost son because the important thing in the story is not what the younger son does or does not do, it is about what the father does. It is about the father running to his son not because of prostitutes or famines or starvation or bad people in bad places or feelings of shame or anything else in all the world but love.
It is about my mother saying she believed she was lucky simply because I was her child. It is about God’s amazing grace that never ceases to look for us, to run down the road to find us and welcome us home.