"Parable of the Prodigal Son" -- Sermon for 20 June 2010

Prodigal Son 3Image via Wikipedia
Text:  Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

We are well into our summer sermon series, looking at the parables of Jesus.  Part of the premise of this series is that stories are one of the main ways we learn and share and relate with one another.  When children are first learning concepts, it is often through storybooks.  When persons are welcomed into a family, there are a whole bunch of stories that come with them.   From great novels to family histories, from totem poles to Sunday School lessons we are a people who are shaped and taught and defined through the stories that we share with one another.

Stories have been a big part of my ten years here at Girdwood Chapel.  Now, part of it is because I truly believe, theologically, that this is how we most learn.  But, more, there have been some great stories.

One of my favorites, and I’ve told it many times (which is the way it works with stories), is the story of why children get a big piece of bread at Holy Communion.   It was shortly after I got here that, during communion one week, little Jack B_____ was extra hungry when it came time for the bread and juice.  So, Jack came up for communion along with his family.  He received.  And sat down.  And after having eaten his bread he decided that he wanted more.  So he came up a second time…got handed bread and juice…and sat down.  And when he had finished, he wanted more.  So he came back a third time.  And it was funny.  And Jack was well fed that day.

The following week, when it came time for communion, I thought I’d be proactive.  When Jack came forward I gave him a big piece.  And that was enough.

However, when other kids saw that Jack got a big piece of that warm, wonderful Bake Shop bread we have at our second service, they wanted a big piece as well.  So they asked.  And, to this day, I try to give kids some big pieces, and I’m partial to those who ask nicely for a big piece.  And, to close out this story like I do when I tell it, “The world would be a better place if we all knew we needed a big piece of Jesus!”

See, that’s not just a story about Jack and bread.  It’s a story about childhood innocence, about the wonder of Holy Communion, of the Bread of Life, and the importance of Communion in this place.  And, I hope, that by telling it, each time you remember that.

Jesus knows that we learn through stories.  Therefore, about a third of what he spoke to us was in the form of parables; stories with a point.  Sometimes, just like the stories we know from our lives, we can tell them or hear them so often that we fail to catch their meaning.  We fail to get the point because we fail to be surprised by it.   “Yes, we know, the tortoise wins the race.”  “Yes, we know, don’t cry ‘wolf’ or people won’t believe you.”  “Yes, we know, the prodigal son is welcomed back by his loving father.”

The parable we’re looking at today, The Parable of the Prodigal Son, is one of those that we can be so familiar with that we fail to be surprised by it.  It probably ranks up there with the Parable of Good Samaritan in that regard.

Barbara Brown Taylor, a wonderful Christian author and preacher, I think gets at the heart of the issue in an article called “Table Manners” that appeared in Christian Century a little over a decade ago.  I’m adapting the next bit from that article.  She has a wonderful illustration to start this off.

Taylor says that, in the Middle East, particularly in Jesus’ day, there was no fast food and family suppers with the NBA finals on.  What you ate was a serious matter.  Whom you ate with was a serious matter.  And, more than other persons, it was a serious matter to the Jews.  It was religious.  There was etiquette. There were rules.  Cleanliness was not just next to Godliness but was, in fact, integral to Godliness.

And Jesus, well, he really upset people by how he ate.  He wasn’t terribly picky about the food. He didn’t seem to take all the ceremony very seriously.  And, he ate with all the wrong people; people who were dirty and sick and obviously cared nothing about God.

Says Taylor:

People saw him eating and they knew who he was: someone who had lost all sense of what was right, who condoned sin by eating with sinners and who might as well have spit in the faces of the good people who raised him.

So how in the world do we get a sense of just how offensive Jesus’ eating habits were.  Let’s think up just about the worst table that could be imagined at one of our local dining establishments…you know, a crowd that would make people really think Jesus cared not a bit for the people that had so wonderfully tried to raise him right.

Seated at that table might be an abortion doctor, a child molester (we’re starting big), a convict, someone with ties to a terrorist organization, a person with AIDS, an illegal immigrant (country of origin unknown), a drunk, and an unmarried woman on welfare who has five kids to, she thinks, three different fathers…although she could be mistaken.  That should about do it.  We’re just trying to get at just how socially unacceptable Jesus’ tablemates were.

But more, there’s Jesus there, at the head of the table, the seat facing the door, and he’s asking the convict to pass the Tabasco and is pouring the drunk another cup of coffee.  There’s no sermon.  There’s no, “I told you so.”   There’s no Bible throwing or any pause in the conversation to “pray for the sinners to repent.”  He’s just eating with them.  He’s laughing.  He actually seems to enjoy their company.

Most of us would be hiding our kids from this lot.  We’d send e-mails around town telling people to beware of how far Jesus has fallen. And, when the local Bible study concludes for the evening and the class shows up at the same restaurant, they stay clear of them as well.  They all wash their hand before they sit down and they all hold hands to pray before they begin eating.  But you could hear and see them slurp their soup as they peer over their bowls at the lowlifes across the room.  But the worst part of the whole scene, at least in their eyes, is that Jesus is right there with them.  Doesn’t he know WHO HE IS?  Doesn’t he know WHO THEY ARE?  Doesn’t he know what kind of RELIGIOUS MESSAGE THIS IS SENDING?  Who eats with THOSE PEOPLE?

I know this seems a long way from that nice, wholesome story of the Prodigal Son which gives hope to any who wander and has the power to make us feel all warm and cuddly inside when we think of the love and grace of our fathers or the other positive male role-models in our lives on this, our Father’s Day.  But it’s important for you to get a sense of how difficult that whole dining scene is, and how offensive it could be, and how unnerving.    Because, says Luke 15:1-2:

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

And what follows is the explanation of the religious message that he’s sending.  First, “The Parable of the Lost Sheep” where, when one is lost, the shepherd goes out of his way, leaving his other ninety-nine to find the one lost one.  Second, “The Parable of the Lost Coin” where, when a woman loses one silver coin she’ll turn the house upside down until she finds it and will have a big party and invite her friends.  For, that is the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.  Third, our parable for today.

Two things are of utmost importance as we relate this parable to the lesson to be learned in Jesus’ table fellowship.  First, is the extreme fallenness of the lost son and second is the extreme graciousness of the father.  “Prodigal” means “wastefully or recklessly extravagant.”  The “Prodigal Son” is a prodigal in the story in that he is wasteful with inheritance.  The father, is a prodigal in the story in that he is extravagant in his love and grace, offering it to someone who doesn’t deserve it.

This parable is called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  But some other names for it may get closer to the meaning behind what’s going on:  “The Parable of the Waiting Father,” “The Parable of the a Father’s Love,” or (hardest to fit on a church sign) “The Parable of the Compassionate Father and His Two Lost Sons.”  (Whew!)

Regardless, as the story is told, throughout history many persons have seen the elder son as representing the Jews or the outwardly just person.  He would be “the religious folk.”  Dutiful.  Plays by the rules.  In proper relation to the Father.  And mad as all get-out that Jesus could be hanging around with persons who were so clearly outside the realm of “HOLY.”

And the younger son…well the younger son for much of history has been seen as representing the Gentiles or the sinners.  He would be those, “outside of church.”  The ones whom God should judge for their actions or their beliefs or the way they dress or the church they go to.  That younger son…well…he could be any of those wonderfully sinful folks we put around the local table hanging out with Jesus.

And the Father.  Well, he’s God.

At least that seems to be most of the traditional understandings of this passage.

And we’re familiar with it.

A son goes to his father and makes an unusual request.  “Give me my half of the inheritance and I’m going to strike out on my own.”  Such a request would have meant a few things.  First, this is something that was rightfully his at his father’s death and, merely, by asking some have posited that he’s telling his father to drop dead.  Secondly, this is something that would have been an offense to the whole community.  “ This son was breaking commandment number 5…that whole “honor your father and mother one.”  Now there was a whole community that might have wanted that boy’s head on a platter.

And, we know, the father divided the property between them.  According to Snodgrass’ Stories With Intent, Luke 15:12 literally says, “He divided to them the life.”  This was his father’s life; that which would sustain him in his old age.  And when the younger son left, he was, essentially, killing off his father. (131)

And we’re familiar with what happens.  He goes off to a far away country and squanders it on loose living.  He wastes.  He’s prodigal. Until he has nothing.  And then, while slopping with some pigs, he decides to go back to his father’s house.  Is he really sorry?  Is he just really hungry?  Does he know if he’ll be welcomed back?  Will the whole community be out to get him?

And he goes back.  And, while he’s still a long way off, his father hikes up his robes a bit and runs down the drive to embrace his returning son.   Yes, the welcomes the son who, at least by his words, seemed to have wished him dead.

Now, if the whole thing were to end here, we could see this as a great message of grace, mirroring, in fact, the message of the Gospel.  We are all sinners who have gone astray but we have a loving Father, God, who is ready to receive us.  So come home, sinner.  I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.  We have a Victory in Jesus, our Savior forever.   Amen!  And it would make a great way to relate it to Father’s Day.

But, Luke has to go on and bring in that elder brother.  He’s the one who’s done what his father asked.  He was the good son. He got good grades and cleaned his room, at least when asked.  Obedient.  Dutiful.  The kind of kid you’d be happy to have your son or daughter hang out with.  But, something in him is out of synch with the father.  While dad is able to offer forgiveness and mercy and is able to love and restore a relationship, the younger son…can’t.  A party is thrown.   The fatted calf is killed.  And the elder son slumps in the field unable to rejoice.  He is offended by the prodigal…recklessly extravagant…love of his father.

Kline Snograss, in his commentary applies to the real world.  He writes:

One of the more striking theological adaptations of this parable is M. Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace.  Volf writes from his experience as a Croatian struggling with the results of war with Serbians and with injustice and oppression more generally. He uses the story of the prodigal and of the father’s reception of the prodigal to address the themes of distance, otherness, exclusion, belonging, and embrace of one’s enemies.  He rightly sees that this parable is not merely about relations with God but that it sets the pattern for dealing with human relations and estrangement as well. We cannot claim to be returning to the Father without displaying the same kind of forgiveness and willingness to embrace which the Father displays….Grace cannot be confined within boundaries.

If we are about the Father’s business, then we are about the business of inviting people home.

If we are about the Father’s business, then we are about the business of tearing down boundaries with people.

If we are about the Father’s business, then we must start looking like the Father in this story.

We started off with a communion story, let me close with a little about communion as well.  When we have communion here, I often say, “It doesn’t matter where it is you’ve come from or where it is you’re going to, you’re welcome here.  This is God’s free gift to you.”

How can we be God’s gift to those around us…no matter where it is they’re coming from or where it is they’re going to.  Perhaps that’s the lesson of the Prodigal Son.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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