“A Prodigal, a Loving Parent, and a Jealous Brother”
(from Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32)
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.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”
Barbra Streisand’s theme song, titled to match the 1973 box office hit movie The Way We Were, describes at length the way in which memories of past events form in our mind. Familiar picture images come into our mind’s eye, and we often replay the scripts involved as we can best recall them. As we do this, emotions surrounding these events may also come into the forefront of our mind’s ability to recollect them, and for a brief moment we may relive them. Sometimes, even hearing one familiar word can begin this memory processes stirring within us, and we are whisked off in our minds to that place and time. That is why I prefaced the Gospel reading for this morning by asking you to listen anew to this familiar parable of Jesus. Without thinking ahead of this parable’s story line, and by taking in each of the story’s details as they unfold, we may encounter it in a fresh new manner. Each character becomes richer in detail, and each situation with its accompanying character interactions can now unfold anew before us. We may be in a different spiritual place today than when we first read or heard this parable, and we want to allow the Holy Spirit space to show us something new. So, with open eyes, minds, and hearts, let us now explore this favorite among Jesus’ parables known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”.
Let us begin our discussion today by framing the context in which Jesus shared this parable with his Disciples and followers. You may recall that all of Jesus’ parables were shared so that his followers would gain a new understanding about God and learn important truths about how the kingdom of God operates. On this occasion, some tax collectors and other “sinners” had gathered to hear Jesus preach. This offended the “good and righteous” Pharisees and scribes who were within earshot of these ongoing events. “This man receives sinners and eats with them,” was their complaint. And so, hearing the Pharisees criticize him for associating with sinners, Jesus decided to share a special parable for the benefit of all of the crowd that had gathered around him. Let us now explore just what Jesus had to say to them.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son has three main characters, and each of them helps us to understand certain important aspects about God and how God’s kingdom operates. We will begin with the younger son in the story. This son wanted his share of inheritance to venture out away from his home. He left the love, comfort, protection, and values of his father behind, and went about living life on his own. It was an excessive and morally bereft lifestyle that he chose for himself, with plenty spent on drinking and cavorting with women of ill repute. It was the lifestyle of a prodigal. And so, in this manner, the younger son blew all his inheritance, and he then entered a state of need. In his need, the son worked for a landowner who treated him poorly. His own father treated servants working for him much kinder. Realizing that he had acted disgracefully in leaving his father’s home and squandering his inheritance, the son understood he could no longer expect to return home and be received as a son by his father. He did, however, think that he might be able to return home and become one of his father’s hired servants. So, off we went to return to his home.
The younger son is the prodigal, the one who recklessly spent away everything he had—his physical, as well as moral and spiritual resources. He is a representative of humankind, and of how we can turn from God to go off and live our life away from God’s kingdom. Like the younger son, we squander our physical and spiritual resources on things that do not bring us true and lasting happiness, comfort or peace. We then often regretfully realize that we cannot continue life on in this way. We, like the younger son, long for the comfort and peace of our home.
The loving father in this parable represents God. It pains God, just as it pained the father, to allow us go our own way away from God’s kingdom and love to “do our own thing.” But, God allows us free will to choose how we live our lives. God, like the loving father in the parable, however, is ever vigilant and watching for our return. Just like the loving father with his prodigal son, when we repent of our sinful lives and come to the realization of our need for God, God welcomes and receives us back, not as hired hands, but into God’s beloved family—the kingdom of God.
There is another character in the parable we need to explore. It is the ever faithful, and yet jealous elder son. He never left the home of his father, and he diligently served him by working in the fields. When this son came home to find a feast of celebration, and learned that it was for his returning wayward brother, he was so furious he refused to go into the house. His father came out to him to beg him to come in; but, the elder son raged that he was a faithful son who had always done what is right. Even so, his father never had a lavish party in his honor. This son protested that he had not been treated fairly by his father.
The father’s response to this son is an important part of the lesson, the eternal truth, found within this famous parable of Jesus. The father told his faithful elder son that he had always been with him, and that all the father possessed was his. The love, mercy and forgiveness the father had provided to the younger son in no way minimized or limited the elder son’s inheritance. The celebration of great joy was for the son who had been lost, and who was now back home with his family where he belonged. In the real world of God’s kingdom, we “good” followers can become angry and jealous of the blessings we see others receive. It is as if we believe that they in some fashion minimize our blessings. This parable reminds us that this belief is not true, for God is not a God of scarcity but of abundance. We already have a place in God’s kingdom and an abundance of God’s mercy, grace, and love—nothing is lost to us when others enter God’s kingdom. There is no need to be jealous of others, but instead this parable reminds us that we should rejoice and welcome new members into God’s eternal kingdom of light and love.
Finally, brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus’ parable spoke truth to the “good” Pharisees present that day in story form. It taught them that they were missing the mark with their harsh judgment of Jesus for dining with “sinners.” Jesus was kind and compassionate, spending time with tax collectors and sinners so that he might call them into repentance, and into a new and eternal life in the kingdom of God. This behavior is something the “good” Pharisees had failed to even consider. The parable teaches us that God’s kingdom is vast, and God’s resources, infinite and abundant. The kingdom is open to all who believe, to all who are open to God’s infinite mercy, love and grace. This grace we sinners receive, causes us to be ever grateful, and so we joyfully go forth to invite others into the eternal family, the kingdom of God. We are living in an age of grace, so that we, with the help of the promised Holy Spirit, might build the kingdom of God that begins right in this very time and place. Church, if our spiritual eyes are open, we can see a world of sin and need all around us. In the image of Jesus, who showed mercy and love even to tax collectors, sinners, and prodigals, calling them into God’s kingdom, let us now go forth to show the mercy and love of Jesus to our corner of the world. That is what Jesus’ parable about a prodigal, a parent, and a jealous brother has taught us to do. Let God’s people say Amen!