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Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
If there is such a thing as the "ultimate parable," in my opinion it would have to be the story of the prodigal son. And although that's probably a good title, and it would probably sell books and theatre tickets, the story is as much or more about the father of that prodigal son. Indeed, if it were not for that father, where would the prodigal son be?
And I think that if we look to the opening of the fifteenth chapter of the gospel according to Luke, in which we find this parable, we will see why the father is important in this story. For look at who is listening to the story:
"Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to listen to him."
These people needed the father who is in this story. They WERE prodigal sons, and maybe daughters too. They didn't need to be reminded of that. But they did need something else. And that was the father in the story.
But the tax collectors and the sinners weren't the only folks hanging around.
"And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
Yes, he does. But he also knows that the Pharisees and scribes are listening. And he doesn't leave them out either. Remember, the father in this story had TWO sons. It's easy to forget that, because it is possible to think of the parable as having two endings.
The first ending focuses on the return of the prodigal son; while the second ending focuses on the response of the OTHER son.
But if we turn ourselves into literary critics, and think that this story is badly told because it has two endings, we have missed the focus that I spoke of; and that is on the father. And if we understand that, the parable's so-called second ending isn't just tacked on, it is necessary to what Jesus would have us hear about the father.
And so Jesus begins his story: "Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons."
Now, I'm sure that was appropriate for Jesus' time, but I would also have you think of this man as simply having two children, one or both of them daughters. And you might also think of the father as being a mother, or even a couple of parents.
A friend of mine, a woman pastor, has preached this parable in exactly that way. But she even put it in the present day. A small-town Missouri girl runs off to live it up in Kansas City while her loving parents await her return.
But to get back to the story, "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."
In stark contrast we can see the impatience of the younger son, his greed, and the generosity of the father. His father does not object. He simply gives it to him.
"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."
Running away from home. But it's more than that. It's also running away from any responsibility. And folks can do that without ever heading for a distant country. But it's easier if no one is looking over our shoulder.
"When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need."
Now, I need to ask myself, what difference does it make that there was a famine? If the son has spent everything, he is still going to be in want, famine or no famine. But the famine will intensify the want, and I think Jesus wants us to hear that.
He wants us to sense the experience of this son, who, even if he wanted to change his ways, would have a tough time doing it because of the social and economic situation he is in.
"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."
Now, personally, I think that farming is an honorable profession; but that's not what we're talking about here. Rather, we're talking about the son grasping for the most menial of tasks in an effort to just survive. And it causes him to see things differently.
"He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything."
This is true desperation. And look at the contrast between this and what happened before he left home. He simply asked his father to give him his inheritance, and his father generously did so. But now he has discovered that the world is not so generous as his father.
And the pigs eat better than he does.
It's time for him to wake up.
"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!"
Maybe running away from home wasn't such a good idea. Maybe the grass isn't greener on the other side of the fence.
And isn't it interesting that the young man who needed that short-lived fling with the fun and games of dissolute living is now thinking, "I'd be better off as a hired hand for my father. At least I'd eat."
And he makes a decision.
"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."
Now that's quite a decision. The son is hungry, in need. And in his desperation he looks toward home. But he knows he has violated the expectations of his father. He's made a real mess of his life, and he doesn't have any right to ask anything else of his father, because he already has his inheritance. All he feels he can rightfully do is ask for a job. But to ask his father for a job, he needs to admit that he's made a wreck of everything, to tell his father that he's sorry for that.
And in anticipation of his father's anger, he is prepared to admit that he is not worthy to be called a son.
"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.
So what kind of father IS this, anyway? His kid impatiently asks for his share of the family fortune and runs off with it. Now, here he is, stumbling up the driveway, probably in rags, and his father runs to meet him as if none of that ever happened.
But the son's guilt is still heavy.
"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."
He may even be feeling embarrassment that his father should be demonstrating such affection when he is so undeserving of it. But he wants to be clear with his father. And he needs to acknowledge what he has done and how he feels about it.
Does this fall on deaf ears? I don't think so.
"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."
Does this sound like rejection? Nor is it merely acceptance. The father is in fact elevating the son. He is being clothed in the BEST robe. And a ring on his finger is a symbol of honor.
We are so accustomed to thinking of honors such as these as being rewards for outstanding accomplishments, what are we to make of all this?
All the son wanted was a job as a hired hand so he could eat. But the father orders, "And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate."
Not only will the son be clothed and fed, but there will also be a feast of celebration. Now, in this day and age, if someone had gone away and made a fortune, upon that person's return we might celebrate.
But would we celebrate if that person had gone away and LOST a fortune?
The father makes it clear why the celebration is appropriate: "for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!" And they began to celebrate."
You see, the father is not concerned with fortunes won or lost; he is celebrating that the son who he thought was dead is alive. But it is not only physical life; it is also spiritual life. For when the son said, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you," that admission was evidence of the son's rebirth to a new life.
"Now the elder son was in the field: and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing."
And here we have the faithful one, the one who stayed home, the one who did not squander his wealth. And even today he is dutifully at work in the field. But his curiosity is aroused by all the commotion at the house. There seems to be a party going on, but nobody told him about it.
"He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on."
Now, this should raise questions for us. Why didn't he just ask his father what was going on? Why didn't he just walk in on the party? After all, he lives there! But instead, he asks a slave.
And I suspect that he may have felt shut out; that he really didn't know how to respond to a spontaneous party to which he had not been invited.
"He replied, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound."
Now, we don't know of the relationship between the brothers before the younger one left home; but the servant is quite accurate in saying that the father is celebrating the safe arrival of the younger brother, although he says nothing about the exchange between the younger son and the father upon the son's return.
"Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him."
The elder son is obviously seeing this as a case of the father playing favorites, and that upsets him. We know that's not the situation, and the father also knows and tries to resolve the matter.
But how often have we been in similar situations: not having full information about what's going on?
"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."
And the elder son doesn't understand why HE hasn't deserved a party, just for the sake of a party. After all, he's been a good son, hasn't he? In fact, as far as he's concerned, reward and punishment seem to have been reversed!
"But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!"
And in our material world where we reward the productive and punish the unproductive, the reasoning of the elder son makes sense.
But there is deeper reasoning in the father's explanation: "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."
There are celebrations and there are celebrations. Some are of the moment; others are ongoing. Celebrations of the moment are baptisms, weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries.
But for all of us as Christians, we can celebrate an ongoing rebirth in Christ, as God continues to accept us regardless of whether we think ourselves acceptable
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