Luke 15:11-32 (NRSV)
11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 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. 13 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. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 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. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 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. 21 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.’ 22 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’”
We all know this parable --- it is one that has been taught over and over.
But I think it is a powerful parable about the church and our society today.
It is so familiar that I think that we need to look at the story closely because we often overlook some of the subtle clues that Luke leaves us.
This parable is the third of three parables found in Luke Chapter 15 about being LOST.
· the lost sheep
· the lost coin
· the lost son
The parable begins with Jesus saying that: "a man has two sons"
That's an interesting identification --- don't you think --- when we look at the whole story.
Jesus introduces the siblings as "sons" and not "brothers" because the story focuses on the relationship to the father --- and it leaves for our minds to figure out just what kind of relationship these two "sons" have with each other.
And it seems --- at least to me --- that it is a strained relationship
The mother, and any sisters of the boys, do not seem to play any role in this story.
When we think about siblings --- we recall that the bible is filled with stories of relationships between siblings that were strained
Cain and Able
Ishmael and Isaac
Jacob and Esau
Joseph and his brothers
What is interesting in all these stories is God favored the YOUNGER BROTHER, and often seemed to turn against the elder siblings.
Our story begins with the younger son going to his father and saying to him: “Give me what is mine!”
The laws regarding such a request are not entirely clear --- but they are clear enough that it is obvious that what this younger son has requested is not only irregular but also highly disrespectful
The interesting thing, of course, is that nothing was his --- at least not until his father dies
So what he was basically saying to his dad is --- I wish you were dead --- or maybe even --- I am going to treat you like you are dead
To me --- one of the most fascinating parts of this story is lost in translation because what the father says in the Greek literally is:
"So, he divided his life between them."
We tend to read it as ---- "he divided his property between them"
The father, however is gracious and gives his son what he wants --- his portion of the estate
According to Mosaic Law --- the eldest child would receive a double portion of the estate --- so our younger son in the story gets 1/3 of the fathers wealth
He takes the money and he heads off to Las Vegas (or at least the boats)
Blows the money on Wine, Women and Gambling
Again, what a careful examination of the story tells us is that the younger son begins a progressive estrangement from his family.
First, he collects his goods and travels to a "distant land" ---- this of course would be a non-Jewish --- GENTILE land
Second, he quickly seems to squander his inheritance on loose and fast living.
And at this point in the story we are told that a famine took place --- implying that charity became hard to get.
Finally, he totally renounces his family and attaches himself to a Gentile, as a servant or slave, who orders him to feed his pigs!
Pigs were an abomination to the Jews.
We are told in Leviticus that they are unclean.
Leviticus 11:7 (NRSV)
7 The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.
And then the author of Deuteronomy even makes it more clear that Jews were to stay away from pigs.
Deuteronomy 14:8 (NRSV)
8 And the pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. You shall not eat their meat, and you shall not touch their carcasses.
So complete is the younger son's fall --- so desperate is his need that he was willing to eat the slop that was being fed to the pigs.
His collapse is complete --- he really can't fall any farther.
In the midst of the pig pen, we are told that --- the younger son "came to himself".
Luke is telling us that this destitute man, who had given up family and tribe, began the process of reclaiming his identity.
He swallows his pride and resolves that he will do as Jacob had done long before --- return to his country and his kindred.
But he returns with very low expectations
He seems to have realized that he has no claims on his father's goods.
Morally he recognizes that he doesn't even have the right to be considered a son
But he hopes --- that maybe his father will have mercy on him and welcome him back as a servant in the household.
The way the story is told --- as the younger son is on his way home he is rehearsing his speech that he will give to his father.
This speech has four parts
· an address --- "father"
· a confession --- "I have sinned"
· a contrition ---- "I am no longer worthy"
· a petition --- "treat me like one of your hired hands"
This monolog by the younger son lets us see into the very heart of his soul
This is a classic story of REPENTANCE
Which literally means "turning around"
The son --- who had headed off AWAY from his family has now TURNED BACK toward them --- uncertain of what the outcome will be --- yet willing to go anyway
Up to now the story has focused on the point of view of the younger son --- now it shifts to the father
No other image has come closer to describing the character of God than the waiting father.
· peering down the road
· longing for his son's return
· springing to his feet and RUNNING down the road to meet him
That image is so powerful to me
In ancient Israel it was considered unbecoming --- you could say a loss of dignity --- for a grown man to run.
It just didn't happen
YET, that is exactly what the father does
His compassion --- his longing for his son --- his joy at seeing him returning --- was enough for him to set aside all concern for propriety and to RUN and see his son.
But this has happened before in our Biblical text.
When Jacob returns home Esau runs to him
Genesis 33:4 (NRSV)
4 But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
And as his father embraces him, the younger son begins his rehearsed speech.
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But before he can even beg to be allowed to return as a servant the father exclaimed:
‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
The father is telling the whole community through his actions that this son of his has returned and is to be treated as a son again.
The father's words sum up the whole first part of the story
"this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!"
He was dead because he has broken his relationship with family
dishonored his father
left his home
left his land and lived among Gentiles
But the father welcomes him home --- and restores him to life
And if the story ended there --- it would be a great and powerful story about God's love for each of us.
We are never so far lost that God stops looking and waiting for us
But we have a second part to this story which is maybe even more important for us
Finally in verse 25 we meet the older son for the very first time.
The story tells us that as he is coming in from a day of working he hears some type of celebration --- music --- dancing
He calls one of the servants and asks what is going on
"Your brother has come"
Those words were enough to set off the elder son
He has no brother --- he is dead
He refuses to come into the house
The father leaves the house (once again) and goes out to meet one of his sons
The conversation that takes place between the elder son and the father really is the climax of the whole parable
And the conversation begins with the elder son venting his anger
Notice how the tone is very different from the conversation between the younger son and the 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!'
While the younger son address him as "father" the elder just says "LISTEN"
And he goes on to berate both his father and his brother.
But the father's response has only one goal --- To restore the family relationships!
Even though the elder son did not address him as "father", the father's first word is "Son"
"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.”
For the father --- it is all about relationships
Legally --- since the younger son had already received his inheritance --- everything that was left was the elder sons --- and the father reminds his son of that.
He explains to his son why the celebration was so important --- for his son who was lost --- who was dead ---- was found.
It is a great story --- but it begs the question ---- WHO DO YOU IDENTIFY WITH?
Many of us have been the younger son --- we have headed out in ways that were destructive to ourselves and our relationships --- we have turned our backs on family and God
We are here today because we saw that the way we were heading was leading toward death and destruction and we made a decision to REPENT ---- to turn around and go back home
But for many that isn't the case.
You have stayed faithful to the family --- faithful to God --- the whole time --- our whole lives
So, I think if we are honest with ourselves --- Many of us really identify with the elder brother.
We don't really believe that God loves unconditionally
And so when somebody falls --- we pile on
I have witnessed first hand where a person who had fallen away from the Christian community and then when they find their way back home one of the hardest things for us to do in the community is to truly welcome them back
We don't trust
We assume that they are working some angle
We look for them to fail again
In other words, we act like the elder brother and feel almost as if certain people have lost the right to be a part of the family.
We want them excommunicated
Or at least we give them the silent treatment and hope that they go on their own
But this parable is an invitation
It is an invitation to us to be like the FATHER.
To be watching and waiting for their return and then to welcome them with open arms and a party