The Parable of the Prodigal
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.’”
The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Put yourself in the shoes of this father.
You have two boys. They have grown up. Right now, they’re likely teenagers, young adults.
And the younger one starts to rebel. First, in small ways. Sleeping through the alarm, not making it to school on time.
Then, in larger ways. Taking cash without asking. Not minding what you say.
Then, one day, he asks for his share of the property. Even as he’s asking you know what is coming. You know he will leave you. You see the look in his eye. The need for independence. The desire to “be an adult.”
And you dig deep within yourself to be the parent that “lets go.” That allows him to grow up and spread his wings.
So you divide your property.
This property that has been passed down to you from your parents.
This property that not only holds familial value, but is a Jewish inheritance. God’s gift to you for your family.
This property that is one whole is now broken into two.
You walk the land and say goodbye. You know that your son plans to sell it. You’ve overheard him making plans with the neighbors who have been eyeing the land. And you also know the trees and fields of this land do not mean the same thing to him as they do to you. How can they?
You return to your son, give the property to him and you hope for the best.
And then what you fear, takes place. Your son gets up one morning earlier than usual and he takes all that he has and sets off down the path. You watch him go and it takes EVERYTHING within you not to chase after him and plead with him not to go.
You watch this son of yours, who you swaddled as a baby. Who you taught how to walk, now walk away from you.
We must pause and feel the heartbreak of this father. The piercing feeling in your heart when the one you love leaves us.
We must pause and feel the fear of the father. He doesn’t know where he is or what he is doing. He doesn’t know if his son is safe or even alive.
We must pause….and consider the time that passes between two short verses. Is it months that the sons is gone? Years, Decades? How long does this father mourn the loss of his son?
I’ve never been a parent before, but I’ve sure said these words – in more or less the same way – and watched the look on my parents’ faces as they heard me say they weren’t needed in my life anymore. I saw in their face the sadness of being pushed aside. Deemed irrelevant. Moved from coach in the middle of the playing field of my life to watch from the bench on the sidelines.
I remember, even in my defiant, wing-stretching years, the adjustment my parents had to make in order for me to take my space in the world. It took courage and a whole lot of love for them to withhold their protest. Their advice. To let me to get lost a bit to discover myself.
It takes a lot of strength for this dad to let his son go. To watch him walk away. And then to wait in fear. Hoping one day, this lost son will return home safely.
We must pause and take in the moment of leaving in order to fully grasp the reunion in verse 20.
The text says:
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
We’re going to watch the beginning scene from the film “Love Actually.” It is the scene that comes to my mind when I imagine this reunion.
It catches this pure expression of love. The deepest kind. Love that meets our need for intimacy and belonging.
The love the Father shows to the younger son is not dignified. It’s over the top, tear-filled, tender.
You know, if we were first century Palestinians hearing this story from Jesus’ mouth, we probably wouldn’t feel the same gushy feeling of happiness that we experience when we watch Love Actually.
In all honesty, we would be confused by the actions of the father.
Instead of paying attention to the father’s feelings in the story, we would be immediately distracted by the bad behavior of the son.
– He’s sold Jewish property. Insulted both his human father and his divine father.
– He’s abandoned his family.
– And he’s squandered his wealth on dissolute – wild – living.
Wild living! Can you imagine Jesus saying that? That’s where most audiences hearing this story would have stopped listening and started to imagine just what Jesus might be inferring. It would be the new gossip of the town. “What is little Jacob up to? Which night club did you see him in. This must be so hard for his father.”
It is unwise to let the young son come home. Especially to step right into the role of “son” that he gave away. It would make more sense to everyone for him to be treated as a hired hand. It would be the fair consequence for his actions.
But, instead the father runs to him, throws his arms around him, kisses him!
The text says, “The father was filled with compassion.”
The greek word for compassion used here is splagchinizomai (splangkh-nid-zom-ahee). It means “to be moved as to one’s bowels.” You see, in Greco-Roman culture, bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity. And so the compassion the father felt was a deep feeling that moved him to action. The image of his son drew something deep within this father that overwhelmed him and he HAD to move. He runs toward his son and this deep love makes way for mercy.
We get our english word compassion from two latin roots. “Com” means “with” and “passion” means “suffer.”
The father steps out of his patriarchal role of dignity and power and he runs to the level of his son. This sinful son. The prodigal son.
The father’s deepest desire is to be with his sons and so he doesn’t wait for the son to approach him. He doesn’t wait for the apology. He meets his son where he is and welcomes him home.
It’s a scandalous grace that the father extends to his son.
A grace that doesn’t make sense to our logical brains
A grace that comes from the deep moving in our bowels.
A deep seated love. That calls us to meet others where they are and restore them to the community.
When I was a teenager, I went on a church mission trip to Peru. A couple in the church volunteered to drive us – one drove the 15 passenger church van and the other drove my family’s van. They dropped us off at the airport and then on the way home from the airport the woman driving my family’s van took the exit off the highway and got confused. Instead of stepping on the breaks to slow her vehicle coming off the highway, she stepped on the gas. She didn’t understand why the van kept speeding up so she pressed harder and harder.
Her husband watching from the highway says he saw her just get faster and faster until she railed into a little voltswagen stopped at the stop sign. This accident resulted in the death of the woman driving the voltswagen.
We didn’t hear about the accident until we returned from Peru. And at that point, insurance was involved. Lawyers had taken over. The next thing I knew, we had a new car. Life moved on.
It was only recently that my mom shared with me her experience of sitting in the court room as the husband of the woman killed explained his life post accident. As you can imagine, the widowed man was deep in grief and the courts turned quickly to how much money from the church and the couple’s insurance would “right the wrong.”
My mom said she watched and listened to the court and she felt queasy. Guilty that it was her vehicle that took this woman’s life. She wanted to go apologize to the widowed husband and she was frustrated with the lawyers who told her not to. Eventually, she did go and apologize and embrace the widowed man.
She shared that in all honesty, she was angry at her church member who made the mistake. It was hard for her to extend grace. But somehow, with God’s help, she found it in her heart to go to the woman’s home and comfort her. Pastorally, in her heart, she knew God wanted her to extend forgiveness and comfort to the woman who made a mistake that created a tragic end to a woman’s life.
It was hard grace, scandalous grace, to offer a hug to both the widowed man and the woman who made the mistake.
The compassion that moves us to scandalous grace comes only from deep divine love.
When we find this God-breathed ability to offer grace to each other we have found the deepest place in our hearts to fully love each other. Love like this father has for his sons.
It’s almost simultaneous with the father’s hug in verse 20 that he also begins ordering a party of celebration for the son’s homecoming.
I know this seems odd to us, but this actually would have made sense to the Palestinians listening.
The younger son hasn’t just insulted and betrayed his fathers. He’s done this to his whole family, to his neighbors and father’s business partners.
The party is KEY to re-establishing the son into the family. The father has to show everyone how happy he is that his son has returned and demonstrate that he is returning as a “son” not as a hired hand. So the father goes all out with the fattest calf and the best jewels and robes in order to demonstrate to his community that he is being restored to his former place in the community.
It’s an important part of scandalous grace because the father doesn’t just forgive his son, but goes to a great effort to restore the son to the community.
The scandalous grace of this father is the scandalous grace offered you in Jesus Christ.
Like the father, God brought us into this world. Even before our human parents, God knew and loved us. God “knits us together in our mother’s wombs” (Ps. 139)
Like the father, God watches us as we grow, as we rebel, as we stretch our wings and sometimes fall…hard… hurting ourselves and those around us.
And like the father, God watches and waits for us to return.
God was so moved out of love for us that God took on flesh in Jesus Christ. So that we would be SURE of our forgiveness.
God runs toward us…spanning heaven and earth… to physically embrace and hold us.
Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection is the most scandalous grace of all. And it’s for each of us.
And for that I say, “Thanks be to God!”