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 ll 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 ll 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 ll, you are always with me, ll 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.
Today we’re talking about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is about a father and his two sons. Coincidentally, I’m also a father of two sons.
Elliot’s on the left. He’s three years old. Preston’s on the right. He’s five.
The prodigal son is kind of a heavy story, so I figured I’d share a more lighthearted story of my experience as a father.
Father’s day was about a month ago, and Elliot told me that he had a gift for me. He made it at school, and had hidden it away for a few days. So, on the morning of Father’s day, he brought it out and gave it to me. I took a picture of it. And as you can see, it says, #1 dad.
I was like awww… how sweet. Then, being an engineer, I thought a little bit more about it. Number one dad. I always feel a little weird about that. Is it the truth? Well, kind of. But then again, he made this in school, where his classmates dutifully churned out over a dozen paper plates all saying #1 Dad. We can’t all be number one, can we? So, is it a lie? Well, kind of.
So here I am, in this weird place that’s kind of the truth and kind of a lie. How do you make sense of this? As an engineer, I felt compelled to present a mathematically correct way of thinking about truth and lies. [picture of venn diagram] Truth. Lies. We are right here, right in the middle.
I know, you’re all logical adults, and you’re thinking, yes, but to Elliot, you’re the #1 dad. So, it’s clearly the truth. Yes. I agree. But we just recently celebrated Pride and a landmark supreme court decision. So, consider the case of a same sex marriage where a child has two fathers. Who thinks it’s OK to bring home two plates that both say #1 Dad? Who thinks it’s OK to bring home one plate that says #1 Dad and one plate that says #2 Dad?
We are right here in the middle. It’s OK. Embrace it.
Anyway, Preston, my older son. Is fully in the left most circle. He feels like he needs to be truthful. So, when he saw this, he said, “Yay, daddy, you’re the number one dad in Elliot’s class!”
I asked him, “What do you think the other dads got?”
He answered, “Maybe number three or number four”.
Let’s talk about the Prodigal Son. As a caveat, I want to say that everything I’ve shared so far is not based on anything theological or biblical. It’s all for your amusement. I don’t want Dawn getting in trouble for inviting me to speak.
This parable is traditionally called The Prodigal Son. And, to tell you the truth, this title, The Prodigal Son, always seemed kind of odd to me.
We are exploring this story from the perspective of the older brother. So, I wanted to step into his shoes and propose a few better names that the older brother may have suggested if he had the opportunity to name the parable. The first title that came to mind was this:
1) My Stupid Brother
Am I allowed to say the word “stupid” from the pulpit? Ummm… hi Dawn. Anyway, I’m just calling it as it is. It’s about a guy who blows his life savings, well… not just his life savings, but a huge chunk of his family’s life savings. He wastes this money, finds himself destitute and hungry, and comes groveling back to his family. Stupidity.
Or another title could be this:
2) Life’s not fair; Dad’s not fair
This title focuses in on the father’s actions, which clearly aren’t fair. After the younger brother squanders the family’s money and returns home, the father doesn’t give him what he deserves. Instead, the father re-elevates him to a position of prestige by giving him a robe — not just any robe, but the best robe — and a ring. Then he throws the younger brother a party. All while the older, might I add responsible, son gets nothing.
It’s like the father was saying:
- You demanded your inheritance while I was still alive
- You squandered the family money
- You probably sullied the family name doing whatever you did out there
- And now you come back, hungry, rejected, and broke.
What do you want me to do? I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to slaughter the fatted calf and I’m going to throw you a party. We are going to celebrate!
From the perspective of the responsible, hardworking son, this hardly seems fair right?
The third title I came up with was this:
3) My Self-Righteousness: How it Caused Me to Miss Out on What’s Really Important
We don’t know that the older brother ever reached this point of self-realization.
But this is the big lesson for the older brother. He was right. It’s true that the younger son was foolish and irresponsible. It’s true that his father gave the younger irresponsible one far more than he deserved. It’s all true. But what’s also true was that these facts blinded him. He was so busy being angry and contemptuous and indignant and self-righteous that he could not see what was truly important. He was blind from his own resentment.
That is why some biblical scholars say that this is actually a story about two lost brothers. One went away, got lost, but then came back again. The other one was always physically close to his father, but in his mind and in his heart, he too was lost.
Let’s jump into the text and visit a few scenes of the parable where the older brother would have been present. Luke 15:11-12.
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. (NSRV)
It’s fascinating to me how Jesus was so matter-of-fact about this conversation. How do you have this conversation? I mean, how do you ask for an inheritance? In my mind’s eye, I imagine something like this.
“Hey dad, this is a bit awkward, because you’re not dead yet. But I really want my inheritance now. So um… if you can just go ahead and give me the share of property that will belong to me, umm… that’d be great.”
Now if it’s hard to imagine this request, then the response is even harder to believe, because the dad just turns to his son and says, “sure”. And he divides up his property.
13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country
This means the younger son sold off his share of the family estate. And he did it in a few days. Then he took the money and left.
Now let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the older brother. He’s silent throughout this story thus far. But he’s present. So imagine you’re the older brother. Your brother asks for his inheritance, gets it from dad, sells off a chunk of the property, and then leaves. What are you thinking? What are you feeling?
Let’s jump forward in the story. We know what happens next: the younger brother goes off, spends all of his money, comes back, and the father throws him a huge party.
It’s at this point in the story that the older brother comes off the fields, and he hears music and dancing. He waves down a servant and asks, “what’s going on?” And he finds out that his brother had returned home, and his dad threw this party to celebrate.
As for the older brother, who just came back from working the fields, he’s what? He’s angry.
In fact he says this to his dad:
29b ‘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!’
This is not just kind of angry. It’s more like this sort of angry.
He’s angry at his brother. He’s angry at his father. He’s angry at the injustice of the universe.
I think if you peel back this anger a little bit, you’ll see a lot of sadness and pain and sorrow.
Have you ever felt like you’ve tried so hard and you’ve done all the right things, but you just can’t get it? I mean, you just do all the things you’re supposed to do. You’re dedicated, you’re responsible, you pour yourself into this thing. And it just doesn’t seem to pay off? You ever feel like that? It’s sadness.
Beneath the anger, this eldest son felt pain and sadness. He was there. He was hardworking. He was obedient. And it didn’t seem to pay off for him.
Maybe this is the better tone in which to read the passage:
29b ‘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!’
The father responded to the son with this:
31b ‘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.’
When I read the father’s response, I feel ever sadder for the eldest son, because it’s clear to me that he’s missing what’s really important. The older son has been so wrapped up in his own self-righteousness and anger, so focused on his own pain and sorrow, it’s made him myopic. He can’t see past his own resentment.
I feel like the core desire of the older brother is to feel loved and honored by his father. Just to feel acknowledged for all of his hard work and obedience. The irony is that his father’s love and acceptance and generosity is right there. His father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” And he just can’t see it. His anger and pain has blinded him. He could not see the love and the generosity that his father has for him. And he could not see love and the generosity that his father had for his lost brother who had returned home.
That’s the lesson for us today. It’s so easy for us, as a church, as a people, as a mother, as a father, as a sister, as a brother, as a friend, as a co-worker, as a stranger, to see something out there and say, “that’s not right”, and get wrapped up in our own anger. Or maybe we get hurt, and we get wrapped up in our pain and sorrow. My challenge for us is this: that don’t miss what’s truly important. Yes, it’s true. That thing over there isn’t right. And we should be angry about it. And yes, that pain and sorrow is real. Let’s make sure that it doesn’t stop us from seeing and experiencing the things that are truly important that are going on out there.