Today we conclude our sermon series on the Prodigal Son. So far, we have explored this parable through the perspective of the father, the elder son, and the younger son. Today, I invite you to hear this story through the perspective of the servant. The servant is only given one line, but is present throughout the story.
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.
It’s a picture of the characters from the PBS hit Downtown Abbey.
You’ll notice that the patriarch, the father of the household, is at the front and then in order the family members follow behind.
It switches to the servants four back from the father on the left. They are certainly placed behind the family, but they also have an order.
The man at the far front on the left is Carson, the butler. He holds the highest position of power in servant life and then the order follows behind.
We’re going to watch a short clip from Downton Abbey that occurs here, in the servants quarters downstairs.
Of course the servants have opinions, too, right?
About the family’s behaviors. What’s happening in the household, with property and family relations, affects them, too.
In our story of the prodigal, the servants would have had opinions. We just don’t get to hear them. The servants would have had lots of thoughts about the younger son taking off and of the father welcoming him home.
Let’s take a deeper look into the text. Pull out your bulletin or grab the bible in front of you. Luke 15:11-32.
From the parable we just read,
What do we know about the servants/slaves in this text?
– The Father barks commands at them. Get this, do that!
– So they know where things are.
– They are used to set up the party.
– They aren’t asked their opinion
– They likely clean up after the party.
– They bear the news to the elder son, probably to the whole town in form of invitation to the party.
– They work for the basics (food, shelter), and are not celebrated. v. 29 elder son says, I’ve worked like a slave for you.
There is a lot more that we DO NOT know about the servant from the text:
– We don’t know how old the servant is
– Or where they fall in the hierarchy of servants
– We don’t know if the particular servant who speaks to the elder son is close to the elder son, or to the father, or the youngest. We learn from shows like Downton Abbey that depict family/servant life that servants often form close bonds with particular family members, even beyond the formal power divide.
– Perhaps most intriguing….What does the servant think about the events in the story? What is it like for him to deliver this kind of news?
The servant gets one line in the story:
‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’
Now if we were hearing this story from oral tradition could learn a bit more about the servant’s opinion.
The tone of how this one line is spoken would tell us a lot about the servant’s opinion.
He could have said (joyfully)
‘Your brother has come!
And your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’
Or he could have said (with disgust)
has come, and your father
has killed the fatted calf,
[roll eyes] because he has got him back safe and sound.’
We don’t know how the servant said these words…
It’s interesting though…. that in just one line, the servant has summed up the entire parable.
He’s summed up the scandalous grace of this story.
He’s hit all the important parts:
the prodigal returned home
the father is going over the top to celebrate and welcome him home
the father is relieved and overjoyed that his son is home “safe and sound.”
What is it like for the servant to share that news?
The gospel news of a welcomed home sinner. Forgiveness for sin.
– The servant could be jealous.
Yearning too for some forgiveness when he messes up. Some guarantee that even when he makes a mistake, the Father/master won’t abandon him. Or punish him. Or disown him.
– The servant could be confused.
Baffled. Ready to escape to the servants quarters at the end of the day to FINALLY get to talk it over with someone and make some sense of the events of the day.
– The servant could be full of joy.
Excited to see the younger son return. And even more excited to see the heart felt reunion of the Father and Son.
If we look closely at the text, the greek word “doulou” used here for “slave” or “servant” is different than the word “misthio” used for “hired hand.”
And the nuance is significant. A hired hand that they younger son refers to at the beginning of the parable is a contractual relationship. Employer/Employee. It can be renegotiated or broken.
But the nature of the relationship between master and servant is different. The servant is bound to their master. A servant is one who gives himself up to another’s will.
The word doulou – servant or slave – has been used to describe in scripture our relationship with Christ. We are servants to the gospel – proclaiming the grace of God.
It’s a fascinating nuance in the greek bible because it places US – you and me – in the shoes of this servant in the story.
WE are called to deliver this good news of forgiveness.
Even to people like the elder son who don’t accept it.
And as we deliver this news, it’s important for us to stop and consider,
Do we believe it is true for ourselves?
Do we believe this story of grace we share…is extended even to you? To me?
On Monday night, our summer intern Hannah and I walked the streets of the Tenderloin with San Francisco’s night ministry. Each night there is a night minister out on the streets from 10 PM – 2 AM caring for those living on the streets.
At 9:45 PM we met up with Lyle, the night minister, and drove to the Tenderloin. We parked the car on Turk at Taylor, got out and began to walk around.
We learned there is a saunter to walking with night ministry. You walk very slowly, so people know they can interrupt you. You look at people, look for their eyes, and if they make eye contact back, you say hello.
We were out on the streets until 2:00 AM and we had several meaningful encounters with God’s children, our brothers and sisters, who live on the streets.
There was one really meaningful interaction for me. It was with a woman. We sauntered slowly passed her and she avoided our gaze and then just as we had begun talking to each other we heard her say, “Father.” Lyle, the night minister, slowly turned around and spoke. Inviting her into conversation.
“I have sinned,” she begins. “I’ve made bad choices, I know I have. But I’m lonely and hungry and scared.”
Lyle was patient and kind. He skipped past telling her about the church feeding programs nearby and jumped right to answer the question she was asking.
“You are a beloved child of God, He said. You are forgiven. Do you believe this?”
“I am shamed,” she said. “I know I have messed up. I’ve sold my body, I’ve been raped, I’ve been arrested for stealing, I lived with this guy who was not good to me, I lost my children.”
Lyle repeated, “You are lonely and scared. But you are forgiven.”
He asked her, “What would Jesus say to you?”
She replied, “That I am a beloved child of God… but I am shamed. I can’t go back into church.”
Lyle: “Jesus would say to you, ‘I forgive you. I love you. I want to make a new life for you. I want to use you for good.”
I watched this interaction with prickling anticipation and awe.
I watched her eyes, darting back and forth, glazing over with tears and I wondered if the message of grace was getting through to her….
She could say it back to us. She knows the good news offered to her through Christ. She knows she is loved by God and forgiven.
But does she believe it? Does she believe that Christ’s grace is really for her? That it has the power to change her?
I stood there watching this interaction hearing the different ways Lyle tried to help her see Christ’s grace for her…. To remind her in his own presence that she is loved, she is not alone, she is forgiven.
I watched her reaction…hearing words of forgiveness.
Speaking the words of forgiveness.
And then her wondering, searching his face, is it true for me, too?
I watched her body shake and her tears flow and her words of doubt continue to surface. Asking again and again – Is it really true FOR ME?
I wonder for these servants in the story, as they watched the Father extend such scandalous grace to the son, if they believed that the same grace would be extended to them.
As they told the gospel story that they saw happening before them…
Did they believe that the Father would do the same for them?
Celebrate when they, the lost, are found?
Back home safe and sound?
Or is that grace only for those close to God? The chosen sons and daughters of Israel. Not for me. A sinner.
This story challenges us is to seek the heartbeat of the gospel. For each of us to get out of our heads and find in our hearts where this message of grace rings true.
As servants of Jesus Christ, we are called to share the good news we see with others.
But we are also called to receive Christ’s grace for ourselves.
To break open our hearts….to know Christ’s grace is REAL. It’s for us, too.
What would Jesus say to you?
Jesus says, “I am with you. I love you. I forgive you.”