This sermon was originally preached on March 31, 2019 at North Star United Methodist Church.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. 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. 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. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 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. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 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! 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.”’ 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. 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.’ 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 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.’”
This passage is often referred to as the prodigal son. Now, I had always thought, through reading the parable, that this word prodigal was something that meant set apart in some way, important even. In reality though, prodigal means wasteful, irresponsible, self-indulgent. That’s the kind of action we see described in this story. The younger son goes to his dad and demands his inheritance. And it’s not just about money. The son asking for his inheritance was basically the same thing as saying he wanted his father dead. The father gives him the money, and the son leaves. He wants to travel, to see the world. He wanted to try new things and he thought the best way to have new experiences would be to leave home.
It’s a common storyline. People physically leave all the time. They need a fresh start. They want to explore. Their current home is too this or too that. So the younger son leaves, like maybe we or one of our kids or grandkids or friends goes off to college. He has some adventures, we can gather. He sees his own world get bigger, and he tries lots of new things. He also spends a lot of money we read, another way this college kid storyline works out. Too much money, and he became broke, our story says.
He got himself a job feeding pigs, something really not that attractive, even though it was technically a job. And actually, for Jewish people, for this Jewish boy, being in a pig pen eating the pods that the pigs ate is a true sign that he has hit rock bottom, because for Jews, pigs were unclean. Beyond that, he couldn’t even make enough for food.
In a moment of hunger and desperation, the younger son has a moment where he realizes that going home wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Things really weren’t that bad there. At least the workers who worked for his dad had enough money for some bread. So he swallowed his pride, big time, and he made a plan. He wanted to compromise with his dad, saying that he didn’t deserve to be called his son, but hopefully he could convince his dad to hire him to work for him.
The thing that strikes me the most, about this part of the story, is that the entirety of this conversation, the parable, and especially the piece after conflict happened, is taking place internally. The younger son is negotiating with himself. He’s making assumptions, putting himself down, de-valuing his own worth and identity. All because he wanted to explore. He wanted to take a chance. What I find striking, is that nobody here is referring to him as the prodigal son. He’s putting that label on himself in this part. He thinks he knows how his dad is going to react, and he puts himself down, punishing himself and essentially condemning himself, before this interaction even takes place.
The younger son swallowed his pride, because he thought he was done. He said, ‘at this point, I’ll be lucky if I can work for my dad, because surely he’ll want to disown me for what I’ve done’. And when he made his way home, his dad didn’t even acknowledge his apology, his pleading, his self-labeled ‘worthiness’. His dad immediately embraced him, adorned him with a robe and a ring and sandals. And he ordered a party to be thrown, an extravagant party in his honor.
Imagine his dad’s surprise, when up walks his son, and he seems okay, safe, and most importantly, he is back home. He has been found, and that is what the most important thing is to him. Of course he’s going to throw him a party.
When we shift our perspectives, we notice that the son’s belovedness was never in question. In fact, his searching and his seeking led him to the realization of just how appreciated he is.
As they were celebrating, we are introduced to the other son, the older child. We had heard about him at the very beginning, but he’s being mentioned for the first time now, in the last few verses of the parable. This son is upset because his dad doesn’t seem to give him the attention he was giving his brother.
If you’ve had a sibling, you can relate very directly to this brother, I’m sure. When one person gets the attention in a way you want, it suddenly becomes me against them. So, this angry older brother confronts his parent about it, asking for attention in a raw way. He asks why he’s never gotten a party like his little brother did, but what he’s really asking is why he doesn’t get loved in the same way as his brother is.
The father responds with reassurance and with genuine love. He looks at him, and tells him that his brother needed love in a different way. That part was true. But he was with him the whole time.
God says the same thing to us. God looks at us when we have felt abandoned or alone, looks us in the eyes, and says to us, “I’ve been here for you the whole time”.
God has made us beloved and worthy and good, no matter what we do, no matter how often we yearn for adventure, no matter when we made our last mistake. We are the younger son, but in no way are we or the younger son needing to bear the cross of prodigal any longer.
So as we reflect back, it turns out that being lost and being found aren’t all that matters. It’s not a binary. We are not simply lost or found, dead or alive. This parable teaches us nuance in a way that is powerful for us to see the fullness of God at work in our lives. God reveals God’s role in each piece of this story, as the sense of adventure in part one, the trying new things and taking risks. God shows up as the father in the second part, worried as parents are, but also ready to celebrate the homecoming of their beloved child. And God reveals the breadth of welcome to the older brother in our last section, as the brother wondered how he fit in the celebration that was ensuing.
While God’s role looks differently in each piece, God reminds us that God is there the whole time.
God gives us permission to wonder, doubt, question, and explore. God surprises us, by calling us good and lovely, even when we don’t think we deserve it. God reassures us that each and every one of us are invited, celebrated, and are welcomed home.
We may not ever grasp the fullness of God, but our story today, the parable known as the prodigal son, this parable allows us to see ourselves in new ways, being open to God’s perspective and being known by God.
As each of us listened to the different parts of this parable, each of us noticed different things. Each of us brought our own perspective to the story, and each of us experienced the text in different ways. The fullness of God allows for us to do that. And still, at the end, we can read the same story. We can sit among our siblings and pray the same prayers, sing the same hymns, all to worship the same God. This parable reminds us that God is with us the whole time.
This God we know has created each of us from love, to be in relationship, that is, to relate, to our fellow human. May we remember that. May we remember that the parables we read reflect the fullness of God, which means it must also reflect the fullness of us too. May we see ourselves in the stories, their highs and lows, their joyous parts and the ones tougher to identify with. And may we remember that each of us have moments of being lost and found, like the sons, like the father, and like so many others, but God wants us to know, most importantly, that God is with us the whole time. Let us pray.
God of hope and resurrection, you find us all in the moments of life that encompass our being. We give you thanks for your persistence, your integrity, and your compassion. Allow us to see the fullness of you in our words and our work, God the creator, revealed to us on earth by Jesus, and refreshed by water through the holy spirit. It is in your name we pray, Amen.