Lent 4C – March 6, 2016 Luke 15:1 3, 11b 32
I have a confession to make. When I read what the lectionary was serving up for today, I wasn’t entirely thrilled. It’s not that I dislike the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s that it is one of those passages of Scripture which seems to have been preached to death, and there is very little which can be said about it which hasn’t already been said a hundred times over. This very famous and beloved parable is told while Jesus is at some sort of dinner party with sinners and tax collectors. Luke describes the scene as a sort of informal outdoor gathering, which makes it easy for some Pharisees and scribes to sneak up on the group to eavesdrop. As you might expect, the aren’t very happy about what they see and hear. Jesus has chosen to break bread with a group of people who are part of the slimy underbelly of society. Despite the presence of these undesirables, the Pharisees and scribes are probably feeling more than a little insulted at being left off the guest list, especially since they were so accustomed to being able to invite themselves to eat with whomever they wanted. However, Jesus never asks them to leave, so the point of this scene really isn’t about exclusion. Instead, it’s about how God always manages to gather up people who, for all intents and purposes, are counted among the lost.
In addition to its hopeful message, what is particularly appealing about the story of the Prodigal is its cast of characters. We can all relate to the father, the older brother, and the Prodigal himself at some point in our lives. For me, as the oldest child in my immediate family, there were times when it was not all that hard to understand at least some of where Big Brother is coming from. Luke doesn’t tell us much about him, except that he’s a dutiful son who’s more than a little upset at the sudden reappearance of his do nothing, no good baby brother. It’s not hard to imagine that he’s feeling angry and more than a little bit jealous over how his father appears to have enabled and rewarded his brother’s bad behavior. If he were to tell his side of the story, it might go something like this:
That idiot brother of mine just what does he think he’s doing?! And, that equally idiot father of mine –just what does HE think he’s doing!? Seriously. Even with his little speech about how he has sinned before God and in front of his family, I doubt Little Brother has really repented. I can’t believe he has the audacity to come back here, after all that he’s done. Well, actually, I can. I’ve heard this before – he’s been able to manipulate our father into getting whatever he wanted since we were children. It didn’t matter whether it was a pet lamb or a silver coin so he could buy some expensive oil at the market. All he had to do was make that pouty face, and the next thing you knew, there was that lamb following him around or that coin jingling in his pocket. It wasn’t a surprise to me that he convinced Father to give him his inheritance a couple of years ago, or that that he’s come crawling back home because he
wasted every last penny of it. And now, as an added insult, he’s managed to convince Father to throw him a huge party – which of course he NEVER did for me, ever!1
I just don’t get it. I mean, I’m the good one. I’m the one who stayed here, did what he was told, and always made sure he was following the rules. I should be the one to get the reward, not my brother. It’s not that I don’t understand how he wanted to go explore the world – who hasn’t wanted to do that? But to blow everything on gambling and women, instead of using it to buy some land of his own and find a nice wife – that is not OK at all. I even overheard some of the servants talking when I left the house, and do you know what they said about him? They heard he’d had to take a job on a Gentile’s farm, keeping pigs, because he couldn’t get any other work. Working for a Gentile, keeping pigs. It doesn’t get much worse than that. If he were MY son, I’d march him straight up to Jerusalem and make him go through all the purification rituals. And then we’d talk about a proper apology.
Where was I again? That’s right – the inheritance itself and how it’s supposed to help secure the family’s future. This whole mess certainly does not help me to feel any better about that. I only expected to get half my father’s property to begin with. I’m not complaining about that at all, far from it. I’m thankful it’s there in the first place and know we are lucky to have it at all. Still, it’s hard not to wonder if I will get even less than my fair share, now that that weasel is home. I bet he’ll try to claim what he thinks is MY share of the inheritance as his own, too. He already blew half of our father’s money. Why does he deserve a second chance?
I admit it: I’m jealous. But I’m not sure that’s the right reaction to a situation that’s so complicated. On the one hand, our father seems to give my brother whatever he wants, with no concern of whether it’s right or fair. Nobody else seems to have that power over our father. On the other hand, my brother wasn’t too smart about what he did with all the money he was given. He literally has nothing left – well, assuming our father is smart enough not to give him anything else, that is – and so has to rely totally on other people for everything he has from this point onward. The only reason he’s not out on the street is because our father fell for his pathetic, entitled routine. “No longer worthy to be called your son” – yeah, right. Then why was he given the best robe, a new ring, AND the fatted calf for supper?
Father never did anything like this for me. Never. I’m the good one, and there’s no reward for that. So what was the point of it all?
The problem with the older brother’s attitude is that it puts his need to be right ahead of the need to be in right relationship with both his father and his younger brother. As Luke leaves it, the older brother has neither of those things. He is right in pointing out the real world consequences for his brother’s actions. More importantly, where he’s gone wrong is in allowing his feelings of rage and jealousy to hold him back from even going to the party to grab a plate and say hello to the neighbors. And like the Pharisees who are
1 Richard Swanson, “A Provocation: Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C, Luke 15:1 2, 11b 32.” https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/a provocation fourth sunday in lent year c luke 151 3 11b 32/
eavesdropping on Jesus’ dinner party, he’s missed out on two important things. The first is that he was never disinvited from taking part in the celebration. He’s done that on his own. Getting back into the party is as easy, and as hard, as acknowledging that it’s about something much greater than what his anger and jealousy are allowing him to experience.
The second point he misses is just how much mercy his father has chosen to show. It would have been far easier, and far less costly, for his father to send his younger brother away with nothing than it was to give him new clothes and throw him a huge party. The choice the father makes when he sees the Prodigal walking up the road means that he will not wind up in a distant country, without authentic connection to the rest of his family.2 He chooses relationship over needing to be right – the very same thing which is asked of us. And that is exactly Jesus’ point. It would have cost him everything he was to send the Pharisees and scribes packing, instead of allowing them to crash his party. That kind of exclusion from the wide net of his Father’s mercy was simply not in his playbook. And that, in the words of the Presiding Bishop, is what this parable is really about: “...the determined, compassionate, infinite providence of God, [not] the ways of God’s prodigal children.”3
Does the older brother understand that point? Do the Pharisees and scribes understand it? From the way Luke leaves it, we can’t be sure who understands what about God’s willingness to go to the ends of the earth to reclaim those who are lost. But it won’t be long before Jesus makes that point very clear by offering himself in obedience to God’s will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.4