Prodigal Son Gets Demoted
Listen now for a Word from God:
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Then Jesus said, “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.’”
Have you ever read a story or book or watched a movie where you have wondered: Who is this about? Maybe the writer was gluttonous with characters? Maybe there were many, many intertwining stories and it was hard to keep track of them.
For me, this can be summarized in two words: Russian novels. How many times have I started Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and set it aside exhausted by the list of names and the criss crossing story lines. I cannot tell who the main character is (although you’d think the title of the book would give it away) and I am ashamed of myself. Someday I will finish it.
I think for some of us, we have a version of this problem, of not knowing who the actual main character is, with the story of the Prodigal Son, the story we read last today. How many of you have heard the story of the Prodigal Son before? If you have not heard it from the Bible then I bet you $100 that you’ve heard it summarized or referenced in some piece of literature or pop culture--even if you didn’t know it. The story of the Prodigal Son is this: The wayward son utterly messes up and the compassionate father welcomes him back home.
This story in Luke shows up in so many ways in our culture: Dear Max walks away from his mother in Where the Wild Things Are and comes home to a hot dinner. Edmond abandons his family in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and is rescued by the God-figure and Lion Aslan. We have Denny in Anne Tyler’s novel A Spool of Blue Thread and that man cannot keep a job or a relationship to save him. The Rolling Stones, Iron Maiden and Kid Rock have all recorded songs titled "Prodigal Son." And of course U2 has the song “For the First Time” where they lament throwing away the keys to the kingdom of their Father and yet they still feel love “for the first time.” Even Shakespeare includes or alludes to the Prodigal Son motif in three of his plays: The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and The Winter’s Tale.
The prodigal son is a motif that has been handed down, allegorized, copied, and recited for the last 2,000 years--most of these focusing on the character who is the title of the motif: The Prodigal Son.
But what if in the telling of this story we’ve confused who the main character really is? What if we, like my reading of Anna Karenina, have gotten lost in the story and mistaken secondary characters for the main one? What if this story is not actually about the Prodigal Son, at least not as the main character?
I fear this is true of Luke 15:11-32. That’s why I had Dan and Torrie read for you the FULL collections of all THREE parables from Luke 15 that Jesus recites to the scribes, Pharisees, and sinners.
Who is the main character of the first parable that they read? The Shepherd who is out rescuing his sheep and hosting a party.
Who is the main character of the second parable? The woman who is searching for her coin and rejoicing at its finding.
Who is the main character of the third parable? Is it the prodigal son? If we are keeping with the parables that come before it, no. The main character of this parable is the father who is running out to find his both sons. It is the father who is inviting everyone to celebrate at the son’s return. Although in our cultural appropriations we call this parable The Prodigal Son, I fear we’ve gotten confused about who the main character is: it is the Father, NOT the son. This parable should be titled “the Merciful Father” or “The Searching Father” or “the compassionate Father.”
So why are we obsessed with the prodigal son in this story and not the compassionate father? This is almost a rhetorical question because I think the answer is pretty obvious. We identify with the son. Or should I say sons?
We know what it is like to demand our money and security up front. We know what it is like squandering things that are important to us. We know what it is like to damage a relationship because of self-interest. We know what it is like to look around us and feel utterly lost and displaced and to crave home. We know the Prodigal Son.
I think we also know the other son in this story as well. The elder son. In the NRSV it’s actual called the Parable of Two Brothers, not the Prodigal Son. According to the editors of the NRSV, the “main characters” are both the brothers. But we know what it is like to work really hard and get what we think is insufficient recognition. We know what it is like to feel jealous of other people’s relationships. We know what it is like keeping quiet and being obedient and trying not to cause attention when in fact attention is the one thing we desperately crave. We know what it is like to see everyone in authority as a person that we owe something to.
We know the character and character flaws of the sons in this story. We can identify with them, feel their feelings, and point to places in our lives where we have behaved just as these characters have. We see these brothers as the main characters in this parable because they are the main characters of our own lives--they are us. We want to place ourselves, in all our glory and ridiculousness, in the center of the story--so we do, even when we read about others.
But what about the father? He is in line to be the main character of this parable just like the shepherd in the first parable and the woman in the second parable. If we make the father the main character in the parable, what shifts in our “Prodigal Son” or “Tale of Two Brothers” story?
The brothers (and we) are no longer the main character of the story. The story shifts away from our behavior, our failings, our choices, and our versions of reality and lands on the father. It lands on his story and actions and way of seeing the world. And his story can be pretty surprising, even baffling.
So let’s go through the story again with our eyes fixed on the father, not the sons. First, Jesus says that the parable is about “a man who had two sons.” The main character is immediately known--the man, the father. The father then gives his younger son his inheritance at the son’s request, which is as unheard of and offensive as it sounds. Basically, I don’t care when you die, I’d like my money now. The son goes and squanders it all and in the middle of his agony who does he think about? The father! The son decides to humbly return to his father and his father’s house, ready to work for him.
And while the son was still far off (read that literally or metaphorically if you’d like) the FATHER saw him and had compassion for him. The father’s first reaction was mercy. Compassion. Understanding. His second reaction? To hold his son and to kiss him. To be present both in his emotions and in his body to this son who had been so far away for so long.
Instead of making the son rehearse the apology that both of them knew was coming, the Father interrupts the son with plans for merrymaking. Bring out the robe! Put a ring on his finger! Give him some shoes! Let’s party. I thought this son of mine was dead, that I’d never see him again--he’s not. He is alive. I thought my son was lost, to me, to you, to everyone, even lost to himself--he’s not. We’ve found him.
Many people think the story ends there, but it doesn’t. The older brother was coming home from working in the fields and noticed the party. He asks around and finds out that his brother has returned and his father is in full celebration mode. Bitter by the father’s warm reception, the older brother refuses to join the party.
Once again the father continues on his penchant for compassion. He notices that his older son is not at the party and is concerned. The father leaves his own party, food, drink, and friends and goes outside to talk to a very upset older brother. The father doesn’t just talk to the older brother--he pleads with him! Please come in. Please celebrate. Please. The elder son complains about his own years of faithful service to the father. He complains about the lavishness of a party for his brother who has quite publicly offended everyone and wasted these last years of his life. The brother feels undervalued and overlooked. The brother feels jealous and angry.
The father’s response? All I have is already yours--basically reminding him that the offer that the youngest son took is not only available to the oldest son, he’s been living in it too! In a different (some would say more appropriate) way. All the father has left in his life belongs not only in the future but also at present to the eldest son. The lavishness of the father on the youngest son this one evening is the lavishness that has been steadily offered day by day to the eldest--whether that son noticed it or not.
And the father’s love is not a zero sum game he reminds the older son. The father has enough of what both sons need in order to celebrate today. Will the elder son take it? Will he join in the compassion and mercy of the father and walk into the party? Will he rejoice with the family that someone who was dead is alive, someone who was lost, was found? The story never actually tells us what the elder son decides--maybe because the story isn’t really about that son.
The story is about the finder, the searcher, the father, the shepherd, the sweeping woman. The story is about the main character who doesn’t spend time squandering but searching. Who doesn’t spend time calculating fault but extending the healing balm of mercy. Who doesn’t spend time in jealousy but in celebration. That is what the story is about, that is who the story is about.
And of course in Jesus’ parable, that person searching, sweeping, looking for, and welcoming back is God. The main character of this story and the story of this world is not us in all of our blundering ways of getting lost and squandering our time, it is the gracious Life-Giver who is out there, who is in here, searching for the lost sheep, the lost coin, and children who desperately need to be found and wrapped in a robe of healing mercy, given shoes of compassion, and reminded that they are deeply loved. That’s it. That’s the main character and the main point--that’s Jesus’ story, that’s the gospel.
At the end of his book Love Wins Rob Bell talks about how both sons think the story is about them--think that the biggest reality is their own reality. He writes:
Each brother has his own version of events, his own telling of his story. But their stories are distorted, because they misunderstand the nature of the father...the younger brother believes that he is cut off, estranged, and no longer deserves to be his father’s son, because of all the terrible things he’s done. His badness is his problem, he thinks…
...the older brother believes that the reason he deserves to be a son is because of all the good he’s done, all of the rules he’s obeyed, all of the days he’s “slaved” for his father…
Neither son understands that the father’s love was never about any of that. The father's love cannot be earned, and it cannot be taken away. IT JUST IS…
This story isn’t about “your deepest, darkest sins and your shameful secrets [that] are simply irrelevant when it comes of the counter-intuitive, ecstatic announcement of the gospel, [of this father]. So are your goodness, your rightness, your church attendance, and all of the wise, moral, mature decisions you have made...It simply doesn’t matter when it comes to the surprising, unexpected declaration that God’s love simply is yours."
That’s the main point, person, and push of the story--To realize that the father is the main character of this story, of our story, of your story, and God is writing that story with love in mind.
So how many of us have heard this story in the past and focused and favored the actions of the sons? Have delved deeper into their drama than we have in the wide open arms of the Father? How many of us have sunk deeply into the squandering and self-righteousness of the sons and have overlooked the center at which all of those things are struck irrelevant by the father’s incalculable love? How many of us are stuck feeding pig slop or slaving in the fields when we’ve been invited to the healing celebration of mercy and love--when the person who hosting the party is pleading with you to come in and take a load off?
Read this story again and again and again. Fall into the arms of the father (or mother). Don’t stay away ashamed. Don’t be stand-offish wondering if everyone is going to get what’s coming to them. Don’t be distracted by the brothers--be devoted to the main character, God.
In fact, be so devoted to the main character of this story that you start to imitate him. That you start to make the father’s priorities your priorities. That you start prioritizing searching for the lost and wounded. That you start running out to meet them before they collapse at your feet apologizing. Imitate the father who sees death and all its sting and so better appreciates the new life when it emerges. Imitate the father who celebrates and feasts, not counting the cost but praising the progress. Imitate the father who lives lavishly by the sometimes ridiculous mercy of God instead of the calculations of the world. Imitate the main character, the main thing because the Good News, the gospel, demands it and the party is waiting. We would hate to have you miss it.