Saturday, March 14, 2009

Your Brother Was Dead, And He Is Alive! He Was Lost, But He's Been Found!

Tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus, listening to his teaching. The Pharisees and Teachers of the law were not at all pleased. They grumbled: “He welcomes sinners, and shares meals with them, as if they were honorable people.” Their grumbling moved him to tell this story:

Once upon a time, there was a man who had two sons. The younger son said to his father, “Dad, I want what’s coming to me, and I want it right now!”

So the father divided up his property between his two sons. It wasn’t long after that, when the younger boy packed his bags and left to seek his fortune in a distant land. But, when he got there, he squandered everything he owned in a life of dissipation.

After he ran out of money, there was a famine in that country, and he found himself in dire straits. He hired himself out to one of the local landowners, who sent him out to his farm to feed the pigs. He was so famished that he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.

That brought him to his senses. He said to himself, “All the farmhands who work for my father have three meals a day, but here am I starving to death. I’m going back to my father, and I’ll say to him: “Father, I’ve sinned against God, and against you. I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.” So he got up and started home to his father.

While he was still quite a ways off, his father saw him. He ran out, embraced the boy, and kissed him. The son started reciting the speech he had prepared, “Father, I’ve sinned against God, and against you. I don’t deserve to be called your son. “

But the father wasn’t paying any attention. He was calling out to the household staff: “Quick, bring clean clothes for him to wear. Put a ring with the family crest on his finger, and sandals on his feet. Then slaughter a grain-fed heifer and roasts it. We’re going to have a feast. I thought my son was dead, and here he is alive! I’d given him up for lost, but now he’s found. And the celebration began.

Now, the older son had been out in the field, and was coming home after his day’s work. As he came near the house, he could hear sounds of music and dancing. He called one of the houseboys and asked what was going on. “Your brother is home. Your father has ordered a feast, because he has him home, safe and sound.” 

The older brother got angry, and refused to enter the house. The father came out and tried to reason with him, but he wouldn’t pay attention. He said, “How many years have I been here, doing whatever you asked, never giving you a moment of grief, and have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? But now this son of yours who has squandered your money on wicked women has shown up, and for him you slaughter the fatted calf!

The father said, “Son, don’t you understand? You’ve been with me all along, and everything I have is yours. But this is a time for rejoicing and celebration, since your brother was dead, and he is alive! He was lost, but he’s been found! (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)


This may be the best known and most loved of all of Jesus’ parables, but it appears only in the Gospel according to Luke. We usually call it “the parable of the prodigal son” but another way to look at it, is to consider the point of view of each of the three characters in the story: the younger son, the older son, and the father.

The younger son is looking for something he’s not getting at home. The older boy is helping with the management of the estate, and he will no doubt inherit it when the father passes from this life to the bosom of Abraham. “What’s left for me? I might as well go off and seek my own fortune elsewhere!” But when he went out into the real world, he found that he could not buy friendship and contentment by spending his share of his father’s estate. His loneliness drove him to “look for love in all the wrong places”, and nearly cost him his life.

The older boy has a different attitude, but is it a better one? He seems to have decided that he could win favor with his father by being “a good boy”. But in the end, he was not content, but resentful, especially when his younger brother returned and was welcomed home.

The father is the most interesting figure of all. He was not as moved by his older son’s service as he was by the younger boy’s repentance. The Merriam-Webster online defines “prodigal” as “lavish”. That being the case, we really ought to call this the parable of the prodigal father. He was prodigal in mercy and forgiveness. The father in this story is intended by Jesus to represent His Father. “He is rich in mercy, abounding in love. He does not keep the memory of our offenses, and does not punish us according to our sins.”

Remember the context of this parable. Jesus told this story while he was surrounded by a crowd of scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law, who were complaining about his openness toward sinners. “He welcomes sinners and shares meals with them!” What a clear picture of the older brother! “I’ve been working like a slave for you! But you’ve never thrown a party for me!” But, the father responded, “But, all that is mine is yours!” The real reason he was so disturbed at the celebration of his brother’s return was that he really was looking forward to the day his father died, when it would all belong to him!

Be sober and watchful! If we’re not careful, it would be easy for any of us to imitate the older brother in the parable. We can become so intense about doing our duty that we forget to celebrate. The Pharisees accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard because he knew how to celebrate. In fact, he described the kingdom of God as a banquet.

The story of the prodigal son – or is it the prodigal father? – offers us the opportunity to reflect on our own habits, and recognize our own failings, like one or the other of the sons in Luke’s Gospel – or, more likely, like each of them, at one time or another. Let us rather take our cue from the father in the parable. We cannot mirror divine perfection except in one aspect of God’s nature: Forgive, as the LORD has forgiven you. Forgive, as you would want the LORD to continue forgiving you.

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