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.’”
(Luke 15: 11-31)
On May 21, 2007, the Island Packet newspaper remembered an interesting incident that happened 15 years ago in Beaufort, South Carolina, my prior town. Fred Turner left Beaufort on foot in an attempt to walk across the country to prove that everyone was good at heart. As he got to the Georgia border some men in a pickup truck stopped him and asked him what he was doing. “We’ve heard about you,” they said. Then they took his wallet, pushed him off of the road, and drove away. Later he remarked that he guessed he found that one bad person!
You have to wonder what motivated him to begin that trek in the first place, and what motivates anyone to wander from home. Our Scripture today is one of the most well known parables of Jesus. It touches upon so much- parenting, sibling rivalry and jealousy, national and religious issues, etiquette, and cultural norms. But the greatest lesson in the parable is the magnificent, welcoming grace of God that receives humanity home.
Jesus intended the hearers to realize that God welcomes humanity like the father welcomes the younger son. The Pharisees had just criticized Jesus for walking with Zacchaeus and stated that Jesus ate with sinners. Jesus responded to this through three parables. Jesus told the parable of the lost coin, the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the prodigal son.
Though well known, not everyone loves this parable. A famous minister, Fred Craddock, was known to say that most people react to it by putting their hands on their hips as if to say, “That’s not fair!” We can totally understand why the older son feels that way.
How did that first crowd react when Jesus told this parable? One of the greatest New Testament scholars is Kenneth Bailey. He has spent many years teaching in a Middle Eastern seminary and has become an expert in the cultural background behind many stories in the Bible. He asked many families if they had ever heard of something like this story happening. Throughout his fifteen years in the Middle East and traveling about teaching, he never encountered a family that had experienced or heard of a prodigal son situation. In fact, he went as far as to say that it would be unthinkable for a son to make a request that bold. He said it would be almost impossible since this affront to the father would basically be like saying, “I wish for you to die.” This would warrant the father to punish the child so severely – and a child would not consider that. When Jesus told this parable the crowd would have reacted with shock at a child making this kind of request.
There was an article in Newsweek several years ago about a modern day prodigal son. The son had gone to work as a computer technician several states away from his home but had kept in touch with weekly phone calls. The calls began to taper off. Finally he stopped calling altogether. His mother discovered that her son had fallen into the world of drug addiction, but she could not get any farther than that, and what was worse, now no one could find him- he had simply disappeared. She went looking for him, immersing herself in the drug culture, even posing as a homeless person and dropping messages for him with others. Eventually someone said they would give him her message, and a meeting was arranged. She would never forget how she felt as he rode toward her on his bike. He did not look like her son, smell like her son, but she knew it was he as they finally embraced in tears. Why didn’t he return her messages? He was afraid of the shame he would face when she discovered his addiction.
All parents face the very difficult task of tough love. Each parent must determine how much consequence and punishment balance out unconditional acceptance on the scale of parenting. Jesus told this parable in order for us to understand how dramatic God’s love is for each of us. God picks us up out of the ditch and turns us back again toward home- without fear of shame- just rejoicing that what was lost is now found.
If we take the side of the older son, we realize that we have convicted ourselves and revealed that we may have more in common with him than we realize. We discover that he was lost even though he never left home, and consider whether we are spiritually or emotionally lost as well. There was a very sad story of a man in Norway who was visiting his family. He was walking along and then suddenly wondered, “Where am I going?” “Who am I?” He could not remember where he was going, or who he was, or anything that would help someone direct him. It took the authorities one month to reunite him with his family.
In a similar way, we may be walking along in our life’s pattern. Suddenly we realize that we are spiritually or emotionally lost. We usually miss the mark as we try to address that condition, ignoring, rationalizing, or numbing it. Jesus told these parables about lost things in order to raise the questions, “Am I lost….do I know someone who is lost…what am I supposed to do about it?”
There is something we can do! A late seminary professor, Alvin Rogness, thought that maybe this parable would mean more to us if the younger son struck it rich with his inheritance and then decided to come home. Whatever that might have conveyed about his decision to return home, that alternate ending would have diminished the older brother’s jealous reaction to his lost brother being found. The older brother basically disowned his younger brother with the language he used, referring to him as “…your son….” Instead of “…my brother.” We must not react like that older brother! The first thing that we can do is to address the idea of the lost being found in our lives. We must turn into seekers for God. God calls us to seek what is lost just as he has sought us.
A man was visiting his friend at a rehabilitation facility. It was a farm used to dry out addictions. Several friends visited but there had been no progress. When he arrived at the farm, he saw his friend doing a chore. He was standing in pig mud with a bucket in his hands. The scene startled him- his friend was usually sharply dressed in a nice suit- but now he was in farm clothes feeding pigs. This sight caused him to remember this parable of the prodigal son. He had never used language like this before with his friend, but something prompted him to call out as he approached, “God welcomes you home!” His friend turned to look at him and dropped the bucket. It was the moment when his life turned around. He had heard a lot of counseling. He had received various therapies. But he had never considered that God truly welcomed him home. It took a good friend to introduce him to that powerful realization. He secured victory over his addiction as that bucket fell and hit the mud.
Jesus calls the hearers of this parable to do three things. First, we are to examine our coordinates in life to determine where we are and if we are going the right direction. Second, we are to realize that God’s magnificent grace welcomes back the lost with complete acceptance and open arms. Third, we are to bear that fact as we look into the mirror or as we encounter the lost. We are to be that good friend, not reacting like the older brother with our hands on our hips arguing fairness, but by being part of God’s welcoming party…bringing a coat, a ring, the fatted calf, and joyfully proclaiming, “God welcomes you home!” May we play that part as God brings the lost home. Amen.