The Prodigal Son

(subject:  scriptural exegesis)                                                 Main Line Unitarian Church
  Devon, Pennsylvania
  21 April 2013
Sermon Series (Part 2):
Everyday Scriptural Stories”

Reading: The Gospel of Luke 15:11-32

[Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, `How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise 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 as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And 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 servants, `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, `Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”

 

Reading: Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner

I think that [the] parables [of Jesus] can be read as jokes about God in the sense that what they are essentially about is the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people . . . It is hard to think of any place where this is more apparent than in the greatest parable of them all, the one that is in its own way both the most comic and the most sad. The Prodigal Son goes off with his inheritance and blows the whole pile on liquor and sex and fancy clothes until finally he doesn’t have two cents left to rub together and has to go to work or starve to death. He gets a job on a pig farm and keeps it long enough to observe that the pigs are getting a better deal than he is and then decides to go home. There is nothing edifying about his decision. There is no indication that he realizes he’s made an ass of himself and broken his old man’s heart, no indication that he thinks of his old man as anything more than a meal ticket. There is no sign that he is sorry for what he has done or that he’s resolved to make amends somehow and do better next time. He decides to go home for the simple reason that he knows he can get three squares a day at home, and for a man who is danger of starving to death, that’s reason enough. So he sets out on the return trip and on the way rehearses the speech he hopes will soften the old man’s heart enough so that at least he won’t slam the door in his face. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” That will hit him where he lives if anything will, the boy thinks, and he goes over it again. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” trying to get the inflection right and the gestures right; just about the time he thinks he has it down, the old man spots him coming around the corner below the tennis court and starts sprinting down the drive like a maniac. Before the boy has time to get so much as the first word out, the old man throws his arms around him and all but knocks him off his feet with the tears and whiskers and incredulous laughter of his welcome.

 

Sermon: The Prodigal Son

Most Unitarian Universalist ministers that I know tend to avoid preaching about stories from the Bible, because they’re afraid that doing so will aggravate the wound of somebody who had a bad childhood experience with the book . . . or with people who took the book literally. That’s a shame, because some of the stories are as instructive today as they were thousands of years ago, if interpreted and understood properly. As I said last week, “The Bible is filled with interesting stories about humanity, morality, mythology, and – occasionally – a little history. There is a lot of God-talk in there, but mostly the Bible is a story about people.” Furthermore, just like reading the plays of William Shakespeare, if we open the book and open our minds, we often find characters who remind us a lot of ourselves, at our best and at our worst.

Last Sunday, my sermon focused on a story from ancient Jewish scripture: The Book of Jonah. Today, I want to talk with you about one of the best known and least understood stories from Christian scripture, The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which you heard in its entirety earlier.

Now I know that most of you spent your Saturday night pouring over the Gospel of Luke in preparation for church today, but for the benefit of those couple of people who did not, let me offer you a bit of background material.

First of all, we view Jesus as a great teacher and spiritual leader who lived and died two thousand years ago. Fully human and bearing within him a Spark of the Divine, a seed of godliness, just like you and me. We draw inspiration from Jesus’ message, because we believe that he tried to teach people how to live and the stories he shared illustrate our own human struggle to live faithfully and lovingly.

At the beginning of chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke, we are told that early in his ministry Jesus was preaching to a crowd comprised of “tax collectors and sinners,” and “Pharisees.” One crowd; two very different audiences. The tax collectors were hated by the ancient Jews, because they worked for the occupying forces of imperial Rome. The “sinners” were loathed because they were the prostitutes, the petty thieves, the drunken homeless, and the drug addicts of the day. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were an upright – you might say, uptight – group of citizens within Jewish society that dictated observance of and conformity to religious law. They determined who was socially “respectable.” So Jesus’ audience that day was compromised of the social outcasts and the “Holier than Thou” elements within Jewish society.

First, Jesus told a parable about a shepherd who loses one of his 100 sheep. Then he told about a woman who loses one of her ten silver coins. ‘Don’t you think they’d go and look pretty hard for these valuable lost things?’ Jesus asked. ‘Of course!’ the people think, ‘A shepherd’s wealth is his flock, so losing even one sheep would be terrible and a woman losing 10% of her cash . . . well, yeah, she’d search high and low to find it, crawling around on her hands and knees with a lamp even, and be thrilled when she found it!’

Then Jesus tells about the man and his two sons. “The younger . . . said, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’” You see, in ancient Israel, religious law dictated that only sons inherited their father’s estate, and then only after he had died. The elder son would have inherited 2/3 of his father’s estate and the younger 1/3.

The younger son’s request would have shocked ancient Jews, because he was basically saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” He was saying, “I value what you have, not what you are to me.” The son cares about the family resources, not the family relationship. Even more shocking is that the father agrees to his request. And the father wouldn’t have withdrawn money from the bank or dissolved his stock portfolio, he would have had to sell off a third of his land and livestock, because the inheritance, the family wealth, was in real property.

And what’s the son do? He takes his briefcase full of cash, flies to Las Vegas, gets a high rollers’ suite at Caesar’s Palace, a couple of high priced hookers, a big sack of cocaine, plenty of expensive liquor, and proceeds to live it up. Oh, yeah . . . he’s having the time of his life. You only need read the newspaper to know that this sort of thing happens all the time. The Bible isn’t the only place where you can read stories about people behaving badly.

Then one day, the son finds himself standing on the curb of the Las Vegas Strip . . . no room, no money, no women, no clue, only empty pockets and an empty stomach. So he finds a job. We’re told that the Prodigal Son takes a job feeding pigs. To understand the significance of this, remember that – in Judaism – pigs are unclean, impure animals and observant Jews cannot, will not eat pork. So, when Jesus told his audience that the son “would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate,” they know that this boy had fallen just as far as a Jew could possibly fall. And the son decides to go home; however, as Frederick Buechner observed in the reading, “There is no sign that he is sorry for what he has done . . . he decides to go home for the simple reason that he knows he can get three squares a day at home.”

We might expect the father to refuse to allow his son onto the (remaining) property. We might expect the father to watch the boy grovel tearfully and at length before delivering a withering lecture on being stupid and irresponsible. That would be a pretty human reaction. Perhaps you’ve delivered that lecture yourself before. God forbid, you may have received it. But, in the highly patriarchal society of ancient Israel, the best the son could have hoped for would have been to be received into the house and allowed to prostrate himself before the master, his father, in apology.

But that’s not what happened. The father spies the boy on the road and sprints to meet him, folding him into a loving embrace before the wayward child can even stammer out his well-rehearsed apology. Then the father calls for the best clothes in the house – which would have been his own – and orders that the “fatted calf,” the prime piece of livestock, be slaughtered to prepare a banquet to welcome home his son. Friends, this would not have been a nice Sunday dinner with the family, it would have been a feast for the entire community, the whole town. The son who had disrespected his father and dishonored his family would have been celebrated home like a conquering hero. “Let us eat and make merry;” the father says, “for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

What sort of love is this that would do such a thing? What wondrous love is this? Unconditional love. Selfless love. A love that we invoke when we speak of grace. Some of you heard me speak of grace in a sermon a year or so ago, in which I observed that grace is a “love that we do not deserve and have not earned. A gracious person is kinder, more patient, more understanding, more tolerant, more accepting, more forgiving of other people than might reasonably be expected at any moment. The gracious person speaks well of us, when our behavior might fairly be criticized; forgives the offense, when we might justifiably be held to account; is kinder to us that we might expect, embodying a gentleness and love that we have not earned and don’t really have a right to expect under the circumstances.” Such is the father’s love for his boy.

However, not everyone in the story is so graceful. The elder brother, we are told, “was angry and refused to go in” to the party. I can understand that, but it hardly seems healthy.

Just as he went out to his foolish younger boy on the road, the father went out to his elder son and implored him to join in the celebration.

Timothy Keller, in his book The Prodigal God, wrote “this story might best be named the Parable of the Two Lost Sons.” You see, each of the brothers is alienated from his father in some way. While the younger son’s failings are obvious, his elder brother’s are no less spiritually destructive. The elder brother is furious with his sibling, angry, resentful, and full of bitterness. And he’s angry with his father, too, for squandering still more of the family’s remaining wealth on his ne’er-do-well brother’s welcome home party. “This son of yours” the elder son says, not “my brother.” He cuts himself off emotionally from his only sibling, because his bitterness is so deep. He disowns him in his heart. You see, the elder brother has been the good son, focused on performance and achievement. He’s done everything right – never disobeyed his father, worked the family land, never asked for anything, not even to have a party with his friends – all of which makes him self-righteous.

Frederick Buechner wrote, “The word sin is somehow too grand a word to apply to the reaction of the prodigal’s elder brother . . . yet, it is just the right word . . . envy and pride and anger and covetousness, they are all there. He is a caricature of all that is joyless and petty and self-serving about all of us. The joke of it is that of course his father loves him even so, and has always loved him and will always love him, only the elder brother never noticed it.”

The sons in this story represent two sides of the same coin; they are each thoroughly self involved. The younger brother is selfish and self-absorbed; he feels that his father owes him something and he wants it now, for his own self-gratification.

He’s called the Prodigal Son, because “prodigal” means “to spend money recklessly and wastefully.” When we’re reckless, we don’t reckon the cost of our actions. We don’t do the mental math, perform the cost/benefit analysis of our actions. We’re too busy thinking of ourselves and our needs, wants, and desires at the moment. That’s what the younger son did.

When I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I’ve been like the Prodigal Son at times in my life . . . focused on myself, my own quest for happiness, my own ambition, my own selfish needs. I’ve squandered resources recklessly. You know that in the ancient world – Greece, Babylon, and Rome – a “talent” was a measure of gold and silver. Talent was treasure then and it still is today. When we squander our talents, we truly are being wasteful spenders. Wasting our time, talent, and treasure are three certain marks of a prodigal son or daughter . . . and I’ve done all three, at times, in my life. To admit that is embarrassing at best and shameful at worst.

The elder brother is pretty self-involved as well. He’s been self-serving in his dedication to the family estate, self-denying of simple pleasures in life, and he’s self-righteous about his own behavior. He feels morally superior to his brother and more financially responsible than his father. He is, what Mark Twain called, “a good man in the worst sense of the word.” And I’m ashamed to say that I have been that way myself sometimes too. Entirely comfortable in my judgment of other people and entirely certain of the correctness of my own opinions.

Selfish, self-absorbed, self-involved, self-centered, self-serving, self-righteous . . . it seems to me that, too often, when the prefix “self” precedes the description of our actions, the results aren’t very good or terribly attractive. I’m sure you’re familiar with the expression “Get over yourself!” It’s actually wiser spiritual instruction than you might have imagined.

Then there is the character of the father. The father is truly humble and not bound by pride. He doesn’t care what the neighbors might think. He’ll do anything for his sons, because he loves them so freely, so fully, so completely. He is utterly self-less. He is prodigal in his own way, because he, too, is a shade reckless. Sometimes we don’t do the mental math, perform the cost/benefit analysis of our actions, our spending, our love. We just do it, spend it, give it without calculation. He says to his elder son, ‘you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” The father is both a human example of unconditional love and, of course, a metaphor for God.

In the Jewish scripture, we are told that when Moses asks God’s name, the answer he gets is “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). Jane Kenyon artfully built on this passage in her poem Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks when she wrote:

I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name . . .

What wondrous love is this? It is Divine Love. It is the love that will not let us go, because of what we are, not who we are, what we have, or what we have done.

Jesus purposefully does not tell his listeners whether the elder brother relented and went into the party to celebrate the return of his brother. We do not know whether love triumphed in his heart. Jesus’ message in this parable was not, primarily, a message of hope to the sinners in the audience; although, I’m sure that they appreciated it. His parable was an appeal to the Pharisees, the self-satisfied and upright judges of others. “He wants to show them,” wrote Timothy Keller, that “their blindness, narrowness, and self-righteousness . . . are destroying their own souls and the lives of the people around them.”

This parable, like so many stories in scripture, is both instructive and an appeal to us, that we might engage in self-reflection and imagine a world in which grace and love prevail in human affairs at any cost.

So this, friends, is why I enjoy and benefit from reading and contemplating the deeper meaning of scripture. You see, faith is about our relationship with the Holy, the God of our individual understanding; religion is about our relationship with other people, each other. The stories in ancient religious texts were written by people, about people, for people. They are also the reflections and supplications of finite creatures trying to make sense and speak of an infinite, timeless, mysterious, and unnamable God that we cannot ever truly know, but which we experience, and sometimes share, in powerful ways. In truth, scripture is not a revelation of God, but rather a reflection on human nature and the Divine mystery, and an expression of our desire to live fully and faithfully. For all our shortcomings, for all our failings, we are still and always inherently worthy and dignified, because each of us bears within us a Spark of the Divine, a seed of godliness, and our very bodies are assembled from the atoms of ancient stars. So, let us live up to this birthright, and this Holy potential, by being more loving and graceful than the world has any right to expect of us.

So may it ever be.