Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
“The Sinners Heard Him Gladly”
On this fourth Sunday in Lent we take a look at the well-known parable of the prodigal son, which is probably better referred to as the parable of the two sons.
The lesson begins by showing us who this parable is directed towards. The text says that the tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes see this and complain about Jesus. How could a true righteous and holy man welcome and eat with sinners? In those days to eat with someone was a sign of acceptance, something the Pharisees would never do with prostitutes and tax collectors, murderers and thieves.
So we have two groups at hand for Jesus’ parable—the sinners and the “righteous.”
With both groups gathered, Jesus tells the parable of the two sons.
He starts with the younger, more well-known son. From the start the son says to the Father, “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” Now this may not sound like a deeply irreverent and disrespectful request to us, but in the ancient world asking for your inheritance before your father died was anathema. It was tantamount to wishing your father dead. This request would have been scandalous to Jesus’ listeners. The younger son was essentially saying, “Father I want your things, I don’t want you” (Tim Keller “Gospel in Life”).
Now the listeners, both sinners and Pharisees would probably have expected the Father to discipline the son severely, if not disown him. But this does not happen. So it came as a surprise, in Jesus’ parable, when the Father not only doesn't discipline the son, but he grants him his request.
At this the young son took his inheritance to a far away land and did what all the Pharisees knew he would—he squandered everything in frivolous living. With all of it spent, wasted, a severe famine afflicts the land and the younger son is in dire need. So he hires himself out to do the work of the lowest of the low—he feeds pigs. He is so poor and famished that he is envious of the scraps that the pigs were eating. In saying that “no one gave him anything,” Jesus is further emphasizing that the younger son is a low-life, an outcast, a wretch. Everything the tax collectors and sinners had heard about themselves from the Pharisees and the scribes.
In the thick of the mire, a thought comes to the young son: “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 sets off to see his father and you can just imagine his fear. His dirty rags will be the very first indicator that he is a complete failure. He, who just wished his father dead, would now plead desperately for his father’s help. If his father hadn’t found it fit to punish or banish him before, it would most definitely be within his right to do so now.
But the father does not cast out the son. Jesus says that while the younger son was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” And the fact that the father ran to him is really saying something. You see ancient Israeli patriarchs do not run. The Middle Eastern patriarch, the paterfamilias, the dignified pillar of the community, the owner of the great estate would not pick up his robes and bare his legs like some boy (Tim Keller The Prodigal God). Those around him run to him and not the other way around. But in this parable, the patriarch does just that, showing his emotions openly.
And as the son begins to recite what he must have rehearsed over and over, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” the Father all but cuts him off. He calls his servants to bring out the best robe—the Father’s robe—and put it on him. To put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. He then calls for them to kill the fatted calf, and in that society most meals did not include meat, which was an expensive delicacy. On top of that the fattened calf was the most expensive of them all. To throw such a feast would have been something that only happened on the rarest of occasions—as evidenced by the elder brother’s later reaction. But for the father this was one of those occasions to celebrate, for in his words “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
This parable is supposed to be shocking. One can imagine the reactions of the two groups who came to hear Jesus: The Pharisees, the “righteous,” on the very brink of rage, while the sinners, the low-lives, are drawn in closer than ever before.
In the story one hears echoes of Jesus’ words from elsewhere, “I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
But this is only Act 1—the story of the younger, prodigal, more popular son.
Act 2 introduces us to the second son, the older brother. We see him busy working in the field when he overheard music and dancing. He gets word that his father has killed the fatted calf and is indeed throwing this lavish party for his wayward, no-good brother. And he became angry—much like the Pharisees probably were—and refused to join in. When his father had gotten wind of his older son’s disrespect—for this too was unacceptable behavior for a Middle Eastern patriarch to endure—he did not rebuke, but humiliated himself by coming out and pleading with his son to share in the feast.
But the older son refused, noting his credentials: “I’ve worked like a slave for you all these years, never disobeying a commandment; yet you have never given me even a goat [let alone a fattened calf], but when this wayward son of yours—who has squandered your property on prostitutes—returns, you kill the fattened calf…” And it’s hard not to imagine the Pharisees and scribes throwing their fists in the air as an “Amen, brother” slips from their lips.
But instead of admitting his error, or, on the other hand, rebuking his son, the father continues in what must of come as an another shock to the Pharisee and the scribes (the “righteous”), “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.”
And without giving the older brother the chance to respond, Jesus ends the parable. The author of Luke, through Jesus, uses an interesting literary device. He leaves the question open to the onlooker. “Will you, Pharisee, join the feast?” “Will you, reader, enter the celebration?” You see this parable is not primarily directed toward the sinners and tax collectors; toward your daughter who ran away to Brooklyn, or your pot-smoking brother who just won’t make anything of his life. It is not primarily about the younger, prodigal-types. This parable is primarily directed toward the second group. The Pharisees and scribes, the older-brother and -sister types who’ve been going to church a long time and have their lives together “thank you very much.”
By ending the story before the older brother has a chance to respond, Jesus is essentially looking at the “righteous” and leaving the response to us. How would you respond?... How are you going to react to the fact that he welcomes the people that you find repulsive?... How will I respond?... He welcomes older-brother and -sister types to the feast that is filled with undesirables (or, at least, people we find undesirable). Will we take hold of his gift, or out of pride or a misplaced sense of justice embrace alienation?
I haven’t kept it a secret that I think that this text is a stinging indictment not just of the Pharisees, but also of the Church (and especially church leaders). If the sinners, the outcasts, and the oppressed—those who were so attracted to Jesus—feel repelled by the church something is wrong. And, unfortunately, this is sometimes the case. Just read any de-conversion story, or talk to any of your friends who have given up the faith: “Those overbearing, self-righteous, graceless Christians.” Far too often we (and I’m speaking of myself too), align ourselves in the way of the older brother? We don’t want to accept those who repulse me until they get their act together.
So, for those of us who tend to err on the side of the older-sibling, this invitation is directed at us—not just self-righteous Pharisees. Will we join the feast?...
And now that some of us have experienced conviction, I want to end by concluding that, in Jesus Christ, we older-brothers and older-sisters are pardoned and forgiven. Just as the father went out to embrace the younger brother, he also came out for the older brother as well. Our foolish pride and self-righteousness has been absorbed by the blood of the lamb. Thankfully, the Cross insists that not just the wicked, but even “righteous” sinners are pardoned and restored. This unmerited acceptance, this one-way love, has been extended to us self-righteous sinners before we even got our act together (Or, maybe better put, even now as we continue to fail to get our act together).
And as a result of his prior acceptance and forgiveness, we join in the feast prepared for those who repulse us; for the sinner who was once dead, but is now alive; in thanksgiving that we “righteous” sinners have also been made alive anew. Thanks be to God. Amen.