Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32)
Few passages in the Bible have had the impact that the Parable of the Prodigal son has had. It is rare that the breadth and depth of a particular piece of scripture can be recalled almost from memory simply by the mention of its name. Even those who might not consider themselves all that “faithful” still know the general gist of things: a son squandering his father’s inheritance and nevertheless being welcomed back home. Now there is, of course, more to this story – much more – but the threads of the parable of the prodigal son have been woven not just into the tapestry of our faith but in many ways into our very culture.
Consider, for instance, that the prodigal son makes multiple appearances in literature, including a poem by Rudyard Kipling, a novel by Anne Tyler, and not one but two Shakespeare comedies. The parable has been brought to life in art, most notably Rembrandt during the Renaissance period. And you will find references to the prodigal son in a cantata by Debussy, a Benjamin Britten opera, and music from The Osmonds, Ted Nugent, U2, the Oh Hellos, Iron Maiden, Dierks Bentley, The Killers, and lest we forget House of Pain’s 1992 smash hit “Jump Around:”
Which is part of the rub of it. Sometimes we fail to see what needs to be seen when we see it so often. Sometimes the significance of something falls by the wayside when it’s right in front of us all the time. So we look at this passage anew; we hear it with new ears as I asked you earlier. We pay attention to little things that we might otherwise miss – including what it was that caused Jesus to tell this story in the first place. We find it in the opening verses:
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
We are told that Jesus overhears the grumbling of the righteous, pious leaders that he, a religious authority of sorts, would hold company with those they consider less than. And it should not go unnoticed by us that this is what elicits the parable. What we would later take to calling the parable of the prodigal son did not originate in a vacuum; Jesus wasn’t just hanging out one day and decided it was story time. No, this story springs to life because immediate circumstances called for it.
And what were those circumstances? It was the Pharisees complaining about the company Jesus kept, yes; but more than that, it was of a culture of haves and have-nots, of power and influence hoarded by some and denied of others, of classism where it was made clear who was in and out, who had a seat at the table and who did not – tables both metaphorical and real. And most notably, a culture where it was understood without speaking a word who was deserving of grace and forgiveness and who wasn’t.
Now, I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve preached on the parable of the prodigal son in 25 years of ordained ministry. It’s a lot. And yet the more notable thing is that there are still dozens of sermons I have yet to preach, because that is how rich this story is. All because Jesus overheard some Pharisees complaining that he welcomed sinners and ate with them.
So perhaps the question of the day is which parable of the prodigal son sermon is the one we need to hear this morning?
Is it perhaps the one that shines a spotlight on the younger brother, often considered to be the main character in the story, most commonly referred to as the “prodigal son,” even though, interestingly enough, the word “prodigal” never appears once in the passage itself? Did you notice that? Quick word study: “prodigal” comes from the Latin and more or less means, “one who spends or gives lavishly and foolishly.” And indeed, that is what this young man does, with his portion of his father’s inheritance, until that inheritance is long gone and he has nothing. So he returns home and throws himself at his father’s feet begging for mercy and forgiveness; and mercy and forgiveness are exactly what he receives, including a huge party thrown in his honor.
Is this the sermon we need to hear this morning, I wonder? It very well may be. The prodigal’s situation is extreme, for sure, but suffice to say we all mess up from time to time and that probably isn’t going to change anytime soon. We all squander inheritances that have little to do with money – we squander the gifts and capacities we’ve been given, the trust and belief that others place in us. We face our shortcomings and when it comes to choosing vulnerability or shame, we wrap ourselves in shame like a long weighty overcoat we instinctively put on at the first sight of rain.
To have the courage to make ourselves vulnerable, to sidestep the shame overcoat and ask forgiveness – that is something we all could stand to work on. Even to have the capacity to grant grace to ourselves – I shared a poem at our church staff meeting this past week, we were talking about how exhausting life is, coming out of the pandemic, still in the pandemic, back to normal but nothing’s normal, we’re all in this sort of perpetual fog. There was this beautiful line in it that read: be excessively gentle with yourself. That sermon may very well be the sermon you need to hear today.
Or maybe, maybe the sermon we need to hear is one that comes out of the perspective of the older brother – the one we honestly forget sometimes because he appears at the very end, and because quite honestly the prodigal returning home to his father is a wonderful way to wrap things up. It would be so nice if the story stopped right there. But it doesn’t.
We meet the older brother, whom we presumed existed all along, given the way the story kicks off: “a man had two sons.” We’ve met the one; now we meet the other. The reliable son, the loyal son, the son who did everything exactly as a good son should. Now the spotlight shines on him and reveals a very disgruntled young man; because he was the son who had not left home and abandoned his family, had not squandered his portion of his father’s precious inheritance, had not come crawling back to Daddy in utter humiliation, only to have the party of the year thrown for him.
And while all of it makes him steaming mad it’s that last part that really gets him – that his father would welcome him home in such grand fashion. That’s a tough pill to swallow right there. When you do as you’re supposed to, when you play by the rules, you do not expect grace and love to be extended so extravagantly to those who do not. It is easy to put ourselves in the sandals of the older brother here, because chances are we’ve been there in some form or fashion before.
Maybe that is the sermon we need to hear today – that grace, contrary to popular assumption, is not about being fair; because grace is rooted in love and love is a wily, unpredictable, tricky thing. There is comfort in grace but that is not it’s primary end, to make us comfortable. In fact there are times when grace, in order to truly be grace, must make us uncomfortable. Perhaps that is the sermon we need to hear this morning.
Or maybe the sermon we need to hear is one with the father at the center; the father who grants his youngest his portion of the family inheritance – even though he more than likely knew what was going to happen. Now I don’t know, I may be way off base here, but I just have a sneaking suspicion that the path his son took did not come as a total surprise to his father. Maybe it did, maybe he handed over that sum of money fully believing he’d use it wisely; but think about what it took for him to do that if he had his doubts, if he suspected that it would lead his own flesh and blood to rightfully earn the “prodigal” moniker. And that is the hardest thing of being a parent; the hardest thing of putting our trust in someone when we know there’s a probability that that trust will not be rewarded.
What does it take, I wonder, for the father to welcome his prodigal son home when he returns with nothing? How much pride does he have to swallow in the pit of his stomach to not only take him back but to go throw him a huge party? And what does it take, I wonder, for that same father to make his way out into the fields where his older son is fuming, knowing he has every right to be angry and upset? How does one demonstrate in both instances the delicate intricacies and dimensions of grace – that while it is not always fair, it is necessary? Perhaps that is the sermon we need to hear today.
You know, I go back to the word “prodigal” – which, once again and somewhat ironically, does not appear anywhere in the parable. It is a word we rarely use other than in this particular context – when have you ever heard someone say, when someone does something wasteful and extravagant, “Man, they sure were being pretty prodigal!”
The word means, “One who spends or gives lavishly and foolishly.” “One who spends or gives lavishly and foolishly.” The “spends” part I get. The “gives” – now that surprises me. One who gives lavishly or foolishly. Giving is not something we typically associate with “prodigal,” is it? It’s certainly not with the “prodigal son” in the parable Jesus tells. And yet it is very much an understanding we associate with grace, and truth is we find grace all over this story. The father, the younger son, the older son – each of them, regardless of what they have done, receives grace. Both sons, one wasteful and one ticked off, receive the grace of their father. And even the father receives grace in his interactions with his sons. No one earns it, of course – no one ever does – but grace is something they all experience together.
As you know, throughout this Lenten season as part of our “Full To The Brim” theme we are incorporating some amazing works of art that have been created specifically for this theme and our scriptures. This week’s piece, titled “New In Christ,” comes from Lauren Wright Pittman and actually is based on the other lectionary passage for this week in 2 Corinthians, which reads, in part:
We don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with Jesus is created new. The old life is gone; a new life emerges! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and God, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other.
If you have the artwork handy, go ahead and take a look at it. It’s pretty, isn’t it? In her description of her work the artist says: “When I closed my eyes and repeated this verse over and over again, I began to see the silhouette of a person filled with the echoes of the first creation narrative in Genesis. The figures, one experiencing new life, and the other sharing the love of Christ, embrace and dance, offering a new picture of what the ministry of reconciliation might look like.”
New life in Christ, like two people dancing!
The parable that Jesus tells ends rather abruptly, with the younger son at his party, the older one still out in the fields, the father trying to convince him to come join in the fun. To join in the dance with his brother. To live into the grace he had received; a grace that by design is meant to be shared as well.
We don’t know what the older brother does here, do we? Jesus ends the story with that significant loose end untied.
Don’t you figure somebody came up to Jesus when he was done with all the teaching and preaching that day and said, “Hey Jesus, great lecture and all, but seriously, going back to the story – what happened? You kinda left us hanging there! Did the older son end up going to the party? Did the younger son welcome him when he got there? Was the father’s love enough to bring them all back together again? What happened?”
I can totally see Jesus saying to them, “You tell me. You tell me.”
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 “For One Who Is Exhausted, A Blessing” by John O’Donohue – https://onbeing.org/blog/john-odonohue-for-one-who-is-exhausted-a-blessing/
 Selected verses from 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21, The Message