Short Stories By Jesus: The Prodigal Son
Short Stories By Jesus: The Prodigal Son
by Rev. Melanie Homan
View, print or save PDF: Sermon.09.24.17.The Prodigal Son
(Short Stories By Jesus Sermon Series)
“The Prodigal Son”
September 24, 2017
Rev. Melanie Homan
11 Then Jesus[b] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 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. 13 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. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 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. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[c] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 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. 21 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.’[d] 22 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[e] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’”
One of the questions that the kids are asked in Godly Play, after the story of the day, is this: “Who are you in the story?” That question – who are you in the story? – is an interesting one to consider with this particular parable. This is one of the parables of Jesus that is most familiar to us. There was a man who had two sons. And so begins the story of a family. Or a story of all families. It could be many of our families.
The youngest son asked his dad to sell off half his land and give him his inheritance. Right now. He’s looking for some immediate gratification. We call him the prodigal son, because prodigal means “recklessly extravagant” or “foolish”. He got his money, left home, and lost all of it.
Then there’s the “forgiving father”. He might just as easily be called the prodigal father – the foolish father, the recklessly extravagant father – because his own actions don’t seem very wise. But, he loved his son and gavs him what he wanted.
And then there is the oldest brother. The one who stayed by the father’s side. The responsible one. The one who felt jilted when the younger son came back and dad threw a big party (and sort of forgets to even invite him or tell him it’s happening).
So, who are you in the story? The prodigal son? The forgiving father? The oldest brother? My guess is that at different times in your life, you have identified with being the foolish son, the compassionate father, and the responsible child.
The image that most stuck with me was the image we are left with at the end of the parable. We are left with the image of a big celebration, where one son is celebrating with his father and friends while another son is absent and standing out in a field. Left behind and forgotten, or intentionally refusing to join in – we don’t know if he decides to go to the party. The father finds one son, and potentially loses the other in the same moment.
I get why the older son didn’t want to join in the party. It wasn’t fair. His feelings had been hurt. We don’t know if he eventually decided to go in, or if that was the day he became dead to his family, the way the younger son previously had. We have that choice.
Amy-Jill Levine, in her reading of the parable of the prodigal son, doesn’t view this as a story about repentance and forgiving. She doesn’t think that much of the younger son. She doesn’t think his “repentance” is real – that it’s rather a calculated response from someone who is just making the next “best” decision he can make to get back the lifestyle he wants. For her, it’s not a story of a son repenting and a father forgiving. Rather, she sees it as a story of reconciliation. A story of what it means to show up for the party – the celebration – even when you aren’t sure there is going to be any repenting or any forgiving. Levine writes, “Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past. Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you still will have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. Take advantage of resurrection – it is unlikely to happen twice.” (page 75).
Reconciliation. Levine sees this as a parable about reconciliation, and there are others who are keen on this idea.
Paul used some form of the word reconciliation five times in just two sentences in his letter to the Corinthians. Now that is quite a feat! What exactly did Paul mean when he used the word, and what does it mean for us to be given, as Paul says, the “gift of the ministry of reconciliation”?
When we hear this story, there are at least two different ways we can interpret what happens. The first is to believe that the son is repentant, that the son recognizes what he has done to break his relationship with his father, and he’s sorry. The father sees that he is sorry and runs to embrace him before he can even get the words “I’m sorry” out of his mouth.
That’s one way to look at it. But, we might wonder how repentant this son really is,
as he decides to go back to his father. In some ways, his response seems rather calculated. “If I say to my dad, ‘Dad, I have sinned, I am no longer worthy to be called your son, let me come work for you.’ my situation can only improve.” We are right to be skeptical of the son’s motivations, given his previous actions and choices. The story is ambiguous about whether the son’s repentance was sincere. We don’t know if this was a calculated response, or simply the truth.
Either way – and perhaps this is part of what bothers the oldest son (and us) –regardless of the young son’s motivations and level of sincerity, the father runs out to him. Filled with compassion and kisses and an embrace. An embrace that shows the young son that all has been forgiven. ALL has been forgiven! And, the act of forgiveness is not some somber act, requiring act upon act upon act of repentance, but the forgiveness of the father was an act of joy. The father’s forgiving embrace came before the son could even get the words of repentance he’d practiced out of his mouth. Then it was time to party! To celebrate. The parent and child were no longer dead to each other. Each of them, in words Paul might use, has become a new creation.
Paul understood the word reconciliation to mean a return to right relationship. A restoring of harmony to relationship. If something needs to be restored, it must have existed, was then broken down, and is then brought back into being.
The story of the prodigal son and father does not end here. Instead of a nice happy ending, we get conflict. We get the older son who thinks this thing isn’t very fair. There’s a party going on and, just as the father is about to celebrate the restoration of one relationship to one child, his relationship to his other child becomes broken. The parent has open arms, has an embrace that’s always been there ready for this older child, but we are left not knowing, wondering, if the older child will ever choose the embrace, if he will ever enter the party. We see these two children, polar opposites, with the parent wanting to embrace them both.
Is reconciliation possible for both sons? The parent seems to want this. Just like Paul wanted this, too. Paul was writing to the people of Corinth at a time when he was in conflict with them. He always seemed to be in conflict with the Corinthians. Things were fine when he was with them, but when he left, things started to fall apart. Paul is an apostle of Christ, he has shared the good news with the Corinthians, and as soon as he leaves them, some others came along and claimed to be apostles of Christ, looking to earn some fast cash and sharing their own version of the good news. They were successful in casting doubt on Paul’s authority. People began to doubt the truth of what it was he taught and preached.
Paul says that Christ has reconciled us to God, so we should be about a whole ministry of reconciliation to others. It must have been a hard letter for him to write. He was probably downright angry with these other teachers who were calling his credibility into question, these teachers who were teaching false things, leading people astray from the Good News. But, even so, he wrote to the Corinthians that “from now on, we will regard no one from a human point of view.”
He no longer saw those who disagreed with him as his enemy. That would be a human point of view. In Christ, however, we have a new point of view. It is the view of reconciliation. We’ve been reconciled to God, and now we are to work to be reconciled with one another.
Now, here’s the deal. Restoring and reconciling our relationships with others, regardless of the level of perceived or real repentance in the other, is difficult, pain-filled work. It sounds nice in theory, but try putting it into practice.
It’s HARD! It’s PAINFUL! I would really encourage you to talk to people around you, to your loved ones, about how they’ve experienced, or not experienced, reconciliation. Find out what they’ve learned about it in their lives, because our experience comes to bear on how we try to live this out.
Try reconciling with a family member you haven’t spoken to for over 20 years. Perhaps you can’t even remember why you were angry with the person in the first place. Perhaps you vividly remember and can clearly recount the reasons for the broken state of your relationship. Then, consider doing the work Paul challenges us to do – to reconcile as God has reconciled with us. To run forward and embrace the family member who’s hurt you before they even have a chance to apologize, or even if they never take responsibility for their actions. That’s the challenge, if we interpret the young son as not being so remorseful.
The person who can’t remember why they were angry with their family in the first place – this happens all the time. It happened to a dear friend of mine who will no longer be able to work for reconciliation because the family member has died. To her I wish I would have found a tactful way to say “Get over it. You can’t remember why you’re upset, why keep nursing your grudge? You’ll regret this later, if you don’t work to reconcile your relationship now.” But, it’s too late, and I think she will regret that she didn’t do the hard work of embracing. This happens all of the time.
Then, there are others – and this could be any number of people I know – who have tried to do this work of restoration. They embrace the one who has hurt them, they try to forgive, and time and time again, they are hurt or betrayed all over again. They become the doormat on which the families’ difficulties are stomped out. To these folks, I’d say – never relinquish who you are or your sense of self, and stay away from the party if it’s the only way you can protect your well-being. A true embrace requires open arms from both people. It requires “I’m sorry’s” and changed behaviors when you are being harmed. God doesn’t desire harm for any of us.
And then there are times when we desire to reconcile a relationship, but the person we seek to reconcile with is not interested. This is the father trying to embrace both of his children, polar opposites that they are. We are left without knowing whether the older child ever accepts the embrace of the father. To me, this is good news. We are new creations, and our creation is ongoing. The embrace is offered and, as long as the embrace is open, there is the possibility of restored relationship. We can keep our arms open, knowing that the ending of this story is open ended. There is always the possibility, with arms open, that the other will choose to open their arms, too. There is always the hope that both children will embrace the father and that, eventually, the siblings will embrace one another.
Families are one of the places we see this play out most clearly. But, it really happens all around us. Paul was writing to a church in conflict. He could just as easily have been writing to a country in conflict. His response would be the same.
Paul is clear to the Corinthians that he believes they have been called to a ministry of reconciliation. From Paul’s perspective, because we’ve experienced God’s embrace, we are called to open our arms, to embrace others, to be reconciled to them. And not just with those people it’s easy to embrace.
So, think of someone you think it would be difficult to embrace. Maybe it’s your sister, your father, your ex-best friend, your boss. Maybe it’s some polarizing political figure or celebrity that you can’t imagine yourself EVER embracing!
But, imagine doing just that. Imagine embracing someone you completely disagree with
on the things you believe and value most highly. Imagine embracing one another while still claiming who you are and what you believe. And then, imagine what kind of place this could make the world to be. Amen.
Resources used for sermon reflection:
The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on 2 Corinthians
Webster’s Online Dictionary
“Embracing Love” commentary by Kate Huey @ i.ucc.org
Preaching the Atonement by Wright & Stevenson
Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine