Prodigal Jesus

Week of Sunday March 6 - Lent 4
Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11-22

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ 3 So he told them this parable... (The lectionary omits the story of the shepherd and the woman, and directs us to the story of the father and his sons.)

11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The 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. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But 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! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So 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. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But 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. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for 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. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But 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.30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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.” ’

Also on this text: The Prodigal Father and Free Beer

A politician who was losing support started coming to church during the election campaign. There were knowing smiles at his sudden piety. And it never occurred to me, his elder brother, that perhaps he was trying to come home. I simply dismissed him.

The story of the younger brother is seen through the eyes of the elder brother.

The younger brother says, "Give me what I could have if you were dead!" (Bill Loader) I had to be told this, but it was plainly implicit at the time the story was told. The younger brother went off and wasted his inheritance and then took a job feeding pigs, which was about as low as you could go if you were one of Jesus' people; pigs were unclean. But he went lower than that, because he contemplated feeding himself from the same trough as the pigs.

The story is ambiguous about what happened when "he came to himself."  "The son's rehearsed speech smacks of insincerity and a plan designed to tug at his gullible father's heartstrings." (Matt Skinner) The father, by giving him his inheritance had brought shame on the family anyway, and now, undignified old fool, was running down the road to greet him, and swallowing the whole unlikely story. It's the elder son who adds the bit about the prostitutes.  

And it's the elder son who makes his disapproval, and his distance, plain. "This son of yours…" is not only a distancing from his brother, but also a distancing from his father. The elder brother is estranged not only from his brother, but also from his father. Do you notice that both sons are outside the house on the day the young one comes home? It's the older one who can't come in.

We can't help but make identification of the characters in the story, such as: The Father is God. The Pharisees, who don't like Jesus hanging out with the sinners, are the older brother.  Maybe we are the prodigal who has come to his senses and come home. But James Alison says our "starting point must … be… to some degree self-implicatory." This is quoted by Paul Nuechterlein, who says, "This parable is told for my benefit as a competent white male in good standing of the 21st Century." That is; I am the older brother (or sister.)

Nuechterlein says

If you are a middle class white person like me, aren’t we the elder son in this parable? Aren’t we the ones balking at seeing the poor, captive, and oppressed as our sisters and brothers? What would it mean for us to fully accept them as brothers and sisters and be reconciled? That young African American man in prison for using crack cocaine, for example — what would it mean for us to call him brother?

It would mean, among all else, forgetting his failings. How many times have we, as a visitor or new minister, been brought up to date on the failings of certain "younger brothers" in the congregation, as though the one telling had lived a life of purity and without failings? Have we, indeed, been the one driven to alert someone else to the failings of the younger brother? So often in this, there is an underlying pleasure in the telling, and a certain driven need to tell.

Understand what I mean: there are one or two people around our congregation we need to know about. If a certain person comes in the door to café, we need to watch them because they show signs of being predatory. I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about Millie*, who as a teenager 40 years ago, ran off with the organist for a few months, but in the last 35 years has lived a life of such self-giving compassion that when with her, I feel I am in the presence of a rare holiness. Why did you need to tell me about her childhood— when, most likely, she was the victim of an abuse? Can you not see that you are now abusing her again?


God in Jesus Christ is inviting me to the heavenly party going on because of the work of reconciliation begun in Jesus Christ. But first I need to be able to see my estranged siblings. Mimetic Theory teaches us that our most common blindness precisely involves our not being able to see our victims as anything else than unrelated others. We fail to see them as siblings, as fellow human beings, and so we fail to see them as estranged. And, most tragically, we fail to answer the call to be reconciled. If Jesus’ heavenly Father is trying to get us to see them as brothers or sisters, our response is so often like the elder brother’s: “this son of yours,” never “this brother of mine.”

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) God, as Wink put it, is the human one.

God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. (Walter Wink Just Jesus, My Struggle to Become Human pp 102)

When we act like the elder brother we have forgotten who we are. We act as though we are human, and  as if only our younger brother does not measure up.

In fact, we are using the younger son as a scapegoat, saying "We are not so bad. All these years we have been working like a slave for you…" I think this is what drives us to disclose the sins of others. We invite them to common cause against the younger brother, and build up a false community of solidarity which is able to rejoice in its relative sinlessness compared to him. Gossip invites others to join us in condemnation and self-justification.

There is something prurient about gossip, a deep restlessness that needs to keep gossiping,  which indicates our lack of reconciliation with who we are. And from the parable it is plain: we are estranged not only from the younger brother, but from the Father. The younger brother has come home, and come inside, but we remain outside and refuse to go in.

Even though I have largely silenced my tongue, something in me finds it difficult to forget the sins of others; even sins which have not affected me. It is not so much the putting myself above others, as the keeping of some folk of whom, at some level, I disapprove. I cannot let go of difference. I cannot be friend; I have to be older brother with all the disapproval that goes with it. Which means there is some sense in which I refuse to go in the banquet of the father.

David Henson asks some startling questions about this parable.

What if God instead is the prodigal who seems so irresponsible?

What if God is the God who comes to us in the disguise of those we despise, those who have hated and killed us, rejected us and abandoned us, those who annoy and frustrate us most, those who are excluded?

In the guise of the sinner, the debauched, the prostitute, the unclean, the enemy, the unsavory, God comes to us and challenges us to participate in a radical, irresponsible hospitality that turns the rules of polite society upside-down.

And if God comes to us as this, how do we respond? As the father does, subverting social norms and opening his life to the chaos the prodigal brings? Or as the brother does, maintaining society’s values but closing off his life to loving the Other? 

To go into the banquet is to open myself to chaos. It tips all the rules I have learned to live by, upside-down. How much easier to keep my bearings by nominating a few sinners. Then I can remain unchallenged; I'm not part of the problem.

In this parable, Jesus is asking us whether we will entertain angels, even if the angels look to us like demons, like exactly what we fear and loathe. He is asking us whether we can overcome our prejudice and the oppression of religiosity to open our arms enough to embrace the Other, the other who is actually our closest kin.

Jesus once said that if we have seen the thirsty, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the lame, the blind, the abused, the neglected, then we have truly seen him. Not some metaphorical carbon copy, seen him, Jesus our Lord.

And Jesus invites us to open our banquet tables to him, wherever we find him.

Barth said God "went into the far country by becoming [human] … the far country not only of human creatureliness but also of human corruption and perdition.”(Church Dogmatics IV pp 20) He said this was an "indirect" exegesis that's not in the text but was implied. (See Mark D. Davis) He tied it to Jesus' Sonship in the Trinitarian sense— I can barely follow his text— but I take from it that there is a deep reality about us which is expressed in this parable. Henson says,

This story is prefaced in Luke with concerns from the religious elite about the company Jesus kept at table. This wasn’t a matter of simply transgressing social norms. To the people of the time, the fellowship you kept, who you dined with, determined who you were. To the people of the time, because Jesus supped with the unclean, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the worst of the worst, Jesus, too, was the unclean, the tax collector, the prostitute, the worst of the worst.

When we are older brother and sister who will not come in, when we are older sister and brother who will not allow the younger son to come home, when we are older brother and sister who will not forget old the old sins of others, but only our own, we are rejecting Jesus.

Henson said, "To the people of the time, the fellowship you kept… determined who you were." Nothing has changed. I have been privileged— accidentally, and through no wisdom or goodness of my own— to be keeping the wrong company. I can see that it is turning me into an outsider, the very thing a good oldest child like me wants not to be. And yet it is bringing home to me a deepening sense of the love of God, and bringing me home to a kind of peace I might just call a reconciled life.

Andrew Prior 

* Millie is a fictional person with a true story.

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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