October 23, 2017

Prodigal Father

Return of the Prodigal Son, Batoni

Return of the Prodigal Son, Batoni

A sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent, 2016

Text: Luke 15

There are words in our language that we seldom use. But we may identify them with one specific meaning or story, and whenever we hear the word, it brings that meaning or story to mind.

One such term is the word, “prodigal.”

I would venture to say that most of us rarely utter it. When we do, we are usually reflecting the Gospel story we read this morning. We call it “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” The “prodigal” son in the story is the younger son, the one who takes his inheritance, goes to a distant land, and wastes his money, his health, and his life in sinful living. If we ever use the word “prodigal” I would guess that it’s in relation to this story.

We might be referring to the story itself, or we might be talking about our families. We might find one of our children or another child wild and uncontrollable. “That’s our prodigal,” we say. “We’re praying for him.”

But other than that, “prodigal” is a word we rarely use. As a result, I think we have a skewed definition in our minds when we hear it. To us, “prodigal” always carries a negative connotation. We hear it and we think: wasteful, self-indulgent, rebellious, reckless. We imagine someone who is living a wild party lifestyle in constant search of pleasure and new thrills, new highs. Someone who throws their money away, who doesn’t care about the toll loose living takes upon his reputation, his own health, his relationships, or his future. Someone who embarrasses his family and doesn’t seem to care.

But “prodigal” doesn’t just refer to all those negative things. The word itself is related to the term “prodigious,” which speaks of something that is extraordinary in size, amount, or extent. Both these words speak of abundance. To be “prodigal” means to be extravagant, liberal, generous, lavish.

When used negatively, it can indeed signify someone who is wastefully or recklessly extravagant; someone who is willing to spend everything he’s got on his own pleasure.

But when used positively, it describes someone who goes far beyond what anyone would expect to bless others with lavish gifts.

And I think that’s really what this parable is about. It’s not so much about a prodigal son as it is about a prodigal father. It’s not so much about a son who wastes everything but a father who gives everything lavishly to the ones he loves. It’s not about a child who recklessly throws his inheritance away, it’s about a parent who says to such a child, “It doesn’t matter, you’re still my child, I’ll always love you, you are always welcome in my home.”

David Lose, who is one of our very best Lutheran preachers today, thinks we should call this story “The Parable of the Prodigal God.”

I mean, think what the father does in this story.

When his younger son insults him and breaks his heart by asking for his inheritance early, the prodigal father simply gives it to him. We don’t know all the reasons why, but perhaps this is an early indication of what kind of father he is. This father is a giver. He’s generous, forbearing, and long-suffering to a fault. Perhaps he suspects that this son will only learn the lessons of life by himself and not by the father trying to impose rules or discipline upon him.

Then, when the son had fallen flat on his face and had spent everything and decided the only thing he could do was return home, what did the father do? “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.” David Lose writes:

[The father] in Jesus’ parable does something landowners never do. He runs out to meet his wayward son the minute he spies him coming from afar. He doesn’t send a servant. He doesn’t wait for his son to come. He dashes down the road like no respectable landowner ever would, making a complete fool of himself. Why in the world, after all, would he be so eager to see a son who claimed his inheritance early (which is kind of like he said he couldn’t wait for his dad to be dead) and then wasted it all. Not only that, he doesn’t even give his son a chance to explain or repent but interrupts his sincere (or maybe half-baked, it doesn’t really matter) speech [and] embraces and restores him immediately. Trust me, all the other landowners will be talking about his ridiculous and demeaning behavior at the first-century equivalent of the Lion’s Club that week. But this landowner doesn’t care because he’s a parent before he’s a landowner and so he doesn’t count all the wrongs his son has done him but only tries to count his lucky and innumerable stars when his son comes back.

This story portrays a prodigal father — a generous, extravagant father. He is not one who is sitting at home keeping score. He’s not pacing and fuming, looking out the window for his scoundrel son to come home so that he can read him the riot act and make him pay for what he’s done. No! He doesn’t say a word about what’s been. He brushes off any suggestion that his returning son will have to do penance for his actions. His arms are open wide. His tears and laughter are genuine and abundant. He’s ready to throw a party! All that matters is that the boy has come home, and he is willing to break the bank to celebrate that.

But this prodigal father does not just act like this toward his younger, erring son. He treats his older son with same kind of prodigal love and grace.

Look at the way the father in this story responds to his complaining elder son. The older boy saw his younger brother as a jerk and a loser and resented it when his dad lavished all this attention on him. He had kept score. And on his scorecard, he was the one who deserved a party and recognition, not his loser brother. So he gets mad and refuses to go to the celebration.

What does this prodigal father do then? Once again, he doesn’t wait but runs outside and pleads with his older son. He takes the initiative. He listens to his son’s complaints. He reaffirms his love for him too and says, “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

The father excuses himself to his guests and leaves his own party, the one he is hosting, and once more risks embarrassment and gossip to deal with a family problem. Why? Because he’s a prodigal father! He loves both of his sons more than anyone can measure, and he will go to any length to show his love for them.

This father represents the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And this is the kind of God he is. He’s a “prodigal” God, an extravagant God, a lavish and generous God who wants nothing more than for each of us to know we are loved and welcome in his house. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, how we’ve insulted him, or how we’ve failed to be good children. He comes running out to us and cares only that we’ve come home and that we’re safe and sound.

Indeed, the God who is like this went far beyond the father in this parable. The Bible tells us that the cross is the ultimate symbol of just how prodigal our God is. There Jesus endured the worst kind of public humiliation. There he suffered total rejection and absolute abandonment. There he poured out everything — extravagantly, lavishly, holding back nothing — giving up his very life that we might be reconciled to God.

In the end, that is what really matters in this story. Not whether you and I have been good little children or not. No, this is about a prodigal God who runs — all the way to the cross — to welcome us home, time and time again.

• • •

You can read David Lose’s thoughts on this parable HERE.

Comments

  1. Again, the distance of time, culture, and over-familiarity has dulled the scandal of Jesus’ parables. EVERYTHING in the Jewish culture of that time would tend towards making the elder brother the sympathetic character of the story. He was loyal. He was obedient. He stayed on the land. By all rights, the father should have given all his love and affection to that son, and to that son alone.

    Pastor Lose is 110% correct about the scandalousness of the father’s behavior in the parable. The Pharisees were indeed expecting a party – for *them*, once God established the Kingdom. “Great job guys, you were faithful to the Law, now you get to rule the world and party with me!” To see the parable’s God-figure put himself out so for a WRETCHED SINNER – and to see the God-figure chide and plead with the representation of themselves in the parable, rubbing it in about how wrong they truly were in their assumptions – well, it becomes a little less mysterious as to why the Pharisees were so eager to see Jesus get “whacked”.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      EVERYTHING in the Jewish culture of that time would tend towards making the elder brother the sympathetic character of the story. He was loyal. He was obedient. He stayed on the land. By all rights, the father should have given all his love and affection to that son, and to that son alone.

      A typical Rabbinical parable, then this Rabbi from Nazareth puts a one-eighty twist ending on it and blindsides his listeners. Everyone expecting one ending, then suddenly “WTF?”

    • He was loyal. He was obedient.

      He obeyed the Law.

      “Great job guys, you were faithful to the Law, now you get to rule the world and party with me!”

      Surely God will give me a wife if I stay pure. Surely God will heal our land if we defund PP. Surely God will reward me if I tithe.

      It’s an old deception but a very common one.

      • So…was Jesus a bad Jew?

        • Rick Ro. says:

          By Pharisee standards, yes.

          • StuartB says:

            By the keepers of the law, lol. These guys were the true fundamentalists who were Biblical and (proto-)Gospel led. Or orthodox.

            Can we say the Pharisee’s standards were wrong? Even Paul seems to pat himself on the back for how orthodox he was before he realized who cares.

          • Rick Ro. says:

            Yes, they’re wrong. Some reasons why:

            1) They make a person think they can become holy by “doing.”
            2) They make a person APPEAR holy when they’re far from it.
            3) They can lead a person far from God.
            4) They can be abused to the point they lead people far from God, or even keep a person from entering His kingdom.
            5) They can be bad for the “heart.”

          • StuartB says:

            Devil’s Advocate, of course.

            1) They make a person think they can become holy by “doing.”

            The Law.

            2) They make a person APPEAR holy when they’re far from it.

            Fake it til you make it.

            3) They can lead a person far from God.

            But towards holiness.

            4) They can be abused to the point they lead people far from God, or even keep a person from entering His kingdom.

            Via Law and holiness.

            5) They can be bad for the “heart.”

            Bacon is good cholesterol.

      • Rick Ro. says:

        The only person to be perfectly obedient ended up dying on a cross. How’s that for prosperity gospel?

        • Rick Ro. says:

          “Be perfectly obedient and it could happen to you, too!”

          That wouldn’t preach too good on Sunday.

  2. Robert F says:

    Despite appearances, both sons have wandered far from home, and have left their father and become lost.

    There’s a Buddhist story that parallels this one very closely, except that the prince in the story secretly sends emissaries to find and monitor his son’s welfare. They carefully arrange things so that the son never falls into a hardship that might destroy him, until he decides on his own, unaware of his father’s provision, to return home.

    • Robert F says:

      But the Buddhist story lacks the other son who stays at home and “kept score”, which is such an important part of this parable, and central to its meaning.

  3. YES – the story is about the Father, not either son! But it is about more than the father acting foolishly or having the neighbors gossip. THE primary value that Jesus’ society placed on persons and groups was HONOR (or dishonor). As Bruce Malina points out, in a society with limited good (i.e. only so much ‘stuff’ to go around) the most important value is not economic (as it is in our society) but honor – the respect, or lack of it, one receives from others. This is not just individual (since the first-century world was not an individualistic culture like ours) but affects our ‘in-group’, primarily one’s family (including extended family). It also had lasting impacts – which is why genealogies are such a big deal in the Bible – does one come from an honorable family?

    To act with honor raises the status of the person or family; to act with dishonor lowers their status. But that status isn’t just ‘social status’; it affects things like buying and selling (who will do business with you), the kind of justice one can expect, whether one can get help in time of need, etc. – it’s something like a ‘credit rating’.

    The point is that the one who is dishonored in this story is the father. The son acts dishonorably but in doing so he brings dishonor on his father (aside from insulting him, etc.). The father gladly accepts the dishonor, and then dishonors himself – he continually looks for the son to return, he RUNS to him (as CM notes, honorable men did not run in that culture), he takes back his son, forgives him, gives him a ring, etc. The father’s actions would bring down his status considerably, and probably hurt the family more than losing 1/3 of the family’s net worth. In the eyes of his community the father has acted more dishonorably than the son!

    But Jesus’ point is that God is like that father – he cares more for people than he does his honor (something some of our friends, particularly in the Reformed camp could learn). It echoes what the writer of Hebrews says about Jesus – ‘who endured the cross, disregarding the shame’. Jesus says that God is generous, gracious, loving, and forgiving, and apparently considers his honor to be a small thing compared to those qualities (and actions). That Jesus would say such a thing scandalized the Pharisees, and it should scandalize us as well. Eyeore is right – time and familiarity (as well as not understanding the culture and values of Jesus’ world) have dulled the scandal and obscured their meaning and impact.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      It also begs the question “What is ‘Honor’?”.
      The original cultural background of this parable (Semitic tribal culture) could have some real toxic definitions of “honor”:
      http://www.uwgb.edu/dutchs/PSEUDOSC/TOXICVAL.HTM

      • Exactly. When most of us read the Bible, not only do we miss the cultural cues, but if we really understood them we would not like what we often see. A good example is ‘biblical family values’ we always hear about. I don’t think I would like to live in a ‘biblical family’, and I know my wife and daughter wouldn’t! If you want to see ‘biblical family values’ in practice today you’ll have to go to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan . . . . When honor is primary, people become secondary.

        Perhaps this is a big part of Jesus’ parable – he is challenging the value system and how people have applied it to God. Lose’s article that CM referenced is about Anselm’s substitutionary atonement theory, which (my take, not his) argues that theologians have done what the Pharisees did – applied their value system to God, who must be more concerned about justice and honor than mercy and love, and people.

        • A topic that comes up often in my church is how, in short, our nation is “going to hell in a hand basket” and we no longer hold to “biblical values”. I understand what they mean but more and more have come to realize they hold to a wrong definition of “biblical values”.

          Their definition of biblical values is a mixture of moral codes and cultural mores of a bygone era and has more to do with creating categories, who is in and who is out, identifying the dreaded “Other” and making sure you’re not in that category, hence the emphasis on how “liberals, homosexuals, immigrants, and Muslims” are trying to “shove their agenda down our throats”; it’s about erecting fences, sometimes literally.

          Instead, the story of the Prodigal Son illustrated to the Pharisees then, as it should to the Pharisees now, that “biblical values” are, as you say, more concerned about mercy and love than about justice and honor; it’s about tearing down fences, not erecting them.

          Jesus also told the Pharisees to “go and learn what this means. ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'” When will we ever learn?

          • “shove their agenda down our throats”

            When I like on facebook my gay friend’s posts about their bf/gf/life, I get private messages from Christians asking me to stop shoving the gay agenda down their throat, since apparently your likes can show up in other people’s feeds.

            In other news, hung out with some Christian friends last week I hadn’t seen in a few months, so we got dinner and movies. They waited an hour til we had left the restaurant to make their homophobic, racist, sexist jokes complete with retching sounds about all the mixed people who showed up in the restaurant.

            Yeah, I’d really love to follow their Biblical values.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Their definition of biblical values is a mixture of moral codes and cultural mores of a bygone era and has more to do with creating categories, who is in and who is out, identifying the dreaded “Other” and making sure you’re not in that category, hence the emphasis on how “liberals, homosexuals, immigrants, and Muslims” are trying to “shove their agenda down our throats”; it’s about erecting fences, sometimes literally.

            Doesn’t one of those Biblical Values Activist groups actually call themselves “Wall Builders”?

            In the sense of building a Fortress Wall against Those Heathens?

  4. Our all powerful God is not taken with appearance. Our all powerful God is humble. He lowers Himself. If we wish to keep company with Him we have to do the same. For Him it is about us. For us it is about Him. That’s the flow.

  5. I love this lesson, thanks.

  6. Tim Keller’s book of the same name(Prodigal God), is probably the best book-length explanation of this I’ve heard.

  7. StuartB says:

    Random observation. The only reason conservatives give more to charities than liberals is because churches are classified as charities by the IRS. Strip that away, and I wonder how much of the money actually comes from conservatives or liberals, and where that money goes.

    As you were, lol.

    • Them’s fightin’ words, pardner. 😉

    • “The only reason conservatives give more to charities than liberals is because churches are classified as charities by the IRS.”

      I don’t know about that. I’m sure that’s the case for some; however, though I’m not as conservative as I once was, even then I couldn’t have cared less about the tax break–I gave (and give) because of Jesus and I don’t think I’m special in that regard.

      But your observation does bring up a thought I had and it piggybacks somewhat on my comment above about our nation going to hell in a hand basket. There are more charities taking care of more disadvantaged people in our nation than ever before; there is more dignity and equality for minorities, including the disabled, than ever before; with advances in medical technology, we literally see the lame walk, the deaf hear and the blind see; in many, many ways we see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Yes, we have a long, long way to go but it seems to me that as a society we have made great strides in affirming the basic dignity and worth God has endowed each person with, even if, as a society, we don’t acknowledge the imago dei as the motivation for having done so.

      So, for me the question arises: Is a welcoming, open, inclusive, yet “secular”, society more reflective of God’s kingdom than the “Christian nation” of our past that many look to as a better representative of kingdom values?

      • StuartB says:

        YES

        YES

        YES

        • StuartB says:

          But who cares. It’s wrong, because the churches should be the ones in charge and doing it, not the government.

          • I know you’re being facetious but, actually, there are many churches (probably the vast majority) that are doing some type of charity work and that is good and right; however, if the state is also taking care of the “least of these”, is the state not also doing kingdom work? Or, put another way, has God co-opted the state into doing His work, at least in part?

          • And, while this train of thought might seem off topic, I believe it speaks to how God’s grace extends to all people not just the “elder brothers”, those who are part of the “chosen people” but to the outcasts of society, the ones who have been profligate (and still are), the ones who have defiled themselves by “hanging out with pigs”. We, as Christians, simply must get the news, the very good news out that while there may be those who represent God as wanting nothing to do with them because they are unacceptable, in fact, the opposite is true–God is not a god who shuns the prodigals nor the elders but is a pursuing god, one who pursues His children even unto death.

          • Robert F says:

            But if the news is just words, it’s not going to cut it. Being present with and for those that others call unacceptable is the only communication that means anything; unless we are willing to risk the opprobrium that comes with being associated with them, close to them, even one of them, our words mean nothing. Unless we’re willing to risk getting hurt, our news is just words and hot air.

          • Absolutely, Robert. And, I’m afraid we (meaning me) are going to have to risk the opprobrium of even those in our own faith communities.

  8. Yesterday when the parable was preached at Mass, it occurred to me that it loses something by standing alone. It is part of a trio (sheep, coin, son) that shows that God is like someone who simply will not give up hunting for something he (or she – see the woman who lost a coin) has lost.

    In each case, the search seems to be not worth the effort. After all, the shepherd still has 99 sheep, the woman still has several coins, the father still has a good, obedient son. So why do these deprived owners bother looking for things that they surely could have lived without? Is it that God simply can’t stand to lose what was once His? And that He works very hard to get the lost thing (person) back? And once He finds it, He rejoices like crazy? No one is ever too lost for a God like this. Christ died for us all.

  9. I’ve never thought much of the father in this parable. Frankly, he’s enabling. The son was a wastrel – and while perhaps the party was followed by a good old fashioned come to Jesus and some discipline, the story never says that. A parent who treats their son this way doesn’t love him. If anything, this is a story about three screwed up individuals.

    • As a first born, I have never been fond of this story, nor the one about people working an hour and getting paid the same as me after a hard day’s work. I understand the intellectual explanations but suspect they come from a middle or youngest child.

      In my childhood and youth I resented what appeared to me to be blatant favoritism of my father toward my younger brother over me. It was not until my brother and I returned “home” to rescue our ailing old father in our middle age perspectives that I realized my childish perception had not only been accurate, but was continuing full force in the here and now. If it was raining, it was my fault, if the sun was shining, my brother got the credit.

      Seems to me the obvious explanation of these parables is to go ahead and party hearty, goof off, and work the system. Of course we are not allowed to express this, but I bet there are a few other first borns beside me who mutter under their breath. Of course, as a first born, I was supposed to be sacrificed anyway.