Jesus knows human nature very well. He knows we love a good story. Some of us like soaps on the TV, some of us like Charles Dickens or other classics, some like me enjoy a daily dose of who dunnits, but on the whole people like a good story.
Jesus knew this and his parables caught people’s attention because they were good stories. Today’s parable is often called the parable of the prodigal son but the word prodigal is never mentioned in the Bible. Prodigal has two meanings one of these is rashly or wastefully extravagant, and this would seem to apply to the younger son in the story.
This story is one of three about lost things and in the crowd listening to Jesus are two particular groups, those called tax collectors and sinners and the Pharisees and teachers of the law. And it was to this group, the Pharisees and teachers of the law muttering and complaining that Jesus had anything to do with those they regarded as sinners, that Jesus aimed these stories. Telling them who he was, who had sent him and what he had come to do. It is a parable that is probably very well-known to us and for that reason we may miss how unexpected and hard hitting this parable really is.
First of all Jesus began with familiar things, a well off father with two sons, at once this would have alerted a first century audience well versed in the Old Testament stories of Cain and Abel and Isaac and Esau that trouble was brewing. And almost immediately the first shocks, the younger son asked for his inheritance and then left home. This would have horrified Jesus listeners, normally a son would get his inheritance when his father died and to ask for it before then would cause great shame to the father, it was as if the son had said to his father, ‘I just want the money, I wish you were dead!’ The father could easily have refused him his inheritance, he could have beaten him or cast him out but he didn’t.
And then the son left home, common to us but again shameful to the first century audience. This was the worst, most ungrateful son in the world. No surprise then that he squandered his money on riotous living and fell on hard times. Such hard times indeed that he had to do the unthinkable just to stay alive, he had to look after pigs! For a Jew to have anything to do with pigs is bad enough: for him to be feeding them and hungry enough to eat their food is worse. This boy had sunk as low as he could go.
And it was at this lowest point that the son ‘came to his senses ‘ he remembered his father and set off for home rehearsing what he would say, asking for forgiveness, hoping that he might be accepted back as a servant.
Now the story turns to the father, and here is more unexpected behaviour. He should have been seething with anger; he might well have declared his son dead in his eyes. But no, in a very few words we are shown that the father has spent the time his son was away looking out for him, maybe climbing onto the flat roof of the house and scanning the road searching for any sign of his son returning, hoping and praying that he will come back.
And he sees him and at once the father bursts into activity, in a culture where a senior figure would be far too dignified to run this unusual father takes to his heels and dashes to meet his son, he gives him a cloak and a ring and shoes for his feet indicating most clearly that he is welcomed back as a son not a barefoot servant, the sons prepared apology is cut off and a huge thanksgiving party is thrown. The son had caused the father nothing but heartbreak and shame but all that matters now is that he has returned, ‘My son was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found.’
And then we turn to the elder son, working hard in the fields as usual. He only hears about the party from a servant, and is filled with righteous indignation. And again the father does something culturally unexpected, once more he casts his dignity aside and takes the active part, he goes out to reason with the older son. Taking the moral high ground the elder son complains to his father about the unfairness of it all, he has always worked hard, too dignified to run this unusual father takes to his heels and dashes to meet his son, he gives him a cloak and a ring and shoes for his feet indicating most clearly that he is welcomed back as a son not a barefoot servant, the sons prepared apology is cut off and a huge thanksgiving party is thrown. The son had caused the father nothing but heartbreak and shame but all that matters now is that he has returned, ‘My son was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found.’ And then we turn to the elder son, working hard in the fields as usual. He only hears about the party from a servant, and is filled with righteous indignation. And again the father does something culturally unexpected, once more he casts his dignity aside and takes the active part, he goes out to reason with the older son. Taking the moral high ground the elder son complains to his father about the unfairness of it all, he has always worked hard, he has never had a party with his friends. The words he uses are telling, when he talks to his father he refers to his brother as ‘this son of yours’. He says that the younger son has squandered the property with prostitutes, prostitutes had never been mentioned before, but he is happy to portray his brother in the worst possible light.
The father’s answer makes it clear that he is quite aware of the situation, God has no favourites, he knows that what the younger son has done is awful but he loves both of his sons and he cannot help rejoicing because the younger son is back. And he wants the older brother to come in too he wants him to be part of the party.
A story with three main characters, the younger son portraying the tax gatherers and sinners, the older son standing for the Pharisees and teachers of the law and the father, God. And we might at first sight think that this parable tells us about God’s forgiveness. But it is much more unexpected than that.
Are you familiar with the naughty step? They didn’t have it when my children were small but Mhairi uses it with James and Fraser, especially Fraser. When he is naughty he is sent out of the room to sit on the bottom step of the stairs, there he hums and kicks his feet and sometimes picks the wallpaper off the walls. In a few minutes he is summoned back in. ‘What do you say?’ says Mhairi strictly, ‘I sorry Mama’ comes the not always very penitent response. ‘Well don’t bite your brother again, or whatever, it’s very naughty’ and he is given a cuddle, forgiven and restored to favour, till the next time!” In this forgiveness model, the parent is passive, the child comes to them and forgiveness is contingent on the child apologising and agreeing to try and improve. That was what the younger son expected, he came home planning his apology, but that is not what happened. This father like the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep and the woman in the parable of the lost coin is active. Not waiting for the son to come home but looking out for him.
Jesus is telling the listeners about the unexpected, amazing and wonderful thing God has done out of his love, God has sent his son Jesus to look for those who are lost and have gone astray and to offer them salvation through his death on the cross. In this parable Jesus makes clear what God’s response is to all who have been lost and have come to their senses, to all who have turned back to him, as he said a little earlier in the same chapter, ‘there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.’
And the story parallels the older brother’s behaviour with that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus uses the parable to point out to them that though God’s generosity is reaching out to people they didn’t expect, people they despise and look down on, God has also sent Jesus for them. Because, like the older son, they are just as lost as the younger son and their heavenly father is searching for them just as anxiously. This parable makes it clear that each individual person must turn to God and commit their life to him and then they will be welcomed into the Kingdom with open arms.
I said at the beginning that there are two meanings of prodigal; one is ‘rashly or wastefully extravagant’. The other meaning, however, is ‘giving in abundance, lavish or profuse.’ So this parable could well be called the parable of the prodigal father, the father who longed to give both of his sons his love even when they turned away from him and threw his love in his face.
So what is the meaning of the parable for us here today, are we the younger brother or the older brother. If we are the lost younger brother then the parable tells us that God is just waiting for us to come to our senses, as soon as we turn around and come stumbling towards him he will come running towards us ready to shower us with his gifts of love.
But maybe we are more like the older brother, maybe we can sympathise with the Scribes and Pharisees, maybe there are people who we feel do not deserve God’s love, murderers, rapists, child abusers, those the media labels as monsters.
Strangely enough the Bible doesn’t have much to say about hell, whilst heaven is mentioned 550 times hell is only mentioned 54 times and 31 of those occurrences are in the Old Testament. Most of the descriptions of hell we are familiar with are from paintings and literature like Dante’s Inferno rather than Biblical sources. As humans we may who want those who have done terrible things to suffer for all eternity. This parable makes it clear that this is NOT God’s desire. The shocking truth is that God’s love and forgiveness includes those whom we despise, those whose crimes fill us with disgust and revulsion.
How did we feel when we heard about the Boston bombing a few months ago? Saw the dreadful pictures of lives, young lives cut short, bodies maimed. And then we saw the interview with the Bombers parents, heard their mother crying ‘Not my boys, not my beloved sons.’ Who could not identify with her pain? Well this parable tells us that although God knows every horrific thing that those he created can do and have done his pain and love are greater than that mother’s. God knows that we are all sinners and that none of us deserve his love. But even knowing that he still says to each and every one of us, turn round, open your heart, come into my party, YOU are my beloved child.
God’s love is amazing, prodigal, abundant, lavish and profuse, and he longs to share it with everyone.
Like many good stories this parable has no ending. It leaves us thinking and wondering, not knowing what decision the older son will make. We know for many of the Pharisees the decision was that Jesus was too radical and challenging, so they sent him to be crucified.
Today Jesus is still seeking for all who are lost; he is still radical and challenging, amazing and unexpected. And he still allows each one of us to freely decide how our story will end.