A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-31
Some of what I’m about to say is taken from a sermon by the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book The Preaching Life. It’s a wonderful book, and she’s is a wonderful preacher, and I need to give credit where credit is due.
This is a very familiar Bible story, yes? This parable is commonly called what? Most of us grew up calling this story the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But I think that’s a wrong title. Jesus does not begin his tale by saying, “There once was a man who had a father and an elder brother. . . .” Instead, Jesus begins by saying: There was a man who had two sons,” letting us know that the story is really about a father and his two children. So this man had a younger son who was so hungry to see the world that he asked his father for his share of his inheritance. Now, when does a person usually get an inheritance? Most people don’t get inheritances until somebody . . . dies. So basically, this son was telling his father: “I wish you were dead,”—at least symbolically—by asking him to settle his estate early and give both brothers their share. But instead of reminding his son of the obvious truth— “I’m not dead yet!!”—the father chooses to value his child’s freedom more than his own security and paternal rights. So the father divided his livelihood and said goodbye to his younger son, who went off and squandered everything in wild living—this was a case of “Boy Gone Wild!” Unfortunately, just as he spent all his money, there was a severe famine in the land. The young son was so desperate that he hired himself out to feed pigs. And as all Jews know, that ain’t a kosher thing to do. But one day he “came to himself,” and that’s when he decided to go back home. So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw his son and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
And here, scholars disagree on what exactly happened. Notice that the younger son had a speech prepared in verses 18-19: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” But when he finally got around to giving his speech in verse 21, it’s not exactly the same. What’s the difference? Some scholars think that the father interrupted the son before he could finish. Other scholars think that the younger son purposefully did not say the second part of the speech. He just states the facts, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Stop. He lets go of all illusions that he could earn his way back into his father’s favor.
Either way, the father was overjoyed by the sight of his younger son and immediately welcomed him back home. Now I don’t know about you, but if my son squandered my money and then returned home broke with his tail tucked between his legs, I’d welcome him back, but I would also give him a piece of my mind, and he would experience the mother of all timeouts while doing extra chores to earn back some of the money he wasted. That’s what I would do. But that’s not what the father did in Jesus’ parable. That father immediately ordered a clean robe for his returning son, a fine ring for his hand, and a pair of new sandals for his feet – all symbols of sonship. The father ordered the fatted calf to be killed so that he could throw a party to celebrate the return of this lost son: “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” So they began to celebrate.
Don’t you just love stories with happy endings, filled with parties and festivities? Unfortunately, this story is not over yet. Let’s not forget, this man had two sons. Verse 25 continues: “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’”
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
What do you think? It is easy to harsh on the elder son. To be fair though, the elder son was faithfully working in his father’s fields while the younger brother squandered all his portion of the inheritance. Think about this: anything that’s left of the father’s estate—to whom does it belong? Right—the older brother! So after squandering his own inheritance, the younger brother comes home to live off whose inheritance? Right, the older brother’s! How fair is that?
I am the eldest child myself. . . . Older siblings frequently get the raw end of the deal. When I was young, I couldn’t get away with anything! But my sister, who was just two years younger than me, well, I thought she could get away with murder, and my parents wouldn’t care. So I could really relate to the older brother in this parable. My guess is that while he might be upset by his younger brother’s return, or by his father’s quick forgiveness of him, what really got his goat was the celebration. Let the penitent come home, by all means, but let him come home to penitence, not to a party. Where is the moral instruction in that kind of welcome? What about living with the consequences of your actions? What about reaping what you sow? What kind of world would this be if we all made a practice of rewarding sinners while the God-fearing folk are still out working in the fields?
I mean, what do you have to do to get a little attention around here? It seems that prodigals get all the attention. But what about those of us who are holding our own? What about those of us who are burning our candles at both ends, trying to serve God and keep up with our other responsibilities too? What about those of us who go to class, do our homework, pay our dues, set a good example, but never seem to get any credit for it, while those who party all night, skip class, get drunk, get into trouble, get all the attention? It is quite upsetting for hard work to be rewarded only by more hard work, while irresponsibility is rewarded with festive homecomings. What do you have to do to get a party around here? After all, who hasn’t had the experience of being faithful and loyal only to have the party given for someone else?
I know that typically when we hear this parable, we now turn on the older brother. We say, come on, older brother – have a little mercy on your brother! Be obedient to your father! Do you think you’ve never sinned? When we get to this part of the parable, we tend to see the older brother as arrogant and unforgiving. And yet I think we can all agree that we understand this older brother and we recognize the pain and frustration that he might feel. In fact, I cannot tell you how many people have come to me over the years, sharing their own real-life family histories that are strikingly familiar to this parable. These folks feel the pain provoked by a prodigal sibling. They sometimes have been hurt by the way that their parents have appeared to side with the wild child. They have no hope that the sibling will ever learn his lesson or change her behavior or make amends for his past mistakes. They feel an ongoing burden that though the other sibling makes all the mistakes, they are the ones tasked with paying all the costs and cleaning up all the messes. For such older siblings, when we urge them to lighten up and join the party, there is a huge disconnect between our expectations and their experiences.
Yet, as I said at the beginning, who is this parable about? Is it about the younger brother? To a degree. Is it about the older brother? To a degree. But the stated subject of the parable is a man who had two sons, and both of them were lost. One son was lost in a wild country living first as a partier and then as a pig keeper. The other son was also lost, since he lived in his father’s house all these years less as a son, and more as a hired servant slaving away thinking that he can’t even BBQ his own goat for friends. This father runs out to greet one lost son who finally returns home, and also he leaves a party to seek the other lost son who so far refuses to come in the house. In both cases, this one father is for both sons. This father is not content to have one child without the other; he advocates for and seeks out both.
I know we often call this passage the parable of the prodigal son, the son who extravagantly and foolishly lavishes his money on parties and wild living. But perhaps instead of focusing on the prodigal behavior of the son, we should focus on the prodigal behavior of the father. A common definition of “prodigal” is “lavishly or wastefully extravagant.” While this father does not live a wastefully extravagant life, he does offer a lavish, extravagant, seemingly wasteful love to both of his children. This father does not love either of his sons according to what they deserve. He just loves them, more because of who He is than because of what they’ve done. And despite how many times either child might break his heart, this father continues to give his love away to them. The father’s love for one child does not preclude his love for the other. The younger one’s recklessness cannot deflect it any more than the elder one’s righteousness. They are a family; they belong to one another, and a party for one is a party for all. “My son,” the prodigal father said to his elder son, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours”—not my son, but your brother—“was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Here, we see the prodigality of God’s love. The extravagant, seemingly wasteful love of God is offered for all God’s children. God loves us because of who He is; not because of what we’ve done—good or bad. I truly believe that that there is a younger son and an older son in each and every one of us. Some of us may have more of the younger son, and we can put a dagger in God’s heart by wishing God were dead so that we can live however we want. We have wounded others by our selfishness and sin. But perhaps, in a group like this at church, many of us might identify more strongly with the older son. And for us older brothers, we have deep wounds, many caused by the younger siblings of our lives. For some of us, the knowledge that we’re supposed to be forgiving and loving is just one more burden to carry. But either through the times that we have wounded others or through the times that we have been wounded, we find ourselves feeling far away from God’s prodigal love. As a result, these experiences have affected the way we love others, and the way we love ourselves.
As we consider our lives this week, let us remember that God is the prodigal Father, who refuses to give us the love we deserve, but instead who gives the love we need. As we mull upon this parable, let us remember a God who waits patiently for His lost children to return. When He sees us from a long way off, He runs to welcome us. Let us also remember a God who looks around the party and feels our absence, a God who leaves the party and steps outside to be with us, and waits patiently for our response. Amen.