Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, September 21, 2018
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The Parable of the Prodigal Family

Luke 15:1-2 and 11-32

 I don’t know how many times I’ve preached on this passage.  Probably more than I should have, considering how many texts I’ve never preached on.  But I just can’t pass it up.  Every time I see it in the Lectionary, I jump on it.  To me, it’s just too good of an illustration of the gracious love of God.  It’s been called the “Best short story ever told.”  And I have to agree with that.  And I think it also has a relevant message for the church today about our own attitudes and behaviors.  

 What should we call this story?  The traditional name for the story is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  But someone once asked “Which son is the prodigal one?”  Others have argued that the story should be called, “The Parable of the Prodigal Father.”  

 You see, the word prodigal means lavish or extravagant, or in a negative connotation, wasteful.  And in a way, every member of the family is either extravagant or wasteful.  So I like to call it the Parable of the Prodigal Family.  

 It’s easy to see how the younger son is wasteful.  He says to the father, “I want my share of the estate now.”  According to the customs of first century Hebrew culture, the father could divide his estate before his death.  Since he has two sons, the older would receive two-thirds of the estate, and the younger one-third.  The first born always received a double portion of the inheritance.  He could divide his estate and “retire,” allowing his sons to manage the affairs.  But until he died, he maintained legal possession of his estate, and his sons could not sell anything without his permission.  He could choose to do this on his own, but for the younger son to ask for it was basically the equivalent of him saying to his father, “I wish you were already dead.” 

 Nonetheless, the father does it.  And soon the younger son sells his share of the estate and moves to a distant country.  He was one of those people who are always convinced the grass is greener on the other side.  

 When I was a teenager, I met a young lady who came on one of our Algonquin canoe trips.  She was from Pittsburgh.  Well, I grew up in a small town.  For me, Pittsburgh was the “big city.”  But this gal went on and on about what a boring place Pittsburgh was.  “There’s nothing to do.  I can’t till I can get out on my own and move to New York.”  I don’t know if she did or not, but she certainly seemed to be part of that “grass is greener on the other side” crowd. 

 But this young man soon learned that home never looks as good as it does from a far off place.  A famine struck.  Famines were an inevitable fact of life in that part of the world.  Weather was unpredictable, and you had to count on the rain to keep the crops growing.  His money ran out.  And all he could find was a job feeding pigs the seeds of the carob tree, which were one of the few things that would grow in times of drought.  They weren’t very appealing, but he still longed to eat them.  

 “No one gave him anything.”  He was a foreigner, an alien.  If there was a Hebrew community in that country, they’d want nothing to do with him for his behavior.  So he was easy to take advantage of.  Maybe he wasn’t even being paid a “minimum wage.”  

 Finally, he came to his senses.  Literally, verse 17 says he came to himself.  That is a powerful statement.  When we are living apart from God, we are living apart from our true selves.  Repentance is a return to who God created us to be.  

 He decides to go home.  He suddenly remembers the generosity of his father, even toward slaves or hired men.  He figures there’s no chance his father would ever welcome him home as a son, but perhaps, he could be hired as a laborer.  At least his father wouldn’t take advantage of him, like others were doing.  

 Now we might think that he was being very humble in his plan to return as a laborer, not a son.  But that’s our perspective.  According to the norms and customs of first century Hebrew society, he is a complete outcast.  The community would expect his father not to receive him at all, on any terms.  They would think his actions were bold, even presumptive.  

 But that’s not the perspective of his father.  His father sees him coming from a long way off.  The implication is that he was keeping watch for him.  He’d look down the road day after day, waiting and hoping, his son would return.  That’s a picture of God’s love for us.  No matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done, he wants us to come home.

 When he saw his son, he ran to him.  Grown men didn’t run in that society.  The only way you could run would be to hike up your robe, which came down to your feet.  You looked very foolish, undignified doing that.  But his love for his son was enough to make him willing to look foolish.

 The son tries to give his speech about how sorry he is and how he only wants to be hired as a laborer.  But he doesn’t even get to finish his speech.  His father cuts him off, saying to the servants, “Bring him a robe, a ring, and sandals.”  The finest robe in the house would be his father’s own “ceremonial” robe, worn only for special occasions.  For him to put it on his estranged son was a sign of great honor.  The ring would be a family signet ring, bearing the family seal, a sign of reinstatement into the family.  And sandals would represent freedom.  Slaves, generally, didn’t wear any shoes.  

 The son is welcomed home as a son.  And the father even kills a fattened calf and throws a party.  The dead son is alive again.  When we are living apart from God, we are dead, spiritually, if not physically.  And when we repent and come back to God, we come back to life again.  

 The father is also prodigal, this time in the positive sense of the word.  He is extravagant, lavish.  He lavishes gracious, redeeming, forgiving love on his lost son who did nothing to deserve it, just as God lavishes his grace and love on us, who also don’t deserve it. 

 But then the older brother comes home from the fields.  When he finds out what’s going on, he refuses to go in.  He is furiously angry with his father for welcoming home this son who doesn’t even deserve the title of son.  

 The father goes out and pleads with him, begs him to come in.  He says to his father, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you.”  That’s not the attitude we should expect him to have.  His relationship to his father should be warm and close, not like the relationship between master and slave.  He should obey his father out of love, not slavish obedience.  

 “And you’ve never given me even a goat for a feast with my friends.”  He seems to have a very selfish motive.  “What’s in it for me after all I’ve done for you?  But look what you do for someone else, this son of yours, who has wasted your property.”  Son of yours; He won’t even call him brother.  

 The father says, “Everything I have is yours.”  That was true.  The estate was already divided.  The younger brother already had his share and spent it.  The older brother had nothing to lose by welcoming him home.  “It was necessary to celebrate.”  As in, “We didn’t have a choice.  We had to celebrate.  He was dead, but now he’s alive again.  Something like that has to be celebrated.”  

 The older brother was also prodigal, wasteful.  He lived in the same house as his father, but he had wasted the opportunity to learn the heart of the father.  He lived with him, but he didn’t really know him.  

 Did he go in?  Did he go to the party?  The question is left unanswered because it is up to the listener to answer it.  

Now the story was originally directed at the Pharisees, who saw their relationship to God in very slavish terms, who were often unwilling to welcome home lost sinners.  But it’s also very applicable to the Church, because sometimes we struggle to welcome home the lost or to forgive others who have wronged us.  

It has been observed from time to time that Christians seem to have a harder time forgiving other Christians than they do forgiving those outside the Church.  Why?  The best answer I’ve ever heard is that we have higher expectations of those who are supposed to belong to Christ.  The higher the expectation we have of people, the harder we are hit when they fail to meet our expectations. 

But the point of the parable is that true forgiveness means that when the wanderer comes home, when the sinner repents, we treat them as if they had never left.  We don’t continue to hold their sins against them.  That’s not real forgiveness.  I think the statement “I forgive you, but I won’t forget it” is a rather meaningless statement.

One last point:  In Luke chapter 15, there are three stories about the lost being found.  One is about a coin, lost by accident.  One is about a sheep that foolishly wandered from the flock.  And one is about a son who deliberately walked away.  Whether someone is lost by accident, by a foolish choice, or by a deliberate action, when they are found, we must rejoice. When the dead come to life, regardless of who they are or where they’ve been, we must rejoice.

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