This Sunday’s Gospel is a very long parable, and one that is much beloved. It has more layers to it than a first reading will find.
Luke 15:1-3, 11-31
The one parable has three main characters. Each character has a lot to teach us. In fact, if you think through the story from each of their perspectives you get three very different, but interrelated Lenten messages:
- One is the familiar perspective of the “Prodigal Son.”
- Another is the perspective that arises at the end, the “Obedient Brother.”
- A third is the perspective on which the whole story hangs, the “Waiting Father.”
The famous German theologian Helmut Thielicke published a book of sermons on the parables half a century ago that took its title from this third point of view, The Waiting Father. He had the wisdom to include two different sermons on this parable. I’ve yet to read them myself, but I think the insight is right: this parable needs more than one treatment.
Jesus’ parables are not tidy, like Aesop’s Fables, each with one simple moral. They are often more confusing the closer you look, not least because like in real life, each person in the tale is living a different story.
The Prodigal Son
First take the familiar character, the Prodigal Son. He’s the younger of two children, unless there were others Jesus didn’t mention.
Something has gone terribly, terribly wrong in this kid’s head. The mistake in his head has led to a problem in his heart – or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, there is a twist in there somewhere.
He has picked up the idea, rightly enough I suppose, that when his dad dies half the property will be his. But somehow he has failed to notice that while his father is alive the whole estate belongs to dear old dad.
If the boy wants to be rich now, he should maybe get a job and earn some money.
But no. The kid makes his ghastly request:
Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” (Luke 15:12 NRSV)
You know the next bit. He takes the money and runs. Far away from parental purview, he spends it all.
It’s easy for a storyteller to fill in the blanks. I imagine him hosting fancy parties with magnums of champagne, accompanied by dishes of caviar. Since he’s paying, he has lots of new friends even far from home.
But then the money is gone.
No money. No parties. No friends.
Thus a Jewish boy, far from Galilee, can only get a job tending someone’s pigs. This is, of course, a very big bummer.
Depression ensues, followed by hunger, followed by a clear-eyed realization of his error.
He’d probably like to make restitution, start over from scratch, fix things with dad. But he has burned his bridges. With the money flat-out gone, he realizes that what he did was flat-out wrong.
Knowing the error of his ways, he can see his consequences:
- He’s damaged his relationship with God.
- He’s damaged his relationship with his father.
- And those pigs are eating better than he is.
He also sees a possible second-best solution: If he can’t undo what he’s done, maybe he can get his dad to just give him a job. At least his dad’s employees have enough to eat.
So he gets his little speech worked out, and he hits the road. He mutters the speech over and over so he’s ready when he reaches his old homestead:
Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” (Luke 15:18 NRSV)
And with that we have a pretty complete Lenten meditation.
We too have been snotty to God, wasted God’s gifts, and ended up in a world of hurt.
We too need to pursue our second-best solution, get our speech in order, and head toward God to ask if we can be his servants.
But that’s not the end of the story.
The Waiting Father
When you look at the father the story goes several levels deeper into gospel territory.
Start with that first scene when the obnoxious younger son basically says
Hey dad! Can’t really wait for you to die. I have things to do. Let me have half your estate now – if you don’t really mind.
The thing is, the father does it.
In the real world nobody is going to recommend this style of parenting. It just can’t be wise to give your kid virtually everything he or she wants.
Everybody knows Herod was daft to say to his daughter that he would give her anything she asked, up to half his kingdom. But he did say it – and it didn’t end well. (Mark 6:17-28)
No, no, of course not. You don’t cash out your IRA and your 401(k) and write a check for half to your son. You set some clear boundaries. You set some reasonable expectations. And you hold on to the PIN to your bank accounts – while, of course, providing generously for your children.
But not the father in this parable. This father just goes for it. Is he a fool? Or is he a particularly wise Parent?
He gives his rotten son everything. Everything he needs, that is, to reach the end of the only rope that will lead to him seeing his own problems clearly.
It is like the dad knew that this kid was an addict who needed to hit bottom. Keeping him in the house was protecting him from himself. Giving him half the estate, while the neighbors gossiped and shook their heads, was the only way.
Somehow this particular dad knew that if he gave the boy everything, he would eventually see himself clearly. He could maybe end up far from the promised land, tending unclean animals like the piggy he had become in his heart.
Maybe that’s why God allows us the freedom to go our own way. We ask for freedom and he gives it, knowing full well we’ll squander it. But if we squander it, maybe we’ll see what fools we’ve been and come back hoping for a fresh start.
It broke the father’s heart to see his son go. You can tell, because the father spent his days on the crest of the hill, looking off in the direction the boy had gone, hoping.
That broken hearted love is the key to the gospel here.
- Though when he hit bottom, the son SOUGHT his father,
- it was the father who SAW the son — and welcomed him.
The lovely thing is that the father isn’t waiting with his arms crossed and his nose in the air, demanding to hear an apology.
No, this father rushes to his lost son, grabs him in a bear hug, and won’t even let him finish his apology – Check it out. There was one more line in the prepared speech (verse 19) that gets cut off when the son talks to his dad (verse 21).
This father is so overwhelmingly glad that his lost son is back that he gives orders to dress him up and prepare a feast.
…for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15:23 NRSV)
This isn’t primarily a message about parenting — at least not the bit about dividing the inheritance now.
Instead, this is another lovely Lenten message.
When we turn toward God in repentance, we find that he is actually running in our direction,
- more aware of us than we are of him,
- more eager to welcome us than we are to return.
We think we want to be lowly servants; God welcomes us as lost beloved children.
We think we come in penitence; God invites us to a party in our honor.
But again, that’s not the end of the story.
The Grumpy Older Brother
And then, at the end, we hear a totally new perspective on this story from the grumpy older brother.
In a sense the grumpy older brother’s story is the original reason for the parable. Back at the beginning of the chapter Jesus was confronted by those who disapproved of him hanging out with known sinners. He told this parable as part of his answer to them.
The older brother of the famous prodigal never asked for his half of dad’s wealth.
He never wasted his dad’s resources in a fireworks display of extravagant selfishness.
He was like the scribes and pharisees who objected to Jesus eating with sinners – they spent all their attention on living as God prescribed in the Law, and figured anyone who didn’t was not to be socialized with.
Certainly the grumpy older brother made a reasonable complaint: He behaved well and got no reward, while his dad was extravagant toward a son who had robbed him blind.
But the father’s message to the grumpy older brother is about compassion: Look at the grief of his father which is wiped out by the younger brother’s return.
And from another point of view, despite his complaining, the grumpy older brother really had been rewarded all the while.
- He got to eat every day.
- He got to have clothes on his back.
- He had warm safe place to sleep each night.
- And he would still have half the estate at the appropriate time.
The dad wanted him to have all these blessings plus a little perspective.
- His little brother had suffered greatly — by his own fault, yes, but he had suffered.
- His little brother was among the living, back with those who (at least theoretically) loved him most.
- His little brother was a member of the family, and they thought he was dead – but he’s alive.
- They thought his little brother was lost forever – but he’s back.
And that’s something to celebrate. If the grumpy older brother can get over himself.
And that’s yet another good Lenten message.
Part of living in repentance is seeing and celebrating others around us. Don’t be a grump, with your arms crossed, nose in the air, ready to condemn someone for their sins. Delight in their growth and repentance. Rejoice in their existence and in the blessings God showers on them — even if you think they are unworthy.
Instead pray the Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.
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