Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
from March 6, 2016
“I once was lost and now am found,” that wonderful hymn Amazing Grace declares. That hymn reminds us of the first part of this story we call the parable of the Prodigal son. I can no longer encounter this parable without acknowledging the interpretive work done by Biblical Scholar Kenneth Bailey. Bailey says that too many layers of tradition and lack of understanding of Middle Eastern culture have led us to mis-hear and misinterpret this parable. Even the title we’ve given the parable skews our hearing –the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Our emphasis is on the younger son’s actions. We hear this as a story about repentance. The son finally realizes the error of his ways and returns to the father to beg forgiveness.
Bailey says the parable, if we begin to read it through Middle Eastern lenses, is about all three characters – the Prodigal Son, his older brother, and the father. In fact, the parable is primarily about how this father responds to his sons. Middle Eastern culture would immediately recognize that the father in this parable acts in unexpected ways.
First, the younger son, essentially, said to him, “Drop dead, Dad. I want my inheritance.” And the father gave it to him. The father would have given him a portion of the ancestral lands. This son publically shamed his father – first, because he asked for his inheritance before his father had died, and second, because he would have then sold off the land that was understood to be a sign of God’s presence. He could not have done this without the entire community knowing. A father who would allow such disrespect was unheard of! He was showing a reckless love for this son.
When the son returned, we hear a story of repentance. Bailey says, again, it is the father’s actions that surprise. The son doesn’t really get a chance to repent. The father ran to meet him – Bailey says Middle Eastern men would never run. He threw a party – fully and publically restoring his son to the family.
Bailey suggests that the real power and punch of this parable is found in the story of the older brother. This was one of the parables that Jesus used to counter the complaint the Pharisees made that Jesus was “welcoming sinners and eating with them.”
As the parable continues, the father demonstrates the same kind of costly love that he had shown for his younger son. When the older brother returned and refused to go in to the banquet, he, like his younger brother, was publically shaming his father. When his father left the banquet to invite the older son to come in, he showed a willingness to set aside all convention and expectation to restore this son to the family.
When my younger sister, Elaine, was almost 7, my parents took us to the World’s Fair in New York City. As we were wandering through one of the exhibits, Elaine got separated from the rest of the family. My parents were frantic. This was long before the days when everyone would respond quickly and seriously to a report of a missing or lost child. One announcement was made over the PA system. “Would Elaine Robinson please ask an adult to escort her back to the lobby?” (Can you imagine such a request being made publicly today?) Dad went looking for her and Mom and I waited in the lobby. I happened to glance up as she entered and headed for the escalator. Being the responsible big sister, I chased after her.
She had been having a wonderful time. “Didn’t you hear the announcement?” I asked. “No,” she replied. “I must have been in the playground across the street. Do you want to go see it?”
She didn’t know that she was lost. She had wandered off by her own choice and done what she wanted to do – leaving frantic parents to search for her.
She didn’t know she was lost! Jesus is telling the Pharisees that they, like the sinners, are lost. They may not know it, but they are lost. They can’t separate themselves from the sinners that Jesus welcomes. And he would be glad to welcome them!
Jesus’ parable is an invitation to his hearer’s to enter the banquet – to gather at the table and share God’s love. He leaves us hanging. We don’t know if the older brother went in to join the festivities. And that, Bailey suggests, is intentional. This is a parable that God’s people always need to hear. It’s always tempting to see ourselves as God’s chosen, God’s righteous – and see the gaps between us and those who are obvious sinners. The church embraces the business of judging those outside, of seeing and naming the faults. The church sets itself apart, at times, seeking to preserve its purity. Jesus reminds us that we are always, to some degree, lost – and that God seeks us out and invites us anew into the fullness of God’s presence.
I found a great story in my cookbook, Extending the Table. The cookbook is a collection of recipes and stories from all around the world. The stories come from people who had spent time in many third world countries. This story is by Rebecca Pereverozoff, of Akron, PA.
One night a young man named Dipu stormed angrily into the home I shared with friends in Bangladesh. He had exchanged harsh words with his father and was seeking refuge for a few days before leaving to make his own way in the world. He vowed never to return to his father’s home.
The following night we heard music in the distance – a harmonica, drums, and singing. We wondered what the sounds of merriment were for, concluding there must be a wedding nearby. Then, suddenly, the celebrants came to a halt in front of our home.
As they crowded around, we recognize our guests – Dipu’s father and several of his college friends. They slapped Dipu amicably on the back and pulled him into their circle as they sang and danced. “We’re here to take you home,” said Dipu’s father. “School wasn’t the same without you,” his friends said. Dipu hugged his father and, with music and mirth, returned home.
Our eyes and hearts were full as the sounds of the party faded in the distance. … I thought, “This is what the kingdom of God is all about – loving people into the kingdom, replacing anger with joy.”
She caught the sense of the parable. The father loves his sons, extravagantly. When they are lost, he seeks them out and invites them to be restored to his presence. When we hear in this story that the younger son repented, we place the responsibility for being found on ourselves. We forget that it is God who seeks us – even when we think that we are fine on our own.