Jesus had some critical things to say about the chief priests and the elders—OK—but when He said to them, “I tell you: the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you”…well, that was pushing it a bit, don’t you think? It’s no wonder He kept getting into hot water.
Then there was that story He told. You know the one. People call it the story of the prodigal son. Just a little sidelight here. The word prodigal appears nowhere in the story. I suppose the word prodigal was tacked on by someone who had a dictionary or a thesaurus and discovered that it means “a wasteful person, a spendthrift.” Prodigal also has a second meaning, similar to the first. This second definition is “profuse in giving, exceedingly abundant.”
I know all this because I looked up the word prodigal as I was preparing this sermon. Before I looked it up, I thought a prodigal was someone who leaves home in order to lose himself in a spree of high living, carousing and debauchery, or to use the more conventional phrase, wine, women and song. I guess that was just wishful thinking on my part.
What I thought the word prodigal meant is a whole lot more colorful than the real definition, more romantic somehow. Maybe it goes back to a secret yen I had as a young fellow to do some of that high living for myself but never being quite able to figure out how to do it…one of the drawbacks, I suppose, of growing up in a family that took its Christianity very seriously.
Anyway, “The Prodigal Son” is the title given to the story that Jesus told. To whom did He tell it? That’s a very important question, one often overlooked when people read the story. So let’s find out.
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to Him, and the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He told them this parable…”
Then follows the parable of the lost sheep, followed immediately by the parable of the lost coin, which in turn is followed immediately by the parable we are considering.
The Good News Bible gives it the title of “The Lost Son,” which fits very nicely into the sequence: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. In fact, “The Lost Son” is probably a better title than “The Prodigal Son” because most people don’t know what prodigal means.
What I want to call to your attention is the audience to whom Jesus addressed this story. He directed it to the Pharisees and the scribes, representatives of the religious establishment of that time. They were interpreters of the Jewish law; they had the important responsibility of making judgments about what was right and wrong human behavior.
Be honest, wouldn’t it be kind of fun to be in that position? You get to decide for your community what is OK and what is not OK. Think of the power you’d have! You’d get to say whether young people are allowed to listen to all that loud rock music, if 55 should be the maximum highway speed, where people are allowed to smoke or not smoke, if performing an abortion is a legal or illegal activity.
In Jesus’ day, those kinds of decisions were made by the scribes and the Pharisees. In our day, the courts have taken over the process, which has meant (among other things) that a swarm of lawyers has descended on the land…a mixed blessing indeed!
Anyway, the scribes and the Pharisees, the definers and guardians of the law, are standing by, watching Jesus. They are not happy about what they see. Jesus is teaching, and He is surrounded by “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors? In that time, tax collectors were despised by their fellow Jews as collaborators with the hated Romans. You see, the Romans levied taxes and then awarded tax collecting privileges to the highest bidder. Why would any intelligent Jew bid to become a tax collector for the Romans? Money. A tax collector was free to take in as much as he could get, just so long as he raised the revenue the Romans demanded. The whole business was a cauldron of payoffs, kickbacks and a slimy assortment of other kinds of graft. With good reason, everyone hated the tax collectors.
Now a bunch of them are gathered around Jesus, listening to Him. With them are others Luke calls sinners. Use your imagination here. Who fits your definition of sinner: muggers, pimps, drug dealers? Imagine the worst bunch of people possible—the dregs of society is who was there, listening to what Jesus had to say.
The Pharisees and their buddies, the scribes, take offense. They murmur, they grumble: “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” Jesus knew what bee was in their collective bonnet, so He said to them, “Let Me tell you a story.”
Now you all know the story. You’ve heard it since you were children. I was tempted to jazz it up a little; you know, embellish it, make it contemporary by having the younger brother go down to the Chevrolet dealer and pick himself out a snappy red Corvette and then head west on the interstate for L.A. or San Francisco. Then when he spends all his money, he could get a job cleaning out dog kennels or something such as that.
The big trouble with jazzing the story up, of course, is that the person who’s doing the jazzing and the people listening to the jazz get so taken by the cleverness of the thing that they miss what the story is about.
Better just to let it remain in the simple form it appears in the gospel. In fact, there’s one phrase in the old King James Version that cannot be equaled in the modern translations. The Revised Standard Version says the younger son “squandered his property in loose living.” That gives the general idea, but listen to the King James Version: “the younger son…took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.” That’s so much more delightfully descriptive! It’s also where this idea of prodigal comes from. Remember, we learned the word means “a spendthrift.” Spend is what he did, and as the proverb says, “The fool and his money were soon parted.”
He ended up working for a pig farmer. When we hear that, we simply think of it as labor that is menial and rather smelly. To the Jewish religious leaders listening to Jesus, feeding swine was as low as you could sink. Pork was forbidden meat—pigs were regarded as ritually unclean animals. How bad did the boy’s situation get? Listen again to the wonderful language of the King James Version:
“And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.”
Now, just when the story reaches utter depths, the turning point comes. The boy thinks back to his home and how even the servants there are better off than him where he was. So he decided to go home. On the way, he planned the speech he’d make: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” If that doesn’t do it, maybe he’ll be able to summon up a few tears to melt the old man’s heart.
What he didn’t know, of course, was that his father had been waiting for him. Every day, he’d been going out to look down that road, hoping against hope that his son would appear on the horizon. This time, praise God, there he was! Like a madman, the father went dashing down the road toward his boy. He grabbed him—ragged clothes and pig smells and all—and kissed him as if he’d returned from the dead, which in a way he had.
The son started his carefully rehearsed speech about how he’d sinned against heaven and wasn’t worthy to be called a son, etc., only he didn’t get through it before the father was shouting orders to the servants about getting some decent clothes for the boy, killing the fatted calf and otherwise organizing the welcome home party.
If only Jesus had stopped there. As I said at the outset, He never knew when to quit, when to leave well enough alone, when to let sleeping hogs lie. The welcome home party makes a great ending to a heartwarming story about a father’s love for a wayward child. Maybe the Pharisees and the scribes would have gotten the point: God feels the same way toward all His children, even the disreputable ones…looking for them, yearning for them, greeting them with an outpouring of love so abundant it makes their heads spin, a story of amazing grace.
Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on: “Now the elder son was in the field.” The elder son? Oh yes, there were two boys, weren’t there? Golly, I’d forgotten all about that first son. Won’t he be surprised to find out his long-lost brother has come home? And there’s to be a party? Terrific! Roll back the rug, break out the best sparkling…uh…grape juice, and hand me a plateful of that roastbeef.
Isn’t that what you would have said if you had been in his shoes? You’re not sure? Oh, you think maybe you’d have wanted to say a few words to your father about all this? Just as in the parable, where the older son refuses to go into the party and the father comes outside to find out why. He gets an earful.
“Look, all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never disobeyed your orders. What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! But this son of yours wasted all your property on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him!” (Good News Translation).
A little righteous indignation, right? He’s got a pretty good case. It hardly seems fair, all this fuss over the one who ran off and made a mess of things. “What about me?” he wants to know.
That’s the question, isn’t it? “What about me?” Don’t tell me you’ve never asked this question or at least thought it, because at one time or another we all do. Let’s be honest: The elder brother is the one in the story with whom we identify. Up until now, the parable was a heart-warming little tale, then we see ourselves in the story, just as the scribes and Pharisees saw themselves. Similarly, we don’t much like what we see.
We notice the older son resents all the attention his brother is getting. We notice his imagination adds some steamy details to the story. He says his kid brother spent all his money on prostitutes. Oops…nobody mentioned anything about prostitutes. Then, worst of all, we notice older son feels unloved by his father.
How sad, because “of course his father loves him even so, and has always loved him and will always love him, only the elder brother never noticed it because it was never love he was bucking for but only his due.” Then, the big party for him and his friends? That could all have been his, too, any time he asked for it, but he never thought to ask for it because he was too busy trying cheerlessly and religiously to earn it.1
In this story, there is a prodigal who stays at home, one who’s a spendthrift with self-pity, not money. The story ends unresolved. Jesus didn’t say if the older brother got past his pity party. We can hope he did. We can hope he discovered his younger brother’s experience contained some good news for him. Perhaps we can make that discovery, as well.
Maybe we can hear the good news that God’s love for us is not contingent on our good behavior. So we can, we should, lighten up a bit. That doesn’t mean we need to take the money and run off to waste our substance with riotous living. Most of us probably wouldn’t be capable of it even if we wanted to, but maybe if we can learn to lighten up and stop trying to be so perfect, we might avoid the building resentment, anger or mid-life crises that may be just around the corner.
The parable of the prodigal son is such a wonderful story because each of us lives the roles of all the characters in it at some point in our lives—the role of loving, the role of being loved even when we’re unlovable, and maybe most of all the role of feeling we have not been loved enough.2 Permeating the whole story is the holy Presence of the One who told the story.
There is a sense in which Jesus is the prodigal son. Do you remember the second definition of the word prodigal? We learned that it means “profuse in giving, exceedingly abundant.” As the father in the story, Jesus shows how God loves equally the prodigal who wallows in self-indulgence, the prodigal who wallows in self-pity and every other prodigal in between. Isn’t that what makes God’s grace so amazing?
1. Fredrick Buechner, Telling the Truth, Harper and Row, 1977, p. 69.
2. Richard M. Simpson, Words and Witness, March 5, 1989.