We read the story of the prodigal son like re-reading an old love letter we already know by heart. In our listening we first paid attention to the saga of the son who went away, did bad things, and came home desperate. Along the way we began to discover the part about the Elder Brother. It dawned on us that sometimes we church members were uncomfortably like this brother in the objective mood who did not know how to celebrate and enjoy his religion.
More recently scholars urge us to discover that the parable is more about the father, the main character who shows up in both chapters of the story. After all, the very first words of the parable are “a certain man had two sons.” Scholars invite us to see the loving father or the waiting father or perhaps the forgiving father. Why not take a clue from them and pay more attention to the father in the story but with an angle?
One day while going over this beloved story I put two things together I never had. When it first hit me my admiration for the father in the story soared. This father, on the very same day, reached out to both of his sons with a fistful of grace and love for each of them.
This father loved both of his sons! God loves disreputable sinners and reputable sinners. Our appreciation of God expands exponentially. So many sermons lately appeal to our selfish desires. If you are up for it, why don’t we say a good word about God this time. Let’s get started.
First Movement: Going Out to the Prodigal (Luke 15:20-24).
He was last seen in a pigsty, smelly and dirty. See his mangled hair unwashed and matted, his slept-in clothes, no shower or hair dryer. He must have looked like a tramp when he showed up at the old home place. For the second time in the story the word “far” is used, the first time to describe the distant place where the young man wanted to go. This time the waiting father sees his lost boy feared dead while he was still a distance from the house. The father, overtaken by strong feelings of compassion, started running, throwing dignity to the wind.
Strikingly and meaningfully the great artists single out the warm embrace of this singular father, throwing his arms around his returning son. The great painter Rembrandt toiled over his painting, “The Return of the Prodigal,” found nearly finished in his studio when he died. Rembrandt pictures the expressive hands of the father tenderly touching his son’s shoulders, perhaps one hand more feminine, the other more masculine (Nouwen). These hands do not clutch in oppression. Rather these kingly hands accept and understand.
The chapel at Montreat, North Carolina features a mural on the front wall celebrating this moment when the father welcomes his son home. The mural manages to catch the large cast of players. The great sculptor Rodin also singled out this embrace of grace through his considerable skills with stone. The English painter Millais, author of very many paintings of parables, gives us his interpretation with a certain simplicity and more emotion. We feel the warmth of the father on his knees hugging.
The tokens of grace shower unexpectedly on the wayward son come home. Some have inventively named the father “the prodigal father” because he was so reckless and extravagant with his gifts of grace. With a remarkable sensitivity the father seems to have taken in the immediate needs of his son. He surveyed his clothing and his shoes. He factored in the long walk and the lost weight. Don’t you think the father sensed something of the bad times the boy had endured that had ripped away his confidence and left him stripped of self esteem?
Do you suppose that the father saw a gardenia in a garbage can, saw what his son could look like and feel like restored through gifts of grace? He saw compassionately what the boy needed. He could see him dressed in a clean robe. A shining new robe could give him dignity instead of indignity. He could see his son wearing fresh shoes, replacing those beaten up, worn from the long journey. He could give him a regal ring, a sure sign of sonship, to restore his self confidence.
“We will get him on his feet again. I will kill the fattened calf and throw a party. We will have music and dancing that will cheer him.” The son applied to be a hired servant, but the father intended him to be a son again. This father wanted to liberate his son, forgive his boy, allow him to stand tall again. He gave his son far more than he asked. This picture of grace gets to us, makes us feel as warm as a cup of hot cider on a frosty morning.
A few years ago in this very sanctuary a man was baptized after a long journey. Later he wrote a letter to his Sunday School class with these words: “When I was baptized Sunday, I really felt Christian love and support when you all stood up for me. It seemed as if the entire congregation rose when Dr. Jones asked for relatives and friends to stand.” He felt the warm embrace.
You know how the rest of the story goes. Of course, as his older brother well knew, the prodigal didn’t deserve any of these extravagant gifts. But then, that is what grace does. Grace is an unmerited gift, something we do not deserve. Why don’t we lift up God today from our parable, point to the amazing grace of God, and unleash our joyful praise, adoration, amazement. After all, Christian faith perceives at the center of the universe a God of grace.
On a local radio station I recently listened to a song about God’s grace. You may have heard it. It must be named “Jesus is passing by.” Part of the emotional song pictures God walking down on death row. “Jesus is passing by,” the singer sang. It brought a catch to my throat. It can blow you away.
Philip Yancey tells about the young woman who grew up on a cherry orchard farm just above Traverse, Michigan. Her parents were a bit old fashioned and gave her a hard time about her nose ring and her music and the length of her skirts. They grounded her a few times. In the middle of one argument she screams at them, “I hate you!” That night she runs away from home. She had visited Detroit only once before on a bus trip with her youth group to watch the Tigers play baseball. She decides to hide there because it would be the last place her parents would look for her.
Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she has ever seen. He gives her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay, and gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt. She decides she was right all along — her parents were keeping her from all the fun.
Her “good life” continues for a year or so. The man with the big car, whom she calls “Boss,” teaches her what men will pay for. She lives in a penthouse and orders from room service whenever she wants. She rarely thinks of her family back home.
After the first year some signs of disease appear and her boss turns mean. He kicks her out on the street without a penny. She tries to do the same things on the street to make money to support her habit, but it doesn’t pay as much. As winter comes she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. Dark bands circle her eyes and her cough worsens.
She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl lost and frightened in a big city. She starts to cry and whimper. For just a moment she has a memory of May in Traverse City when a million cherry trees blossom at once and her golden retriever dashes along chasing a tennis ball. She wonders why she left home and thinks to herself, “My dog back home eats better than I do now.” She thinks that more than anything else she wants to go home.
She finds a phone booth and makes three straight phone calls to an answering machine. She hangs up the first two times, but leaves a message the third time saying, “Dad, Mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”
It takes seven hours on the bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City. She wonders if they got the message. She goes over what she will say to them: “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault; it’s mine. Dad, can you forgive me?”
The bus finally rolls into the station with air brakes hissing. The driver says, “Fifteen minutes, folks. That’s all we have here.” She thinks to herself: fifteen minutes to decide my life.
As she walks into the terminal, the scene is not one of the many she had thought about as she was riding on the bus. There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs terminal stands a group of forty — brothers, sisters, great aunts, uncles, cousins, a grandmother and a great grandmother to boot. They are all wearing goofy party hats and are blowing noise makers. Taped across the wall of the terminal is a computer-generated banner which says, “Welcome home.”
Out of the crowd comes her dad. Through the tears she begins her speech, “Dad, I’m sorry. I know . . .” But then he interrupts her and says, “Hush, child. We’ve got no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet is waiting for you at home.”
When we return to this familiar part about the prodigal we realize how hopeful the story is, that you can go home again! As we focus on the father we recognize this God of amazing grace revealed by Jesus. In the hymn “He Looked Beyond my Fault and Saw my Need,” we hear the couplets:
Amazing grace shall always be my song of praise
For it was grace that brought me liberty.
I do not know just why Christ came to love me so
He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.
At the close of this first movement we pause to lift high a God of grace. This God celebrates when the lost are found and come home. We turn around and celebrate such an incredible God of grace. This is not merely the cool abstraction of “the Unmoved Mover” of the philosopher Aristotle nor the impersonal “Force” in Star Wars. We stand in amazement at this God of grace.
Many of us like God and even believe in God because of this very story. Your picture of what God is like is deeply influenced by this revelation by Jesus of what God is like in this most famous parable. When I read this story I want to know where to sign up. We can meet a God even better than we expected. We overturn with this parable any childhood pictures of God as a vengeful deity, a domineering God that crowds us, a heavenly policeman, a harsh parent.
Some leave the church or take a leave of absence in reaction to childhood impressions of the divine. If we stumble into God’s presence carrying an intolerable burden from a misspent past, the barriers that we erect to talk ourselves out of coming to God can tumble down. You can approach God even after you have messed up. We are not disappointed by the father in the second movement of the parable either. Let’s segue to the second part. Are you ready to go there?
The Second Movement: The Father Reaches Out to His Older Son (Luke 15:25-32).
We bring the two pictures together — the outgoing father reaches out first to his prodigal and then to his older son. So we can now propose a name for this sermon: “Twice in One Day.”
The reception of the Prodigal stands emblazoned in our imaginations. The picture of the Elder Brother has found more space and place in our minds. Now we pull together on one canvas the same father going out to both sons. We see a father that loves both of his sons — and a God who loves daughters and sons like the older as well as the younger son. This may well be good news for someone listening right now.
When we do this last bit of the story we tend to feature the elder brother rather than the father. In the historical context Jesus did anticipate the predictable criticism that would follow on the heels of the prodigal story and the father’s extravagant reaction — perhaps your criticism as well. The elder brother is entirely opposite of the father in response to the return of the black sheep of the family. Let’s pay far more attention to the father, the one who went out twice in one day to meet a son. When this first hits you, your admiration for the father in the story leaps. So just how does this unusual father relate to his older son?
You likely know the story. The elder brother comes in from the back forty where he doubtless had been working. See his farmer’s tan and callouses on his hands. He may have awakened early that morning to tend the stock, found some fodder for them, did some plowing in a field in the hot sun. To his surprise he hears music and dancing — the Greek text has choreography and symphony. He inquires from a servant the cause of the commotion and is told that his father had killed the fattened calf because his younger son had come home. Don’t you imagine that the father’s house was rocking with the clatter of dancing feet? They were not singing some boring song.
The older son turns savagely indignant, coldly repellent. He refused to go on into the house and greet his brother. He protests the party in a picket line of one. He does a slow burn. He pouts. See him turn his back on the joyful proceedings bristling with hostility. He seems swollen with resentment and anger. He became a walking bad mood. (Some people organize their lives around resentment and wonder why they are not happy) He was imprisoned in self rejection. The party in the house was as impossible to ignore as a flaming Porsche on the side of the road.
The father goes out to him (Luke 15:28). Perhaps a servant tactfully called the father’s attention to the family friction. Since the older boy refused to come in, the father would go out to him. He will not write off his other son. The Greek εξελθçv (exelthon) literally means “going outside.” The father had been inside enjoying the music and the dancing and fellowship with his younger son, but he left the feel good stuff out of genuine interest in his other son conspicuous by his absence. Once again this exceptional father takes the initiative as he did when he ran down the road to greet his younger child. Do you suppose that the father’s hand touches the shoulder of his older child? What if you and I started calling this the parable of the outgoing father?
He pleads continuously with him. The Greek word παρακαλει (parakalei) means request, urge, comfort. It is an important word for speaking and influencing. Here it expresses a personal, emphatic concern, a request with manifest urgency. We are not told exactly what he said at first. Come into the party, give up your mad and welcome your brother home we suspect. I find it significant that we have few if any paintings of the father reaching out to the older son! Calling all artists. . . .
The Response of the Elder Son to the Pleading of the Father (Luke 15:29-30). The Greek word for his response suggests “retort,” a reply in contrast to what precedes it, a reaction. Indeed, it was. We would call it defensive. He casts aspersions on the father, criticizes his brother and stages a pity party for himself. “I have worked like a dog around here, and I have never broken your commandments. And what do you do? You killed the fattened calf and threw a party for your younger son. What did he do? He devoured your inheritance living it up with prostitutes. He has been as irresponsible as all get out. In my recollection after all these years of doing my duty I have no memory of you ever killing a fattened calf for me and my friends so we could party.”
The older son thought he was a thoroughbred in a stable of mules. He held his wayward brother a notch beneath the respect he held for common cockroaches. He blistered his father for favoritism and a glaring lack of fairness just as the Pharisees blasted Jesus for receiving sinners and tax collectors and eating with them (Luke 15:2). He was in a full-blown meltdown. If he had known about the ring and the robe, he would really have been ticked.
The father lovingly responds to the anger directed at him (Luke 15:31-32). This understanding father fielded the hostility flung at him as wise parents do. He felt the sting as did Jesus when criticized for doing the same thing.
Affectionately: tenderly without a loss for words the father addresses him as his “child.” This father fails to disown either one of his sons. He reaches out lovingly.
Assuredly: You are with me always. We find no recrimination, no putting him in his place. The father does not inflame the situation but acts diplomatically, sensitive to his son’s feelings. He seems to recognize the years of faithful work. The embrace of the younger son did not mean the rejection of the older son. (Note the contrast between “never” and “always.”)
Graciously: everything that is mine is yours. The older son had been bent all out of shape. You never gave me anything. At the very beginning of the story when the prodigal demanded his inheritance the text plainly says that the father divided the inheritance then and there to both of his sons (Luke 15:12). The father did not have to give the farm to his son. It was his to give. The older son had so much given to him he had not bothered to count it. This outgoing father had been incredibly generous to both of his children. The older son was the recipient of grace.
Invitingly: it was an absolute necessity to rejoice and be merry because your brother was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found (Luke 15:32).The father does not apologize for his action or back off of it. He sticks by his guns but explains why he threw the party. He invites the angry brother to rejoice with them, to accept the wayward boy as a brother again, to come on in and find his dancing shoes. Don’t miss the party. Some do. The father reaches out to liberate his son from his bondage to resentment.
We lift up the father in the story once more as a singular revelation of God, not only a God of grace but a loving God. He loved both of his children. God loves his children, including disreputable sinners like the prodigal son and reputable sinners like the elder brother.
I like the story Bishop Roy Nichols tells about a young woman who went to see a psychiatrist. The doctor interviewed her, found out she was the mother of three children. “Which of your three children do you love the most?” She answered immediately, “I love all three of my children the same.” The answer came too quickly to suit the psychiatrist. “Come now, you love all three children the same?” “Yes, that’s right. I love all of them the same.” Now impatient he reacted, “Come off of it now! It is psychologically impossible for anyone to regard any three human beings exactly the same. If you’re not willing to level with me, we’ll have to terminate this session.”
The young woman broke up and cried. “All right, I do not love all three of my children the same. When one of my three children is confused, I love that child more. When one of my children is in pain, or lost, I love that child more. When one of my children is bad — I don’t mean naughty, I mean really bad — I love that child more.” Then she added, “But except for those exceptions, I do love all three of my children about the same.”
In our story we see a father loving both of his children. This outgoing father reached out to both of his children. And while we are marveling at the father’s love, throw this into the hopper. It represents a new thought for me. Have you ever noticed how self-centered both boys were? I had never quite put that together. For the younger son it was all about him. He demands his inheritance on the way out of Dodge. He blows all that money he did not earn. He lived immorally in a far country. He did begin to wake up to the goodness of the father and went home. Fortunately for him he was met by a father for whom life was not all about him but all about others. The prodigal was received with incredible hospitality by a parent not self-centered but loving.
The elder brother, in a different fashion, thinks it is all about him. When he throws a tantrum it is all about him. Have you noticed, “You never gave me a fattened calf so I could be merry with my friends.” He did not grasp compassionately the experience of his brother. He was far too busy giving a pity party for himself.
Both these sons resisted the will of the father. The prodigal practically wished his father dead so he could get the inheritance. He rejected the moral standards of his father’s and mother’s home. The older brother did not rebel openly until his brother came home. Then he was beside himself with animosity. The father’s will can be detected easily in the arrangement of the festivities. The older son opposed it. His pouting was out of step with the will of the father who had celebrating in mind. The father responded to the return of the wayward with compassion, the will of God if you please, but the elder brother reacted with wrath, contradictory to the will of God. He was all wrapped up in himself.
It is pretty impressive that this exceptional father could love two very self-centered children. They were both hard to love. The Apostle Paul noted, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We see revealed a father not self-centered himself who could and would love self centered people. And we follow this father when we love friends and spouses even though they possess a strong streak of self-centeredness. And we hope to be loved ourselves despite the shadow side in our own lives. What a God! What a gospel! We stand in amazement.
Here’s the hunch of the sermon. The passion of preachers is for everyone to experience the embrace of God when each one comes home like the prodigal, but we haven’t always been faithful to show the elder sisters and brothers in Christ the special love God has for them. Many of you do not have a saloon background and have not frequented the netherworld of narcotics, but you are still in need of the grace of God.
It is my fond hope through the power of the Holy Spirit that those elder sisters and brothers in the faith among us can leave this place today realizing God’s personal interest in you. Hear the love and grace directed to you: “All that I have is yours.” It can be like the sound of coming rain in a parched land. Someone here needs to hear these words from God: “All I have is yours.” You can come on in and join the party. Leave church today feeling wanted, valued, graced.
Good parents parent each child differently and so does God. God loves the prodigals and He loves you elder sisters and brothers. In this parable is the story a God of grace and a God of love. That’s good news for all of us.