Sermon, September 8: Prodigal

Jesus told a story of a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.

After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.  He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!  I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me one of your hired servants.’

So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Let’s have a feast and celebrate.”

The dictionaries don’t agree on what “prodigal” means. It’s about something done either extravagantly or wastefully. We could say that the father in this story loved his sons extravagantly while the younger son treated the family money wastefully. What contrast is Jesus making? Henri Nowen wrote a book based on Rembrandt’s famous painting of this story. In the book, he remembers that as a young man, he identified with the younger son and in middle age, he felt more drawn to the older one, but toward the end of his life, he began to identify with the father. Maybe this is a conscious kind of progression that many of us make.

Or not. Jesus told the story first from the father’s point and then from the younger son’s and then switched back to the father’s. Maybe some of it needs a little translating for us who came later. In first century Jerusalem, the younger son’s behavior meant something like “I want to be so gone from this family that I wish you had already died and I had my money.” Now of course, the father did not die. But in a way, the son did because any son who said something like that would have been shunned by the entire village. And, in the community-centered first century, to be without a village, was to be as good as dead.

Listen to the only words the father ever said about his younger son, and he said them twice. When he organized the feast, he said to the servants “This son of mine was dead and is alive again.” Later on he said to his first born, “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life.” We can’t begin to understand what this story might be saying unless we really hear what the father was saying when he used those words.

After the younger son wished his father dead, the story says, he took every dime he got to a far country and wasted it. He took the best his father could give him and did the worst with it and ended up with the pigs. And the pig – to this day, in Jewish understanding – is unclean. Sinfully, shamefully unclean and a perfect symbol for the younger son’s behavior.

So now the prodigal has a new dimension to his personality and it’s a tough motivator. Shame is not just a conviction that we’ve done something wrong – it’s an overwhelming feeling that we are something wrong. Shame is very different from regret or repentance. The irrational thing about shame is that while it convinces us that we are unlovable, at the same time it convinces us that we must try as hard as we can to make ourselves lovable. And so we become paralyzed. If there is a love strong enough to save this father’s son, it needs to be a love that is stronger than shame.

So far, the story has presented us with three different ways of being. We can be independent and self-centered while we follow our own ragged path to self-fulfillment like the younger son. Or, we can be defined by attention to the letter of the law – never looking left or right like the older son. Or, we can be loving and reach out to rescue the ones we love, even and especially as they hurt us.

The story makes no judgement. It doesn’t even tell us how it ended. Do you think the brothers ever learned to love each other? Did the town respect the man who gave up half the family’s land and allowed his son to shame the family name? Do you really know who you identify with or is each and every complex one of us capable of all three ways of being at any given time in our lives?

Here’s the question that really matters – does God really love as profligately as the patriarch? Maybe the parable doesn’t exactly say. Maybe for that answer, we need to look to Jesus’ life instead of his stories. For what his life tells us is that ours is a God who will endure anything and everything, to bring each of us safely home.   Amen.

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton

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