Text: Luke 15:11-32
Series: “Jesus’ Parables and the Mystery of the Kingdom”
I am probably the most provincial person you’ll ever know. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a “homebody,” but I am someone more comfortable with familiar settings than with unfamiliar ones. I remember back in my seminary days in Louisville when I would see a license plate tag from the neighboring state of Indiana, which had displayed on them a catchy tourism promotion simply titled, “Wander,” as in “Wander Indiana,” I would always think to myself, “Why?” “Why not stay at home and sleep in a familiar bed in my familiar apartment with familiar food in the fridge? Why ‘wander?’”
OK, I may be exaggerating just a tad, but you catch my drift. As nice as it is to venture out to other places, take in the sights, dip your toes into different waters, at the end of the day, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, put it: “There’s no place like home.”
And perhaps that’s why it’s a challenge for some of us to wrap our minds around this most familiar parable of Jesus that’s before us this morning – the Parable of the Prodigal Son. While there are plenty of characters in the Scripture we can identify with, the so-called Prodigal Son is not so much one of them. He has “wanderlust” in his heart; we have insularity in ours. He pushes the envelope; we prefer to play things close to the vest. He makes outlandish demands on his father; we are respectful of authority. You see what I’m talking about.
So, it’s little wonder that when Jesus tells this story, we can’t imagine the thought processes of someone who pitches a hissy fit for his inheritance, goes off to a far country, squanders what he’s been given, and ends up working in a pig pen (a terrible place for any young man but especially a Jewish young man) with little to eat, so little to eat that he’s seriously thinking about filling his stomach with the pods the pigs were eating. To us this son is as much a profligate as he is a prodigal.
But then a remarkable thing happens. He “comes to his senses.” I love that expression. I love it because now I feel better about this prodigal son. Literally, the phrase is, “He came to himself.” That is to say, he realized that he had made a huge mistake and the best thing he could do from that point on would be to return home and beg his father for a second chance, which is precisely what he does.
And this is where the story gets really good; does it not? The prodigal has rehearsed his story and has every line down pat. “Father,” he will say. “I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” But while he is still a long way off from home, his father sees him, is filled with compassion for him, runs to meet him, throws his arms around him and begins kissing him like there’s no tomorrow. And when the son starts out with those lines he’s been rehearsing all the way home, his father stops him in mid-sentence, calls to the servants, and instructs them to bring the best robe, a ring for his finger, and sandals for his feet. It’s almost to the letter what Pharaoh did for Joseph, son of Isaac back in the book of Genesis, when Pharaoh appointed Joseph to move from being a slave to being second in command over all of Egypt. The robe represents distinction. The ring symbolizes authority. The sandals are the dress of a free person, not a barefoot slave.
And if I had been telling the story, this is where I would have ended it. I would have ended it with the picture of a wayward son who had come to his senses and returned home. I would have ended it with a truly remarkable father, who rises above the hit his own reputation surely must have taken in the eyes of his neighbors because of his youngest son’s actions and instead receives the prodigal with joy and celebration and a feast for a king. I would have ended it by calling attention to how the father’s love in the story mirrors God’s love for all sinners, extending an invitation to all prodigals to come to themselves and return home to God. And, of course, none of that would be wrong. But Jesus does not end the story that way, and oh how I wish he would have.
Instead, Jesus goes on to introduce us to another son, an older son, a son who is everything his younger brother is not. This older son colors between the lines. This older son does everything he’s told. This older son keeps his head down and his mouth shut and the home fires burning. But as Jesus explains, that’s not the only things he has burning. His temper is also on fire. For as this older son, this Elder Brother, comes from the field toward the house, he hears a commotion like he’s never heard. It’s a party, a big party. There is music and he can make out dancing. And he has no idea what is going on until he calls upon a servant who fills in the blanks. “Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has him back safe and sound.”
This Elder Brother is not pleased, and truth be told, we can understand why. He is, after all, the responsible son in this story. And yet, when his father goes out to plead with him, the Elder Brother lets him have it. “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and I’ve never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours (he can’t call him his brother), who has squandered your property with prostitutes returns (how did the Elder Brother know how his Younger Brother had spent his share of the inheritance?), you kill the fatted calf for him.
Isn’t it interesting that while we have no problems casting the younger son as a prodigal, which without question he is, we nonetheless are blind to the flaws of the Elder Brother, flaws that in effect make him just as much a prodigal as his younger brother? The fact of the matter is that there are two prodigals in this story. There’s the one who strayed – the younger brother who demanded his inheritance from his father, proceeded to leave Dodge, and ultimately squandered it all away. And there’s the prodigal who stayed – the older brother who flew off the handle with his father about how his father had never provided a feast for him and his friends. He too was a sinner. He was ungrateful because he thought that his good fortune had come about by his merit and not by his father’s grace. He was loveless because he could not bring himself to open his heart to receive his younger brother upon his return. He was self-righteous because he had dwelt so much on his obedience that he had convinced himself that he was being mistreated. Remarkable, is it not, that so much of the time we see these characteristics of ingratitude, lovelessness, and self-righteousness as mere character defects and not sins. But Jesus certainly doesn’t see them in that way, and yet he shows us the love of God in spite of it.
Which is the main point of the story. We call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but we ought to call it the Parable of the Loving Father. This father is remarkable in his love for both his sons. With all of their shortcomings he loves them both so much. He doesn’t let the hammer down on the younger one; he celebrates his return. And neither does he berate or lash back at the older one. He pleads with him to open his heart. As pastor/author Tim Keller reminds us, “If the English word ‘prodigal’ stems from the Latin for ‘lavish,’ because of the father’s lavish love for both his sons, maybe he’s a prodigal too!” Just in a different and better way.
So, which kind of prodigal are you? That’s the question Jesus’ story sends us away with because there’s really no clear ending. Have you ever noticed that? Will the father’s love overcome his eldest son’s hardened heart? Will it heal and transform his younger son’s rashness? In so many ways we conclude the story for ourselves as we respond to Jesus’ challenge to receive and then to show the magnitude of God’s love for all. Otherwise, we can choose to be forgiving here and not so forgiving there, when the Kingdom to which we are called is one that is to leave no one on the outside looking in.
Prodigals, you see, come in all shapes and sizes. If you’re a prodigal who’s strayed, come to your senses and come home. There’s grace that is greater than all your sin. And if you’re one that’s stayed, then be ready to show that grace to those who do return. Our Father is planning a big party, a big party for all the prodigals among us, and regardless of where you may be, home or away from home, it will be one great celebration that you most certainly won’t want to miss.