In Sunday’s Gospel we hear the well-known story of the Prodigal Son. Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees and Scribes who were grumbling about the company he kept. He had the audacity to associate with society’s outcasts: the riffraff, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and beggars. They were sinners…dirty, despicable sinners. They were the last people anyone expected to see in Church, much less heaven. But Jesus welcomed them and ate with them. The Pharisees and Scribes hated him for it – so, he took them on a trip to the lost and found.
Sunday’s parable is actually the third of three related parables. The first two set up the third. In the parable of the lost sheep, Luke 15:3-7, a shepherd leaves 99 sheep to search for and save one lost sheep, and when he finds it, he calls his neighbors and throws a party. Then, in Luke 15:8-10, a woman loses a coin and turns the whole house upside down looking for it, and when she finds it, she calls her neighbors and friends and…throws a party. The pattern is set – something is lost, then it’s found, there is rejoicing… and a party.
In Sunday’s parable a younger brother takes his inheritance and squanders it—in a distant country- only to find himself with no money and no food; he’s homeless and broke but still not broken. He remains determined to prove that he doesn’t need his father or his love. He goes to work in that “distant country” feeding pigs. This is about as shameful as it gets for a Jewish person. Pigs were unclean, off-limits (Leviticus 11:7). His situation becomes so dire that he begins to long for the pods that the pigs were eating. But even those are off-limits.
Hungry, broke, lost in a foreign country, this younger son comes to his senses. His proud, independent, rebellious will is starting to crack. “How many of my father’s hired workers have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!”
So, he makes a plan. “I shall get up and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.’” And off he went.
He probably wondered if his father would acknowledge him or just slam the door in his face, as he deserved. All he knew was that after he had tried his hand at making his way through the world on his own terms – he was out of options; it was either die with the pigs in a foreign country or go home to his father’s house and beg for mercy.
Perhaps we’ve been there; tried living life on our terms, our own way, with no regard for the will of the one who gave us life, gave us His love and a place in His family, and gives us everything we need for this life and the promise of even more in the next. Perhaps we have looked for happiness and fulfillment in places our Father told us not to go; have tried to find ourselves in the world only to end up lost, broken, alone, and seemingly out of options but moved by circumstances to humbly return to our Father’s house. This is a picture of repentance. This is a picture of God’s ceaseless concern and care for us.
When the younger son was still far off, his father saw him. Clearly, he’d been watching, waiting, hoping his son would finally see the error of his ways and come home. And when he finally saw him, he didn’t wait, he took off sprinting towards his son (something no self-respecting adult male would do), wrapped him up in his arms and kissed him. Then, following the pattern set by the previous parables, he says, let’s throw a party, “Because this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found”.
Then there’s the older brother. He’s absolutely furious. He refuses to join the party. He wants nothing to do with it. Even when his father comes out and pleads with him, he won’t go in.
“Look”, he says to his father, “All these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns, who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.”
In short order, the older brother is saying to his father, “There is no way I will celebrate your love along with that undeserving son of yours.” And right there we see the problem. This son thought he had earned his father’s love and therefore deserved to be the first to reap the rewards.
But the father doesn’t let him off so easily: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. “
And there the parable stops.
But which son is lost? Who finds himself outside of the party? Not the one you’d expect – the good, responsible, upstanding one; the one who did all the right things for all the wrong reasons. In the end, what keeps him out of the party? Not his brother’s wild living or his father’s reckless love. Nothing but his own stubborn self-righteousness.
How many times have we said, “No, Father, I don’t like your rules or really care about your love”? The path you would have me walk is too restrictive and I’d rather run free. I can do without the gifts you offer in Word and Sacrament. Just give me your blessings and go away.” And yet, while God allows us to go our own way – his house is not a prison, he forces no one to stay – he never gives up on us. Despite the many times we run away he’s always there waiting to welcome us home.
This parable isn’t really about the lost sons but about the Father’s boundless mercy. Whether we more closely identify with the younger son who squandered his father’s love or with the older one who reckoned that he had earned his father’s love – the point of the parable is clear: it’s not about what we think we deserve.
The parable doesn’t tell us if the older son realized his lost condition, repented, and eventually went in to celebrate his father’s boundless love; Jesus deliberately leaves it open-ended. It urges us to ask ourselves: will we go into the party?