The message this morning was on the parable of the Prodigal Son. The scriptures used were II Corinthians 5:16-21 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. The title was “God’s merciful, abundant Love”
Before we talk about the story of the Prodigal Son today, I want to mention that James and Paulina and I went to see the movie, Risen, before we picked up Ana on Friday night. I already gave away the ending for the message today in the children’s message, so we probably don’t have to spend too much time listening to me talk anyway. I didn’t get around to asking if any of you had seen it and what you thought of the movie when we had services on Wednesday, but I will tell you, I found it interesting. Of course, I like to go to movies where I sort of know what the plot line is, and I watch it to see how it is being depicted.
I will admit that the exact story line that was presented is a bit of a Hollywood take on what happened after the crucifixion, but some of the scenes were interesting interpretations to say the least. It made me stop and wonder how the parable that we are talking about today might be presented. According to one of the background materials that I read, this parable is one of the most spoken on of all the parables of Jesus. Interesting! I wonder if anyone in Hollywood has considered any of the parables for a possible screenplay. This one would be especially interesting to see whose point of view would become the main focus.
As we stop to think of who is the main character or whose point of view we would like to consider in this parable let’s review a few facts about the times. Here we have a father with two sons. It doesn’t mention any other children, so the matter of dividing the inheritance would be fairly simple. Under the Jewish law at the time, the first born son receives a double share of the estate. So, the elder son would receive 2/3 and the younger would receive 1/3. Now technically an inheritance is not given out until the parents, or in this case the father, has passed on. For the younger son to demand his share prior to that is like asking for his father’s death.
Most parents would probably disinherit a child for that sort of behavior. I know a family where the children put up a fuss asking for their inheritance when the parents retired from farming, and they basically haven’t gathered as a full family since. One of the commentaries that I read this week mentioned that some years ago a member of the press asked Prince Charles to speculate on his ascension to the throne of England, and good for him, he stopped the reporter cold with the answer that he wasn’t interested in thinking about that day because it would mean he would be attending his mother’s funeral. As a son, he wasn’t/isn’t ready for his full inheritance. He prefers to have his mother, and I would guess many of us stand in his shoes, but those are choices we don’t make for ourselves, unless we are like the prodigal son, who demanded his inheritance so he could have fun while he was young.
So let’s talk about that younger son who demanded his inheritance early. Oh what fun he had. The young man went out and pretty much bought and did anything and everything he wanted. I believe if we read between the lines he spent much of his money on fast women, probably lots of strong drinks, some gambling and every fine thing that he could get his hands on until eventually the money ran out because he squandered it all and was taken great advantage of by friends and acquaintances that didn’t stick around when it was gone. Pretty soon he found himself homeless and helpless and working in the muck and the mire feeding the pigs.
We raised pigs on the farm when I was young, but I can’t really see in my mind the muck and the mire that is implied here. I think maybe our corrals were too open. Our pigs especially the piglets and the smaller, pre-100 pounders were a little too free-ranging to fit into this story. But I can relate to how they were fed with the corn cobs and the slop. There was no need to think of composting any of the garden peelings as long as we had the pigs on the farm, they ate it all, they had all of those scraps. My experience with pigs doesn’t really give me a good background for thinking about how low this young man had fallen. See, I always forget the difference in religion and culture from us as Christians living in South Dakota today, to someone of Jewish culture and nationality living in the time of Jesus. I always forget about the fact that pork and pigs is considered unclean in the Jewish religion. Saying that this boy has taken a job working with swine is the lowest of the low. Perhaps if he were tending camels or sheep or chickens it wouldn’t be so bad, but not swine, there was nothing worse that he could have stooped to doing.
Now the other child in the story, the elder son, isn’t really shown until the end, and his point of view might be the one that some of us relate to. Although we might at times feel a little like the squandering youngest son when we stray off the right road, more likely than not, as church attending Christians, we probably want to feel like we are in line with that oldest son. We want to empathize with the one who stays home with the parents, the one who does the right things. We want to feel like the responsible one, who always gets taken advantage of. We are over worked and underappreciated. And just once, just once we would like to feel like our parent is proud of us and wants to show us off to the world. This son reminds me a little bit of Esau, but without the line about selling his birthright. We never find out what this son chooses to do in the end, but we know that this son is very much loved by his father.
And finally we come to the third character in the story, the father. Most of the time, we don’t relate to the father, because we assume this character is God. We can’t possibly empathize with that character or put ourselves in his place because we have no business trying to think we are in the same position as God. In a twist on the view-point, the focus today is really on the father instead of either of the sons. The father is the one smack in the middle of the story, torn between the two sons. This father loves both of his sons dearly, but is torn between them because of their actions. If he welcomes the wayward son home with a great feast and new clothing and gifts, it risks losing the older son, the good son who has been there all along because these actions make him feel unloved. If he turns away the prodigal son telling him he lost his chance when he left with his inheritance, then he loses his younger son all over again. What a horrible decision.
We know from the parable what the father’s choice is. He welcomes the younger son. He doesn’t wait to hear the request for forgiveness. He doesn’t listen for the boy’s simple request to be a servant at the lowest end of the business, to start in the mail room so to speak. He welcomes him with open arms before there is any request for anything. He kisses him, a sign of complete welcome. He clothes him and gives him shoes which is a sign of status in the family, not that of a servant, and he puts a ring on him as a gift. He welcomes him back into the family with full rights. He is a member in good standing.
Yet on the other side, when the older son comes from the field and has been working and is refusing to come to the party, to the celebration for his younger brother, the father comes to him and explains, you were always with me. When the older son complains that he never was given such a feast, the father tells him that through this whole time everything that was the father’s was also the son’s, it was also his to have. In other words, the joy, the happiness, the celebration was always there. The potential for the grand party was his for the asking. The truth of this story is really found in the first three verses, in the opening part about the Pharisees and the scribes.
In those opening verses where it talks about how the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling about Jesus eating with sinners, I think the key word is grumbling. I found a note written in my Bible as I read through that passage. Off in the margins I had written at some time the words, “no joy allowed.” That was in reference to the Jewish leaders of the time. They looked at following God as a list of laws of do’s and don’ts. Everything was about following this plan, this script, this way of acting, yet it was all an act. It was all for public viewing. Jesus called them hypocrites. They were not sincere, they didn’t mean it.
One of the things I think the director did well with the movie Risen was in how the disciples portrayed the joy of being a follower of Jesus. I often read the stories in the Bible after the gospels and think of the disciples as stern and focused, but that wasn’t the interpretation we saw on the screen Friday. Even though they acknowledged danger ahead, they showed off this great joy.
The real focus of this story isn’t so much with any of these characters as it is with the fact of the JOY we should have in following Jesus. Even though we want to think of the father in this story as God, a merciful God who loves us beyond any amount we are able to fathom, we also need to think of ourselves as the one who shares that joy that love, the way the father shared it with both of his sons. The other part of the story that Jesus is trying to teach us through this parable is that because God loves us, we need to love others.
When we are the prodigal son God welcomes us home with open arms and celebrates at our return; when we are the faithful son God rejoices that we are always with him, we have his joy at all times, it is up to us to recognizes that and accept the joy of being in his presence; and mostly when we know the Son/the Christ, we need to remember that we also know the Father, and we need to feel that joy and share that joy with all those around us. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he lets us know that God reconciled the world to himself through Christ and because of it we are to become ambassadors for him, let’s start this week by sharing the joy of Christ with each other and everyone we come in contact with. Amen!