The Sermon starts at about 6:45
As I’ve told you before, I love parables. If I wasn’t tied to the assigned readings in the weekly lectionary, I would almost certainly preach a sermon on a parable every time I stepped into a pulpit. I love how simple they are. How Jesus relies on common images from his time and place to share deep truths. I love how impossible they are. How the simple message that we think we take away from Jesus is never what are actually meant to learn. I love how they rattle around inside my head for days and weeks on end. I love how, even two-thousand years later, I can still find ways to enter into many of the parables that Jesus told.
I’ve long been a fan of Eugene Peterson’s description of parables as narrative time bombs; only exploding with meaning sometime down the road. Recently, I’ve found another way to describe them that while less grandiose, is certainly equally true. Jake Owensby, the Bishop of Western Louisiana, in his book A Resurrection Shaped Life, defines parables as “unsettling stories that invite us to rethink some of our basic assumptions.” Today’s Gospel lesson, commonly called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is meant to be just such an unsettling story. The basic gist of it seems fairly straight forward. The younger son tells his dad that he wishes his dad was dead. He takes what would be his inheritance, leaves town, and wastes it on women and whiskey. One day, while dreaming of eating the slop he was feeding to the pigs, he has something of a come to Jesus moment, repents, and returns to his father’s good graces, only to have his older, more responsible brother, look down his nose at the whole situation. In this parable’s most simplistic reading, the older brother serves as the lens through which Jesus seems to challenge our basic assumptions about what is right and wrong, fair and unfair, but in its most simplistic reading, I’m not sure that this parable is truly unsettling. What’s really makes this story uncomfortable requires us to pay careful attention to three things: to whom Jesus is telling this parable, what really happened in that pig pen, and how the story ends.
The parable commonly called the Prodigal Son is the third of three parables Jesus tells back-to-back-to-back. The lectionary skips over the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, but does give us the context for the stories. Jesus was hanging out with tax collectors and known sinners. Not only that, but he was eating with them. They would have dipped their bread into the same bowl of oil and smeared it across a common plate of hummus. The clean and unclean didn’t share meals in that way, and the Pharisees, whose job it was to interpret what was kosher and what wasn’t, made sure he knew about it. In response, Jesus told them three parables about things that had been lost being found. One sheep out of a hundred was lost, and the shepherd searched the ends of the earth to find it. When he did, he threw a massive party to celebrate. One silver coin out ten was lost, and the woman overturned her whole house to find it. When she did, she threw a massive party to celebrate. One son out of two was lost, and the father kept scanning the horizon searching for any sign that his boy might return home. We he did, he threw a massive party to celebrate. The first unsettling lesson we learn from this parable is that no matter who might want to be the judge of who is in and who is out, God is ready to throw a massive party in heaven for every stupid sheep, every seemingly worthless coin, and every ingrate child.
In each of the first two parables, Jesus is quick to mention that the lavish parties are representative of the joy that is experienced by God and all the angels each time one sinner repents. In our parable, however, the word repentance is never mentioned. Here, when the lost one is actually a human being who has some agency in his own return, we hear nothing about repentance. Instead, the unsettling truth of that pig pen is that the younger son might still be a gigantic jerk. In fact, I think this is the most likely reading of the text. Notice how it all plays out. After squandering all of his inheritance on “dissolute” living, the foreign land to which he had moved fell into a famine. Not only did his funds run out, but the bottom fell out on the economy at the same time. Everybody was hungry, so begging didn’t do any good. The best job he could find was working on a swine farm feeding the pigs. Can you imagine how awful life must be when you are looking longingly at the food that pigs are eating? Jesus doesn’t say that the younger son repented, but rather in that moment of desperation, the younger son “came to himself.” He returned to his senses and remembered that back home there was a farm full of food and even the hired hands had more than enough to eat. So, he concocted a plan in which he would return home, say all the right things, and even if his dad would only take him back as a slave, at least he’d have food in his belly. This, to me, is where the story becomes truly unsettling. Is it possible that what Jesus is saying here is that God will throw a party even for those whose return to relationship seems to come with questionable intentions? Is it possible that God is perpetually scanning the horizon, waiting to welcome home even those who are still stuck in their sinful ways simply because they’ve come searching for something more? Given the crowd Jesus is accused of hanging out with, perhaps the second unsettling lesson we learn from this parable is that God is always ready to welcome us home, whether or not we’re here for the right reasons.
As the party unfolds, the fatted calf is slaughtered and the finest wines are poured. The older brother returns from a day of hard work in the field only to find that his good-for-nothing brother is back and his dad is wasting more money on a party for him. You can feel his indignation as he stands outside, listening to the festivities inside, and sneering his complaint to the old man. “I’ve been working like a slave for you, and you’ve never given me so much as a young goat to have a party. But this son of yours. He treated you as if you were dead. He made you sell our land, lay off our workers, and lose our prestige in the community so that he could go off and waste your money, and for him you’ve killed the fatted calf?” Just as he had done for his younger son, the father tried to bring the older son back into relationship. He begged him to understand what it is like to lose something so valuable and find it again. But, as the story ends, Jesus doesn’t tell us if the older brother ever relents and enters the party. The parable fades to black with the older brother still outside, arms crossed, glaring into the house. Is it possible that God would restore a jerk like the younger brother only to leave one who was seemingly faithful on the outside looking in? Can we fathom a God who desires deep, real, perfect relationship who will also allow us to be our own worst enemies when we refuse to forgive and be reconciled? The final unsettling lesson I think we can learn from this parable today is that God is desperate to be in right relationship with everyone, but it is our own expectations, prejudices, and lack of grace that can leave us on the outside, looking in.
The more comfortable reading makes the Prodigal Son a top-3 parable of all time, but when we let parables be unsettling, when we allow them the space to challenge some of our basic assumptions, we stand to learn a lot about the Kingdom of God. The Prodigal Son story should make us wonder just how willing we are to enter the party God is throwing for all those who were lost but are now found. The Pharisees couldn’t imagine such a party. The older brother was indignant about it. God’s grace is often surprising, upsetting, and even little unsettling, which, now that I think about it, is maybe why Jesus felt the need to use parables in the first place. There are deep lessons to be learned, if only we have ears open to listen and hearts open to learn. Amen.