The Prodigal Father – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


​Words are important. You might expect to hear that from a guy who loves to write and does word history studies just for fun, but I think even if you aren’t my special brand of weird, we can all understand the power and importance of words.  Of course, some words are more important than others.  In the course of this roughly 1,400 word sermon, not every word is of utmost importance.  I didn’t labor, thesaurus in hand, to make sure I chose the correct word every single time, but there are places where a careful choice has to be made.  This is especially true when it comes to titles.  The title of a book, movie, poem, or even a sermon can be the difference between a smash hit, and something that never sees the light of day.  Take for example, the classic Alfred Hitchcock film, Psycho.  If it had been released under its original name, Wimpy, I can’t imagine it having the same punch.  What if Titanic had been called The Ship of Dreams or instead of Casablanca, it stayed Everybody Comes to Rick’s.[1]  It just doesn’t have the same appeal.  Most Bibles these days are chock full of titles; breaking down each section into an easily consumable, bite-sized morsel.  The problem with those titles is that they often begin the process of interpretation, cueing our brains to pay attention to certain details while ignoring others.  Today’s Gospel lesson is a prime example.  Pick up any Bible you can find, open it to Luke 15:11 and you’ll find the title: The Parable of the Prodigal Son.  This is one of Jesus’ best known parables.  It is so well known, that it has its own colloquialism: “the prodigal returns,” which I think means, one who has left has now come back.

How does our understanding of this story change if we know that prodigal doesn’t mean wandering or straying away, but in fact means “wastefully extravagant?”  Coming from that perspective, the Prodigal Son isn’t a story about a son who has gone away and returned, but the given title focuses our attention on the how the younger son spent his wealth on wasteful extravagance.  He squandered his inheritance on sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and given the title; I guess that is supposed to be the focus of our attention.  This creates a nice moral lesson and a fabulously easy, albeit oddly specific sermon: don’t tell your dad you wish he was dead, take your inheritance prematurely, and waste it on immoral living.  I feel like maybe that’s too easy.  I wonder if perhaps whoever titled this story had their own daddy issues, and decided to project them onto all of us.

If I were in charge of putting titles in the Bible, I would call this story the Parable of the Prodigal Father because it seems to me, that if anyone in this story is wastefully extravagant, it is the dad, who, on four different occasions, totally ignores the social conventions of his day to show his love to his sons with prodigality.  It all starts with that horribly awkward conversation when the younger son walks up to his dad and says, essentially, “You’re dead to me.  I’d like my share of the inheritance now.”  Social convention would say to tell this young man he can either fall back in line or leave without anything, but dad doesn’t do that.  Instead, he complies with his son’s request, which is no easy feat in first century Palestine.  The man couldn’t call his stock broker, sell a few hundred shares, and hand his son some cash.  Wealth was measured in land and livestock.  To give his son the money he wanted, the father would have to sell off his property, which would mean a smaller farm, which would mean fewer slaves, which would mean a general downturn in the economic stability of his household and therefore the whole community would suffer.  Out of prodigal love for his son, and a desire to let him make his own mistakes and learn his own life lessons, the father sells it off, hands his son a wad of cash, and with a heart that must have been shattered into pieces, watched him leave for a far away land.

Jesus infers that the man never really left that spot on the edge of his property.  For as long as his son is gone, he continued to watch for him, hoping and praying that one day he would return safely.  We don’t know how long it took the son to squander his wealth, or how many months of feeding slop to the pigs he endured before he decided to come back home, but you can imagine it was quite a while.  No matter how long it took, when that day came, and without care or concern as to whether his son was truly repentant or not, the father was there waiting.  While his son was still a long way off, he caught a glimpse, and out of that same prodigal love, he disregarded all social convention, hitched up his tunic, and took off running.  Men of his status didn’t run; they certainly didn’t run after sons who wished them dead, and they absolutely didn’t embrace them or welcome them with the kiss of peace, but that’s exactly what he did.

The love of the father was so over the top that he threw a party for his son who once was lost.  Social convention said that the townsfolk would gather when the son returned, but not for a party.  Instead, they’d take part in a gesasah ceremony.  “They would gather around him, breaking jars of corn and nuts and declare that he was to be cut off from the village.  His [re]entry… would be humiliating as his townspeople expressed their anger and resentment toward his actions.”[2]  Instead, dad’s prodigal love meant he killed the fatted calf, brought out the good wine, and invited the whole town to celebrate the return of his youngest son.

When word came that his older son refused to enter the party, the prodigal dad once more defied social convention to show his love for a son who didn’t much deserve it.  Instead of sending a servant out to deal with his son or simply demanding that his eldest come join the party, the father leaves the celebration to plead with his son to join in rejoicing that his brother who was dead is now alive; was lost, but now is found.  In the end, however, the same prodigal love that let his youngest son walk away would leave his first born standing outside of the party, sulking over the fact that his father’s love really was wastefully extravagant.

The Parable of the Prodigal Father isn’t a fable that invites us to not be immoral like the younger son.  Even though the story is directed at the grumpy Pharisees and scribes who complained that Jesus was hanging out with the wrong crowed, he doesn’t invite his listeners to not be stubborn like the older brother.  It isn’t a story teaching us how to forgive those who have hurt us.  The Parable of the Prodigal Son really isn’t about us at all.  It is about God, and how God’s love is wastefully extravagant; being poured out over and over again on folks like you and me: sinners, tax collectors, spoiled brat second children and slavish rule following firstborns.  In sending  his only Son, God the Father disregards all social convention, all the ways in which we think he should have fixed our mess, and all the plans and schemes of human beings, to show us his prodigal love, poured out in blood and water from the wounded side of Jesus, dead on the cross.  Words matter and the two words at the heart of this story are prodigal love: God’s wastefully extravagant, self-giving love for every human being who was once dead, and thanks to Jesus is now alive in the Spirit, who was once lost, but thanks to God’s amazing grace, is now found.  Amen.



What do people say about you?

It is Prodigal Son week!!!! The lessons are set up perfectly to preach this well known and well worn story.  A short, non sequitur, Old Testament lesson and a decent, but easily ignored snippet from Paul, clearly indicate that the brains behind the RCL would like for us to focus our attention on the Prodigal Son.  I promise that I’ll obey the great RCL hive mind as the week goes on, but first, my attention this morning is focused on the lead up to the story.

By this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is drawing quite a crowd to him.  Many in that crowd are faithful Jews, living out their relationship with God as best they know how.  Some, however are sinners, with others are generally undesirable.  It seems to be that latter group that speaks up in Sunday’s lesson, as the Pharisees and scribes mummer aloud, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”


Mr. Robertson, of Robertson’s Word Pictures (published 1930), notes that the verb “welcome” is constructed such that this is a habit of Jesus.  One might go further to say that it is one of his distinguishing characteristics.  Jesus is in the business of welcoming and eating with sinners.  That might not seem unsettling to us today, but in the Jewish culture of 1st century Palestine, this was simply not done.  Cleanliness was next to Godliness, and hanging out with sinners made cleanliness nigh impossible.  Sharing a meal with them was even worse; as sharing a meal was one of the most intimate encounters one could have with another person.  To share a meal, with the traditional sharing of bowls and cups, made it certain that one who was clean, is now very much not so any longer.

It is out of those charges that Jesus tells the Parable of the Prodigal Son/Father/God.  He doesn’t fight the charges, but rather embraces them as sign and symbol of his calling.  Jesus says, in effect, “Yes, this is what I’m about: welcoming and eating with sinners.”  Would that such a charge could be made of me, which got me wondering, what do people say about me?  What do people say about you?

Everything Jesus did was indicative of his status as the Son of God.  I’m certain that not everything I do shows off my status as a disciple, as an inheritor of the Kingdom, as a Christian.  I wonder how often people look at me and think, “what a hypocrite”?  How often do they see Christ in me?  When do they see me as anything different from the normal young professional, struggling to keep family, faith, work, and everything else in the right order?  Does my desire for the Kingdom show with regularity in the way I live my life?  I certainly hope so, and thank God for forgiveness when it doesn’t.

Active Jerkery? C’mon Man!

Parables are usually not about what they’re actually about.  The Parable of the Talents isn’t really about money.  The Parable of the Prodigal Son isn’t really about the Prodigal Son.  The Parable of the Evil Tenants has nothing to do with landowner rent collection practices.  The truth about parables is that when you think you’ve got the obvious answer, you really have nothing at all.  This is a relief because there is an obvious line in Sunday’s Parable of the Good Samaritan that should have every member of the clergy swallowing hard.

“Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.”  This is a really difficult sentence.  This sentence makes me feel about the same way that Pat Robertson after a natural disaster makes me feel.  “Gee, thanks for representing our faith and our vocation with such active jerkery.”  This guy SAW THE BEATEN AND BATTERED HEBREW IN THE DITCH and chose to cross the street and avoid him.

It is no secret that the Church is shrinking.  While I believe that there are larger and more fundamental underlying cultural reasons for this, what actually gets reported are statistics that say, essentially, “I don’t go to church because all y’all are is a bunch of hypocrites.”  This fact gets exacerbated by clergy who often times are aloof, if they are anything at all.  There are plenty of examples of clergy members who engage in just the sort of active jerkery of the Priest in the story of the Good Samaritan.  So here’s my thought for today.  Let’s forget about evangelism for now.  Instead, let’s work on being less jerky toward our fellow human beings.  Maybe then we’ll have some ground to stand on when we say that we follow a God who is love (1 Jn 4.8).

Parables are to be seen and not heard

Or something like that, anyway.  As I’m reading through my Commentary notes, David Lose at Luther Seminary and has done it again.  He’s drawn me to a different place, a new way of seeing what I’ve seen hundreds of times before.

That’s the problem with the Parable of the Prodigal Son, isn’t it?  We know it too well.  We’ve heard it again and again and again.  The prostitutes, the pigs, the robe, ring and fatted calf.  Even the surly older brother.  It’s all been done.  We know it.  We’ve heard it.  But David Lose, in his weekly “Dear Working Preacher” column, writes these words, “Parables don’t need to be explained, they need to be experienced so that they might in time be lived.”

Immediately upon reading those words, I found myself in a room on the second floor of Addison Hall, where Dr.  Yieh’s Parables class met, watching as the class acted out, awkwardly and with much discomfort, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Watching one who was called to be a priest, callously walk past an injured stranger, opened that well-worn parable up to me in new and different ways.  I began to wonder what it might look like to see the countenance of the Father’s change in an instant as, way off on the horizon, the silhouette of his long lost son appeared.

At the end of their weekly Sermon Brainwave Podcast, the faculty members at Luther Seminary began to do that for us.  If you listen to it, it begins at about minute 21.  The money quote is, “You never gave me so much as a goat, to have a party.  That little lamb that I fed… I combed her wool, and you killed my lamb for that little sh*t!  I’m not going in there.  This son of yours wasted your money.”  And the Father said, “We had to celebrate, this brother of yours came home.”  The expletive was so unexpected, and yet so real.  As I listened to it for the first time yesterday, I was there.  I felt my heart racing as I understood the deep emotional response of the older brother.  I felt his anger, his righteous indignation.  And then, I felt as my legs got swept out from under me as the Father replied, “We had to celebrate, this brother of yours came home.”

Perhaps for the first time, I noticed that the Father turns is all around.  This isn’t a party for “my son,” but for “your brother.”  It is about restoration of relationship.  It is about new life.  It is about God giving and expecting us to give mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  It is about my brothers, my sisters.  Our brothers, our sisters.  It is about those who are so close to us that their sins sting especially hard.  Experiencing the parable instead of hearing it, instead of having it explained to me, made a real difference.  I’m not sure how to replicate that on Sunday morning, but I certainly see the value in trying.