Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
This familiar parable in our gospel text is usually called “The Prodigal Son” because one meaning of ‘prodigal’ is wasteful. The son took his money and wasted it. Another interpretation of the word ‘prodigal’ is lavish. The father lavished his money and his love on his sons.
Let’s start with the wasteful use of the word.
Do you know a prodigal child? Many of us have one in our families, sometimes more than one. Milk cartons, newspapers, flyers on lamp poles, all remind us that our youth sometimes choose to run away from home. Even if they don’t run away, they can make life miserable while they stay at home.
Sally ran away several times the year she was seven. She would pack her little suitcase and slam her way out the door, and walk across the street to the neighbor’s house, where Irene let her in. Mary would let her stay for a while, sometimes overnight, until Sally was ready to go back home. Sally’s mother always welcomed her home with tears and an effort to work things out between them. But, Sally always thought her mother was being abusive, and she left home for good as soon as she could after high school.
Do you know a resentful sibling? They are just as abundant as prodigal children. Don struggled in school, and although his parents tried to support him, he never felt he was as good as his older sister, who was a straight-A student. He was content getting C’s and D’s. It was as if he was trying to get attention by doing poorly in school, to be very different from his sister. When he grew up, he found it difficult to keep a job, and time and time again he left home, and returned when he was out of money. He was still seeking his father’s attention by failing.
Do you know a prodigal, generous, forgiving father or mother? Sally’s mother and Don’s father always welcomed their children home and forgave them for their rebellious behavior. These parents never stopped praying for their children, never stopped loving them. While we might criticize their parenting skills, we also note that they never stopped loving their children and welcoming them home.
The younger brother in our gospel story probably wanted something different from what he knew at home. Perhaps he had met a traveling stranger and heard stories about faraway lands and wanted to experience them for himself. Knowing that his share of the inheritance when his father died would be a third of the land, he wanted to something more.
Unfortunately, his big dreams and schemes fell apart and he was homeless, a young Jewish man feeding slops to the pigs. He remembered home, and realized that as bad as he remembered it, it was better than what he had now. So, he made up a plan to go home and apologize; he would humble himself and work as a servant in his old home. In doing so, he would live better than he was living now; he would never have to care for pigs, at least.
What do you think … was his plan sincere, or was he just pretending? … Does it matter why he went home? … Would the father’s response have been any different? The father never gave up on his son, never stopped looking up and down the road to see if the young man was coming home. Once he spotted him, he ran to meet him half-way, and shushed his story-telling. The father never even gave the son a chance to tell his story, to say how sorry he was for running away and wasting all the money.
Naturally, the older son was resentful, upset that he has never had such a party in his honor. That’s often the way it is in families. The older child gets taken for granted, doesn’t feel appreciated, because they always do what is expected of them. It didn’t matter to him that he would receive everything that remained of the father’s estate. It only mattered that he felt left out.
As the mother of two sons, I find myself wondering how these two sons will repair the hurt to their relationship. It would be easy for the older brother to hold onto his anger and resentment, and make sure the younger brother knew he had messed up. It would be easy for the younger brother to remember his guilt and shame, and live the rest of his life as a servant to the older brother. We don’t know the outcome, though. We are left to wonder what the father does next.
But, this is a parable, and it’s a parable told by Jesus, which means we know to look for the God-figure in the story. It’s pretty clear that the God-figure is the father. This father welcomes home the wandering younger son. He runs to greet him and wrap him in his arms and loves him. The father also reassures the older son that nothing has changed between them. The father loves both sons, no matter what they have done or how they have treated the father. The love is unconditional, so is the forgiveness. The father’s love is lavish, merciful, prodigal.
If the younger son had stayed away, the father would never have stopped loving him, would never have stopped looking for him, was always ready to forgive. The younger son did return to his senses and did return to the father, and did repent.
The older son had always been there, had always obeyed, and yet still needed to repent of his resentment. He did not apologize for the way he spoke to his father – at least he didn’t in the story we have – and yet the father forgave him, too.
We love this story because it is so human. We are always one or more person in this story. We may be the prodigal, wasteful younger brother, looking for greener grass, and then needing to repent. We may be the older brother, the faithful one, resentful of those who have not been so steady in their faith. And, we may be the prodigal father – and mother – who readily, lavishly, welcomes home those who have run away.
Human logic wants punishment for misdeeds, and a lack of easy forgiveness. We want the guilty person to grovel, we want the guilty person to pay for their errors.
But, that’s not God’s way. It’s God’s way to welcome home all who stray and return to God’s love. It’s God’s way to continue to lavishly love and bless and forgive those who remain faithful. It’s God’s way to never give up on us, none of us.
This week, as we continue our journey through Lent, read and reread this gospel story. Who are you in the story? Does it changes from reading to reading? Does the reading lead you to confess? Does it lead you to forgive? What does ‘prodigal’ mean to you when you read it?
Please pray with me. Merciful God, we are so grateful for this story which reveals your heart to us. Help us to see our need for your love and forgiveness, as we strive to love and forgive those in our lives. Amen