2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s commonly known as “the Prodigal Son,” and it may be my favorite parable, despite all the competition. The parable is not primarily about the prodigal, the younger son, but perhaps we’re secretly so envious of him going off and living the wild, debauched life, that we make it about him.
We’re better of calling it “the parable of the loving father and his two lost sons.” The Bible has a lot of stories about brothers, and as an eldest brother, frankly, we don’t fare well: Ishmael being overshadowed by Isaac, Esau being chumped by Jacob, Aaron being outshined by Moses, and then there are those devious, darling, and of course hugely over-rated youngest sons like Joseph and David.
The Bible assures us that sibling tensions have existed from the beginning. In Genesis 2 & 3, we learn about human difficulty in living in right relation to God, the vertical relationship. God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden because of our difficulty living according to God’s terms, because of our selfishness. In Genesis 4, we learn about the difficulty of horizontal relationships. It tells of Adam and Eve’s first two children, the brothers Cain and Abel.[i]
Cain, the elder brother, was the celebrated one, well-regarded, the hope for the future, more sophisticated and advanced. His name means “to acquire, to create.” The name Abel means “vapor, puff of air, nothingness.” Both brothers made offerings to God, and apparently without reason God rejected Cain’s offering. Life is often unfair, enigmatic, and confusing.
Cain was used to being perfect, adulated for his competence, but the rejection made him depressed and angry, and he led his brother Abel out to the field and murdered him. God asked Cain, “Where’s your brother?” Cain lied, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”[ii]
We all encounter painful and perplexing situations in life, all of us know about rivalry and competition and how it can leave us feeling insecure and alone, hating another for depriving or threatening us, and like Cain we don’t always react well. Cain ran away to a far country where he wandered in exile. But God did not lose interest in Cain. He did not give up on him. (Gen 4:15)
The common, daily estrangement of brother and brother, friend and friend, stranger and stranger, while ordinary and accepted, even normal, is not what God wants for us. Jesus tells us that reconciliation is more important than any religious offering. (Mt 5:23-24)
St. John equated loving our brother and sister to the resurrected life. On the other hand, he said, people who don’t love are as good as dead, and hating a brother or sister is murder. (1 John 3:14-15) Jesus said that being angry at our brother is murder. It’s denying the other’s existence, negating it. (Mt 5:21-22) John said that eternal life and murder don’t go together. And the reverse is true: reconciliation of brother, or neighbor, or stranger, is associated with resurrection, and brings new life.
This age old hostility, the human propensity for rivalry and competition and suspicion instead of intimacy and cooperation and trust, underlies today’s parable. The younger brother went to his father and said, “I’m finished with you. Give me what’s coming to me. I’m out of here.” The younger son wanted his father’s wealth, but not the father.
The father accepted his son’s rejection of him and gave him his portion of the estate. It would have been about a third. The younger son, his wallet flush, set out to a far country, neglecting any responsibility to his family. He no longer had any claim on his father. He chose to be on his own. He then squandered his inheritance on wine, women, and song.
(It reminds me of a little bit of George Best, a great British soccer player in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He made a lot of money, a fortune, but lost it. He explained, “I spent it on booze, birds [women], and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”)
When it was all gone, the younger son was hungry and homeless. He had to slop pigs, and he longed to eat what pigs ate. Pigs are unclean, not Kosher, because they eat feces, even their own. Jesus painted a disgusting picture.
In misery, the younger son “came to himself.” He came to his senses. We might say, “He bottomed out.”[iii] He realized that he had behaved horrendously. He felt regret. It’s the beginning of repentance, turning direction, changing heart and mind, re-orienting our lives.
The younger son left the far off country and returned home to his father. He declared that he was not worthy to be his child. He pleaded, “Make me one of your servants.” The father had seen his son coming to him, and abandoning decorum and proper manners, the father ran out and welcomed his son. The father restored his lost son. “You’re my child.” They celebrated and rejoiced.
I wonder why the younger son ran away in the first place. Perhaps he couldn’t stand being around his elder brother, Mr. Perfect, Mr. Competent, lording it over him, making him feel impotent. Possibly. The elder son was the responsible one who protected the family wealth, worked hard in the field, expressed care for his parents. The elder son slogged away compulsively. It was his way of proving that he was worthy to be the eldest son, that he deserved that status.
But there’s big irony. The elder son, always busting his gut, toiling away, treated himself as if he were a servant. It seems the idea of taking a break and having a party with his friends may never have occurred to him. The elder son may not have been aware of his own needs or even acknowledges them. When his younger brother is celebrating at a party, he realized that it would have been nice for him to have a fatted calf with his friends, that celebrating and tending to his own desires was a possibility.
When the father accepted the younger son and restored him to the family, the younger son was going to get another cut of the inheritance, a cut that would come from the elder son’s share. The father tried to reassure his elder son that there’s plenty. The elder son resented his brother for, in his view, manipulating their father, gouging his inheritance, getting attention for being irresponsible and ridiculous.
It’s a complex tale, not a two-dimensional morality tale, but a story acknowledging how human beings get lost in life, that being alienated and suffering and un-reconciled is normal, and it’s not what God wants for us. Both sons are lost, hurting, and both want a home to belong to, a home with warmth, joy, comfort, and love. This is humanity.
Notice how the father treated his children. He didn’t criticize or scold either of them. There was no finger wagging, no attempt to make his children feel shame. Instead, he broke social protocol to run out them, longing for them to be with him. He shared his abundance with them. He celebrated and rejoiced. He invited his children to be part of his joy.
The father, God, was full of tenderness and generosity, eager to recover and restore both sons. It’s God’s compassion, how much he longs for relationship with us – no matter what. And, it’s an invitation to us to have this attitude. It’s about welcome, hospitality, acceptance – that this is what God provides for us and what we might provide to others.
God offers a party of celebrating and rejoicing. We’re invited. The parable ends with the severe, ethical elder son, the responsible one, the religious and dutiful one, facing a decision. He is outside the party. Would he accept his father’s invitation?
Will the elder brother come to himself, come to his senses, repent? Has he bottomed out? It’s a tough decision for him. The parable recognizes that the human condition involves feeling alone and constricted, feeling inferior, like a servant, without options.
The loving father of two sons: one son wanted to be his servant and the other son felt like his servant. Here’s the good news. His message to his sons, and to each of us, is the same: “Repent, turn around, come home from the far country, stop wandering, you belong with your father, you are my children. Live with confidence and strength knowing my acceptance and love of you.”
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Lane Davenport
[i] Most of the information about Cain and Abel from Walter Brueggeman, Genesis, John Knox Press (1982), pp. 54-63.
[ii] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, The Westminster Press (1956), p. 102, points out that it’s an impertinent witticism: “Am I the shepherd of my brother, the shepherd?”
[iii] Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (2008), pp. 117-142, provided helpful commentary about the parable.