Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me a share of your property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would have gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ Bu the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! And they began to celebrate.
“Now the elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has gotten him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me a young goat so that I might celebrate with me friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes; you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.’”
What a wonderful story! We have heard this parable our whole lives and I have preached on it quite a few times and each time I hear it and each time I try and work with it, it pulls me in, involves me so emotionally in the story, that I never tire of it! We wrestle with it, we love and hate the characters, and the ending… well in many ways the ending is left for us to decide. I have often thought the perfect way to wrestle with this text would be to do a three week series on it where each of the three characters in the story, the prodigal son, the loving father, and the older brother are discussed. The dynamics going on here are just so rich.
The artist of our stained glass windows, Joep Nicolas, must have felt the same way. He depicts this story showing a lot of emotion and movement. It is interesting in that he does the same thing that Rembrandt does in his famous painting on this subject. Even though there is not time in Jesus’ parable where the three characters are together and even able to see each other, they are together in the window. We see the moment when the prodigal returns. His shame in his predicament is so great that he is hiding his face before his father. You can almost hear him cry out “Father, I have sinned against you heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” And the father’s concern is there. He is bending down to embrace and hold up this child. You know after he does it will be only moments before he is shouting out to his servants to bring his best cloak, his best shoes and jewels for his child to wear and to kill the fatted calf and prepare the party so that all his neighbors can join in with him on his joyous celebration.
And then there in the background we see the other son….the older one. The one that has stayed has worked hard and is seen as the perfect child. Probably the young man that every father of a daughter in the land wants to have as a son-in-law…. And he is off in the distance. In the story that Jesus told, this son does not arrive until the party is in full force. The music is being played, the guests have arrived, and the smells of good food are filling the air. He arrives and refuses to go in. His father has to go out and plead with him to join in on the celebration. And the story ends without us knowing whether he goes in and joins the fun or whether he stays out alone. I think the artist captured his uncertainly in the window.
This parable is set within three parables which Jesus tells after being questioned as to why he associates and spends so much time with the riff-raff of society instead of the elite and faithful. They are known as the Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Prodigal Son. All of these parables end in celebrations of joy and should have been called more positive names such as the Found Sheep, The Found Son, and The Loving father as they are joyful parables which speak of God’s love and forgiveness.
The main character of the story is the father whose amazing love forgives a child who even feels that he himself in unlovable. The son, tired of his life farming the fields with his father and older brother, is charmed by the city and another way of life. He asked his father for his inheritance which would normally only be given to him after his father was dead. The younger son was entitled to 1/3 of his father’s estate when his dad died which would have been given to him in land and other resources. But when asked, the father gave him his inheritance and let him leave. He went to a distant country and lived a lifestyle that would have embarrassed his father and disgusted his neighbors. In ancient Israel, he would have been disowned. But the beauty of the story is that this does not happen. His son returns after practicing his speech the whole journey where he begs his father to take him back, not as a son, but as a servant and the father does the unthinkable and unpredictable. The father runs out to greet him. The father is overjoyed and celebrates his return. The father’s actions of forgiveness and love allowed reconciliation to occur. And this is good news for us. For those of us who identify with this young man’s lust for life and sinful nature the father’s love and forgiveness are extraordinary! WE realize that the extent of God’s grace which is offered to all… even us.
And if the story of the Prodigal Son had stopped there it would have been a wonderful story. It would have been good news for us as we realize that God loves us and welcomes us unconditionally and always. But unfortunately the story is not that easy…. There is that older brother… The good one… The one that is responsible, obedient, hardworking, respected and admired, and has lived life responsibly with an eye on the future… the son that every parent wants… the one that is a model Presbyterian.
And we learn this older son has another side to him…. On the outside he is perfect, but inside he is filled with judgment, condemnation, and jealousy. He complains and cries out, ‘Why? I have done everything? Why have you never celebrated me and given me a lavish party?’ What is interesting is that his complaint isn’t that his father gave the other son his inheritance; it isn’t that the younger son went off and had a really fun time with the money his dad gave him. No, the older son was mad about the party. He was mad about the fatted calf, the good wine being poured, his younger brother getting the new robe, the new ring, and all the dancing and the merriment others were having that he could hear in the distance. One commentary on the parable described the older son as a hard hearted miser who never learned to dance. I personally feel that is a bit unfair. I relate to him. This poor guy has done nothing wrong… on the contrary he has done everything right. My guess is that this good son at times felt burdened by his obedient and dutiful life. At times, he probably wanted to run away from his obligations like his younger brother did, but his sense of responsibility would not allow it. He was envious at the same time that he judged that lifestyle as corrupt. And then he comes home from work and finds that his younger brother has returned and that his father is giving him a huge party for his younger brother who frankly did not deserve it. He can’t go in. He just can’t bring himself to join the merriment of the celebration.
Henri Nouwen in his meditation on this parable as he studied Rembrandt’s painting, ’The Return of the Prodigal Son’, wrote “Once, when I felt quite lonely, I asked a friend to go out with me. Although he replied that he did not have time, I found him just a little later at a mutual friend’s house where a party was going on. Seeing me, he said, “Welcome, join us, good to see you.” But my anger was so great at not being told about the party that I couldn’t stay. All of my inner complaint about not being accepted, liked. Loved surged up in me, and I left the room, slamming the door behind me. I was completely incapacitated – unable to receive and participate in the joy that was there. In an instant the joy I that room had become a source of resentment.” The experience of not being able to enter into the joy is the experience of a resentful heart. The joy was there, others were experiencing it, but he could not allow himself to be a part of it.
The message of the parable is multi-facetted for us. Yes, we need to learn of God’s grace and God’s love, but we also need to know that while we are the younger prodigal son, we also are the older one as well. It is hard for us to accept God’s grace for the other if we remain judgmental. We need to learn to love as God does. We are in a position like the older son to choose for or against the love that is offered to us and to all.
We don’t know what happened to the older son. Did he finally enter into the house and participate in the celebration? The only thing we are sure of in this parable is the love of the father. AS we ponder the characters in the parable, we realize that it is far easier to return home from a lustful escapade with absolutely nothing but a feeling of guilt and sorrow. The cold anger that the older brother had which roots itself at the deepest corners of our being is the hard sin to overcome. Anger and resentment make us unable to experience the joy that is offered so generously to all of us. The father in the parable does not just want his younger son back; he wants both of his sons to join the party.
The work for us is to abandon our resentments and join in on the party. WE are to leave that which hold us in anger and misery behind and accept the joy that comes from living in knowledge that all are loved. Yes, all of us are invited to the party. So, let’s all go in and enjoy ourselves! Amen.