The Prodigal Son; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 6, 2016: Lent IV
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
The Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
How great is the story of the Prodigal Child?! It’s one of those stories that we all know from our childhood, and, from the center of our humanity. It’s a story that is familiar both in our life’s literature and in our life’s experience. It is a story about faith and forgiveness, about repentance and hope; and it is, as are all of Luke’s best stories, about loving each other from our toe bottoms. Loving each other the way God love us. ….no matter who we think we are or what we may have done. Whether we have left home and frittered away the family inheritance or sacrificed our own dreams to stoke and tend the family hearth. Either way, we are loved, and meant to love, beyond measure.
This parable is exclusive to Luke’s Gospel. It doesn’t appear anywhere else. The upside of its exclusivity in Luke is that it is not worn out in our lectionary. The down side is that we only get a crack at it every three years. And so it may just be the most well known scripture that I have never preached on. But today I get my turn.
A couple of years ago in our Lenten adult ed series we read Mark Shaia’s book The Hidden Power of the Gospels. And the premise of that book is that each of the four Gospels asks one overarching question. There is one question that each evangelist is trying to answer through the entire text of the Gospel. Shaia says that Mark, whose Gospel moves from Jesus baptism to the cross, is driven by the primary question: How can we navigate the suffering that comes with our mission? Matthew is a Jew preaching to Jews about a new interpretation of Jewish Law (that would be Jesus), and so Matthew’s overarching question is: How can we manage and navigate change? John’s Gospel is grounded in the mere requirement that we believe that Jesus is the ultimate that life has to offer, Jesus is the light of the world, the truth and the way and the life, and so John’s big question is: Where do we find Jesus?…also known as joy! And Luke’s fundamental question, says Shaia, in almost every story and every parable and every teaching is this: How do we take love on the road? What does love look like in action….applied everywhere to everyone? How can we live a life filled with love? And this morning’s Parable of the Prodigal Child is the poster child for Luke’s overarching question. THIS is what love looks like in action. THIS is what it is to be loved and to belong. THIS is how we were meant to live together.
This longest parable in our Gospels is always in the season of Lent. …at least it has been since the introduction of the RCL in 1992. Always, we hear this story in the context of our walk with Jesus through the wilderness. …the season when we are reflecting on ourselves and our own walk with God. And so we are set up to hear this parable as a commentary on ourselves, and not just on the world at large. Unlike many of the parables in Matthew’s Gospel, this parable is not about how we must overturn the systems of injustice in the world – there are other parables for that. This one is rather about how we are to behave with the ones that we already know, the ones who are already in our clan or our community, the ones that we already…..love.
And we are invited to try on all three of the main characters in this parable. One at a time. The child who has strayed and suffered and returned…not a wild success, but a destitute failure. The parent who has lost a child and suffered and forgiven and welcomed and sacrificed the fatted calf for the one, the beloved, who feels unworthy of such a grace. And the stay-at-home-follow-the-rules- sibling who is so blinded by rivalry, and jealousy, and fear of his own inadequacies, that he cannot see the forest of love for his own trees of competition and regret. And I might add a fourth character. The beckoning, judgmental unforgiving world that taunts us and calls us to disconnect. The wider world that says, I have something that will make you greater than you are. And all you have to do is leave home. Yes, this is a story that has it all….all of our possibilities…..and all of our demons.
As with Luke’s other famous, exclusive story of the Good Samaritan, I think that probably we all embody a part of each of the characters. We all have a bit of the wasteful son and the loving father and yes, the begrudging older sibling who receives the same inheritance as his philandering brother, but keeps his half in the family; the older obedient sibling who grumbles about the wasteful behavior of his younger disobedient rival; the older sibling who grouses about the unfairness with which his younger sibling is accorded comfort and kindness and prime, grade A nourishment and forgiveness. The scripture says:
“Now his 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. The slave replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then the older brother became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But the son 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 even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.
You have never given me so much as a young goat to celebrate with my friends. Ouch. Can you feel it? I can. Because this is where this parable gets very complicated. I am guessing that we can all understand and process the first two parts of this story. We can all relate to and maybe even teach the lessons of returning when we have strayed and forgiving when we are able, but what do we do with this part? The part about our own anger with the unfairness of it all. The part where we are incensed by the good fortune of others. The part where we feel our own worth challenged by the “worthiness” of those who who fail to measure up to …..our own standard of their behavior? Through this lens, this is the Parable of the Unfair Heir. Through this lens we are treated to a ring side seat of the pettiness and the rueful bitterness that I suspect most of us know all too well, the feeling that we and our accomplishments are somehow diminished when someone else is accorded what we feel is an unearned….anything; accolades, awards, acceptance, a steak dinner, you name it. We seem to be wired to want not only what we need in this world, but what we “deserve.”
We might relate to all three of the characters in this parable, but the righteous indignation of the older brother seems to me be the Gospel pay dirt. Lest we miss the connection between the Pharisees and scribes at the preamble of this parable who are grumbling that Jesus is treating tax collectors and sinners as though they were……as entitled to hospitality and respect as are the religious elite. It reads: All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
It is the grumbling of the religious elite that prompts this parable. It is that familiar grumbling that often comes almost automatically when we feel that there has been an injustice, that we are not getting what we deserve. The Greek word diagonguzo recalls the connotation of the Israelites in the wilderness when they were hungry and thirsty, and took the injustice of their discomfort out on Moses and Aaron in the form of some seriously sensational grumbling (Exodus 15:24; 16:2, 17:3, Num. 14:2, Deut. 1:27). It is the grumbling that we tend to do when we feel that we are not being well-served…..that we are not getting what we “deserve.”
For some ungodly reason we featherless bipeds measure our just desserts by the just desserts of our fellow featherless bi-peds. We tend to measure others by the standard of what we believe we have earned. And the grumbling that comes with our anger over what we perceive to be the unearned privilege of others, often coupled with our abject blindness to our own unearned privilege, well that could just be at the heart of every systemic evil that plagues our common life. This notion that there are hierarchical levels of deserving may be at the heart of our panoply of social dis-eases: racism and poverty and war and the destruction of creation. This notion that some deserve more than others is……well, maybe this is the root of all evil; this delusion of deserving.
But what exactly do we deserve? It’s a question worth asking. And it may well be the question that is at the very heart of this Holy Season of Lent. What exactly do we deserve? What do I deserve? Is it different from what you deserve? Is it grounded in divine justice or in my own human concept of fairness? Do we deserve what we earn? And what if our earning power is derailed or impeded by no fault of our own? Does what we deserve change? Is that fair? So again I ask, what exactly do we deserve? And what does it mean when we grumble that we are not getting what we deserve?
Actually, I think we need not look any further than the construct of the word itself: deserve. de-serve. When we grumble that we are not being properly served, we are de-serving. The opposite of serving. The opposite of what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to serve, not to be served, not to de-serve.
And so here we have our parable that juxtaposes the selfish, but returning son and the grumbling, but steadfast son. And in between, in the connection, the prodigal father – wasteful (as the word “prodigal” means in the Latin) beyond measure with his love for his two sons. And that, I think, is both the Good News and the exhortation in this morning’s reading. I hope that we can listen and act accordingly.
I hope that we can notice the places in our daily lives where we are de-serving of love. And that we can turn ourselves around to go forth instead serving each other with prodigal love…that is, wastefully loving each other until the cows come home!
© March, 2016 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
 The Parable of the Prodigal Son: All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So Jesus told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the 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 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.’ But 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 his 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 got 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 even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my 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.'”