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“A Family Crisis”
Sermon on Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C
The well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son, as it is usually called, is Part Three of a trilogy: three stories of lost things, in which the stakes are dramatically raised in the last story – Jesus speaks of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and finally, a lost son. Jesus told these three stories in quick succession to a crowd of religious people who were on his case about his association with tax collectors, prostitutes and other notable sinners. Perhaps because of this sequence of lost things, Christian tradition has tended to put the main focus in the third parable on the lost son, the one who goes into that far country and learns about life the hard way – but the story is really about a family, and a dysfunctional one at that, and how the father deals with two ungrateful sons.
We are American Christians, so we tend to read this story in very personal terms. Hundreds of sermons and Bible studies tell us to ask ourselves where we fit into the story and whether we are more like the younger son or the older son or the father. That can be a fruitful approach, but it is not the only way into this story: there is still a lot more juice in this parable. An ancient Middle Eastern audience, like the Pharisees Jesus told the story to, would have heard it very differently from the way we hear it. They would have understood it as a story about a family and a community, with concerns larger than the individual concerns of the main characters.
The Pharisees listening to this parable would not have been thinking, “What a beautiful story!” It was, in fact, an alarming story, even an offensive one. We are no longer talking about sheep or coins, but about a person: a sinner, to be exact, a young man who has dishonored his family and his community.
To approach this parable in its context, we need to dispense with our Western tendency to romanticize the younger son. We can’t compare him to that stock character of American folklore and fiction, the restless young man who leaves his hometown to see the wider world and find himself. This boy’s request for his share of the inheritance was an insult to his father and his brother. To ask for an inheritance while the father was still alive was unheard of – it was like saying he wished his father was dead. The boy’s plan to dispose of the inheritance as he saw fit was equally offensive. Keep in mind that the father is a landowner, so the inheritance would have been land, an asset that the boy would have liquidated into cash. This was land that had probably been handed down through generations of the family; it conferred status on the family in the community. Brothers were expected to live together on their parents’ land even after the father’s death, because that would ensure that the whole package of land was retained in the family name. It’s also likely that the father would have been counting on both sons to care for him in his old age in their ancestral home. So the younger son is forcing a division of the family and a reduction in the family landholdings.
To state the case against the younger son even more strongly, in that world there was no such thing as individual identity apart from the family. We see traces of this today, even in our country: one of the things I’ve noticed about the difference between Northern states and Southern states is that in the North, when people meet you they want to find out what you do for a living; in the South, they try to find out who your family is. That’s the most important clue to who you are. This son is essentially renouncing his family identity, and thereby reducing his father’s authority in the community.
The younger son certainly didn’t expect his father to take an indulgent attitude toward his behavior. When he finally “came to himself” in a Gentile pig sty, he was well aware of the seriousness of what he had done. He didn’t expect to gain his father’s favor ever again, but he thought he could keep
himself from starving by hiring himself out to his father as a field hand. It is not clear that he was repentant, only that he was hungry and counted on his father not to let him starve. Do you hear something a little cynical and overdone about his prepared speech?
As it turned out, of course, he never even had to make the offer. Before he could get his speech out of his mouth, his father was running down the road to meet him, his dignified landholder’s robes flapping foolishly in the wind, and calling for the servants to bring the robe, the ring, the sandals, all marks of a young master, and to kill the fatted calf for a celebration banquet.
The father is thrilled to see the son. He could also have been launching a preemptive strike against the townspeople who would have seen the lost boy coming down the road and would have gotten to him before the father could, if the father had waited at home. So the father could be running to the son and ordering the banquet to give the son protection from the village. There was an ancient ceremony to punish a Jewish boy who had lost the family inheritance to Gentiles – it was a shunning ceremony, which said the boy would henceforth be cut off from his people. So the father was running, something no respectable man did, to save his son from that action. According to tradition, the only acceptable circumstance in which the son could come back home would be if he had used his money well and made a fortune; in that case, he would give a banquet for his family and the village. The son should have given the banquet, but the forgiving father did it for him, to lift the shame from his son in the eyes of the community.
So, there is a sumptuous meal, and party clothes, and music and dancing. The son is restored to the father and the judging townspeople are silenced, at least for now, by the father’s act of mercy. There is joy in the father’s house. This should be the happy ending. But there is another son.
The elder son, the one who never left home and remained on the property and obeyed his father, is waiting outside the house, seething and fuming, refusing to join in the festivities. He is shocked at his father’s response, and understandably aggrieved. The transgressor has returned, and there is apparently no penance to be done, just dressing up and partying. It was like saying what he did was OK.
But the elder son’s refusal to come into the house is another public insult to his father. No sooner has the father got one son back than the other threatens mutiny. Once again, though, the father goes out to the son. This seeking out of the older son would have been seen as weakness in the patriarch of a landed family: a patriarch never left his place at the head of the table, and he certainly didn’t plead with his children. In his dealings with the elder son, as with the younger, the father is exposing himself again to the ridicule and disrespect of the community.
Was the father wise or foolish? In giving in to the demands of his children the way this father did, I can’t help thinking of another patriarch, Shakespeare’s King Lear, whose tragic downfall came from his premature division of his kingdom between his two conniving daughters. King Lear is tragically foolish, but the foolishness of the father in Luke’s story is redemptive.
The older son is right, of course. The father’s over-the-top welcome of the younger son is not fair by any reckoning. It seems neither right nor just. But the claims of the family are stronger than the elder son’s claim to “rightness.” Reconciliation is the father’s objective, so compassion and mercy trump the elder brother’s case.
It’s easy to see this father privately forgiving each of the two sons -- most parents want to forgive their children as quickly as possible. But this father enacted his forgiveness publicly, at a huge cost to his dignity and his standing in the community.
In the Bible, a certain kind of foolishness is a good thing. Paul, for example, talks about the “foolishness of the cross”: the absolute scandal of the Son of God, with all the prerogatives of divine status, submitting to the humiliation of the cross to reconcile us with God. Here’s how Paul says it: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25). So yes, a certain kind of foolishness is a good thing -- such a good thing, in fact, that we call it “good news” and amazing grace.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
March 31, 2019