March 27, 2022
"Seething Sickens the Soul"
Rev. Scott Landis
The problem with this story known as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” is that it is SO familiar to many of us that we may be tempted to tune-out when we hear its opening lines, “There once was a man with two sons.”
You have likely read this story in Sunday school, discussed it in a Bible study, or listened to way too many sermons from pastors who have tried to impress you with new insights. Well, it’s your lucky day. I’m going to take one more crack at the bat.
The beauty of the parable is that it is so rich with images and possibilities that it offers something new each time we hear it because the context in which it is read is constantly changing. And yet the relational dynamics are amazingly consistent. We may not be able to identify directly with the characters involved, nor can we fully appreciate all the nuances of Jewish family dynamics in the first century, but I bet you find yourselves understanding the heart of, at least, one of the three main individuals. Who DO you find yourself drawn to or sympathetic toward?
The care-free, adventurous heart of the younger son who wants his share of the property now so he can go out and live his life the way he wants.
Or the responsible, dutiful heart of the older son who has always followed the rules and lived his life in a way that has met or exceeded familial and societal expectations.
Or the broken heart of the loving father who both pines for his younger son he fears may be dead while trying to cajole his older son who was “always with him.”
OR – maybe you can sense a little bit of yourself in each one of these characters. Maybe you have longed for or lived-out some aspect of what they each represent at different times in your life. Perhaps that is why this parable is so beloved and fondly remembered. We can so easily relate. [Pause]
The story is that of loss and follows two other vignettes in the gospel of Luke both of which focus on things that were lost – including the lost coin and the lost sheep. In this case the father (who arguably is the central character) fears he may have lost both of his sons – but for very different reasons.
The younger son wants nothing more than to get away from home – as quickly as possible. He broke all the rules of obligation, family loyalty, and the expectation that he would do everything he could to keep the family property intact. Instead he humiliated his father by demanding he receive his share of the property NOW. It was as if he had said, “I wish you were dead. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with all this family nonsense and get what I deserve without any strings attached.”
For whatever reason, the father caved. He gave into his son’s demands which was not only humiliating, but heart-breaking. You know what happened. It’s the same thing that happens to every irresponsible kid who thinks he is SO much smarter than his parents – he failed miserably. He blew through his money quicker than a hot knife through butter and, in desperation, sauntered home with his tail between his legs. Pride gone, he needed a job, food, and a place to sleep – which his father gave him abundantly – even rejoicing in his return.
The older son – well, that’s a different story. He’s wired very differently. He was the rule follower. He respected the social obligations and traditions of Jewish family life. He honored his father by living up to those expectations that his father and the surrounding community had for him. And he resented it every-day-of-his-life. He wished he could be more like his brother – carefree, no obligations, throwing caution to the wind and living life on his own terms. His resentment came to a head when his brother returned, and his father acted as if – as if he had done nothing wrong.
To add insult to injury, he wasn’t even TOLD of his brother’s return. If you read the story carefully it says he worked a full day, clocked out, and when returned home — it was only then that he happened upon the festive event. [Pause]
I was listening to a podcast the other day by a seminary professor who spoke of an incident that occurred in his classroom when he taught on this parable. He said there was a woman in the first row of his class, and when she heard the words, “All this time the older son was out in the field,” she shook, her anger was overwhelming as she said, “I am so mad. They didn’t even have the decency to go out to the field and get him.” Like the older brother, she was seething – obviously identifying very closely with this situation. But seething sickens the soul. [Pause]
If we are honest, this is where many of us in the church likely find ourselves today – perhaps not seething but harboring a little anger or resentment in our self-righteousness. We have been the ones to fulfill the obligations, to keep the operation going, doors open, lights on, and bills paid. Smiling on the outside we may look down our noses at those who don’t come to church on Sunday OR those who want to change the way we have always done things if they DO come. We follow the rules and become very suspicious of those who want change or suggest we do things differently. This doesn’t make us bad people but often springs from an inner churning (of which we may be totally unaware) that can eat away and damage our spiritual heart — our soul. [Pause]
The father was stuck in the middle. Having just experienced the joy of his younger son’s return and reconciliation he now witnessed explicitly the resentment of his older son, and his heart was broken. Overcome with joy at the realization that his younger son was alive and back home, he was devastated that his older son could not enter into that same euphoria and rejoice in the fact that they were all together once again.
It’s the father that I’m drawn to – now. But it took me many years to figure out why.
I understand the selfish escapades of the younger son. I remember when I thought I knew so much more than my “backwards” parents. After all, I was educated. I was ordained. I knew so much more about the Bible than they did.
At times such self-assuredness turned into self-righteousness – that my understanding, my theology, my beliefs were the correct ones.
Not only did my biological parents shake their heads in disappointment as I moved further from their beliefs, I think my heavenly parent may have done the same. It’s not that my beliefs were wrong – rather, it was the arrogance with which they were held.
If nothing else this story reminds me just how patient my parents were and God is – and especially with one who claimed to follow him.
The father in this story completely humiliates himself. He gave away half his property (something a man in that day would never do). He prayed daily for this son who should have been dead to him. When he returned, he RAN to greet him (again, something a man in this culture would never do). And he not only forgave him – he restored him completely. We may wonder – where are the consequences. Well, with God – there are none.
And then he stood before the older son and begged him to join him in his joy. A request in which he gave his son all the power. The older son was invited to model his father’s behavior – to let go of pride and welcome his brother home. Or he could refuse and watch his father die just a little more right before his eyes. [Pause]
Sometimes it feels good to stand out in the yard — doesn’t it? Refusing to go in — and associate with the likes of THEM.
It feels good to know who is right and who is wrong as our actions speak much louder than our words. And we shame our father even more – further breaking his heart.
Meanwhile, there is a banquet going on. The father will not force you to go in. Instead, he will stand in the yard with you, to protect you – the same way he protected your brother. And what’s left of his honor is in your hands. [Pause]
You can’t have peace and stay exactly who you are or even who you want to be. Sometimes you have to sacrifice – giving up your prized possession: honor, rightness, even self-respect. But the father is patient and will wait for you. For him, reunion is all that matters, and he will stop at nothing until that happens. The desire for reunion finds the lost and brings them home. Reunion can even bring the dead back to life. [Pause]
What most amazed me in my study of this parable this go-around was the adjective “Prodigal.” My whole life I assumed that meant wayward, profligate, reckless. I assumed it was a negative adjective – and it can. But it also means extravagant, abundant, overwhelming.
What we witness here is not only a “prodigal” son – but a “prodigal” father who will stop at nothing until we come home.
Mahalo ke Akua.