Today’s Bible story is one which almost everybody knows. If you were to ask a random sample of people to name just one of the parables of Jesus, the one story they would be most likely to name, would be the one about the Prodigal Son.
What does the word “prodigal” mean? It’s not an everyday word in our vocabulary. To be prodigal means to be extravagant. It means to be wasteful. It means to spend everything in sight.
Someone who is prodigal isn’t necessarily a bad person at heart. A prodigal person may be the life of the party. It can be a lot of fun to hang out with somebody who spends money like that.
Most of us live lives that are much too careful. We count our pennies. We don’t know how to party. “Prodigal” can also mean generous, open-hearted, and giving.
But that’s not the issue in today’s story. In fact, the word “prodigal” never even appears in the story at all. That’s just the name we traditionally give it.
Jesus said: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.
So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”Luke 15:11-32
This story could also be called the story of two brothers. Two different personalities. Two different outlooks on life. And they both have problems.
Kid #1 is the prodigal. He says to his dad, “Give me my inheritance now.” He isn’t willing to wait for it. He takes it all, and he heads off to the big city, and he blows it all.
This is a kid with some serious boundary issues. Reality checks have not been a big part of his life. We’re looking at a kid for whom instant gratification has been the guiding principle.
Like a lot of young people, this kid wants to grow up and leave home. His family’s in the sheep-and-goat business, and his father’s been building it up patiently for years. Feeding, breeding, buying, selling, all that sheep-and-goat stuff.
OK, so maybe Junior doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life watching the rear ends of a bunch of animals. But he’s treating his dad really badly.
Instead of saying, “Dad, I want to do something different,” he says, “Dad, I can’t wait around for you to die. I want what’s coming to me, now.” So Junior destroys the family business. He leaves town, no forwarding address. He takes the money and runs off to Raleigh.
And then he wakes up one morning, and the good times are over. He’s broke. He’s got the world’s biggest hangover. His friends are all gone. His penthouse has been foreclosed. The credit card companies don’t even bother sending him new offers, because they know he’s gone down the drain financially.
What’s more, there’s a famine in the place where he’s living now. Everybody’s starving. Even if this guy had any job skills, which seems unlikely, there aren’t any jobs.
We’ve got a situation here. This is prodigal son meets natural disaster. He can’t even remember the last time he had a square meal. The only job listed in Help Wanted is feeding pigs.
For a Jewish audience, this would be the very last straw. Feeding pigs, and having nothing to eat but pig food, was like the worst thing they could imagine.
People who go to 12 step groups will often say, that a person has to hit bottom before they can turn around. Maybe the prodigal son had to do that.
But then, it says, he comes to his senses. In the old translation, it says, he came to himself, which is an even better way of putting it.
So he figures he’ll go home, and eat crow, or at least eat humble pie. He knows he’s wrecked his life. He knows his family have all given up on him. All he’s got left are the clothes on his back. So he walks out to I-40 and sticks his thumb out, heading back to Randolph County. What can he lose?
That’s a point which is buried in this story, which I’d like to lift up for a minute. A lot of people know they’ve made a mistake, but they’re too scared to turn back, or try to straighten things out, or to apologize. Usually, by the time people come and talk to me, things are already in terrible shape. And they wonder whether they can even take that first step.
And I usually tell people, “What can you lose? Maybe it won’t be better. But it’s worth a try.”
Stories like this, in the Bible, or in life, can give us the courage to turn back. I’ve had to turn back a lot of times in my life. And it isn’t any fun. But it’s better than being out there hungry and in the cold.
We all know how the story turns out. The father comes running to meet the wayward son, and it says he hugged him, and kissed him.
And before the son even got his apology half-way finished, the father was yelling, “Hey, somebody, send out for pizza! Start the music! JIMMY’S BACK!”
If we were writing the story, there would be some serious consequences first. There would be a behavioral contract, and lectures about respect and responsible behavior. And maybe, on Monday morning, after this story was over, some of that stuff really happened. I don’t know.
But two things stand out from this parable. One is the joy that the father of the family felt. He kept saying, over and over, “My son was dead, and he’s alive again. He was lost, and now he’s found.”
Maybe the father and his son had argued before. Maybe the relationship wasn’t so good, back at the beginning of the story. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Junior took off, in the first place. It doesn’t say.
But if the son had lost something, the father had also lost something, too. The father had lost a son that he loved. And without that love, nothing else made sense. The father’s world had also fallen apart.
Even if it was going to take a long time to put things back together again – even if their relationship would never quite be the same as it was in the old days when they used to go fishing together on Saturdays – that first step the son took, mattered. And they both knew it. And that’s why they celebrated.
The second thing that stands out in this story, of course, is the reaction of the older brother. Out of all the characters in the story, he’s the one we identify with most.
Wouldn’t it make you angry, to see that little twerp getting all of the attention? Where’s the justice? His kid brother doesn’t even get scolded! Years of faithful obedience. Years of work, shearing sheep and counting goats. And what did he get for it? Nothing.
Rationally and emotionally, we can understand the older brother’s reaction. The older brother is right. This isn’t justice.
But the older brother is wrong, too. Because the point isn’t justice. It’s restoration. It’s healing, and reconciliation.
My guess is, on Monday morning, some “tough love” talk needs to happen. Probably the two brothers have some work to do together.
We can understand the older brother’s point of view. But he’s not like the father in the story. He’s not grieving about his brother Jimmy.
He’s acting like he never had a brother at all. His hatred and bitterness are so great, that he’d rather see his brother dead and buried and forgotten, than see him turn around and come back again.
And as always, Jesus leaves it up to us to hear the story, and figure out how it applies.
Maybe we’ve been the prodigal. Maybe we’ve wasted what we’ve been given. Maybe we don’t deserve to belong to the family any more. Maybe we need to turn around, and confess what we’ve done, and make no excuses.
Or maybe we’re the older brother. Do we really want that other person to be dead and buried, and hated forever? Do we need to let go of some of that hate, and not let that anger destroy our own heart?
Just remember how God feels. Remember how God acts. The father isn’t passive in this story. The father doesn’t just sit there on the couch, frowning, with his arms crossed, not budging until the son comes crawling up the driveway. The father comes running to meet him.
If we take one step towards God, God take two steps toward us. If we acknowledge our mistake, God forgives us.
It isn’t rational, on God’s part. God cares. God loves us. God meets us more than half way. God sees us a long way off, and comes running to meet us.
As Jesus’ own life and death tell us at Easter, God takes ridiculous risks, for our sake. And God celebrates, whenever life returns.
Maybe God understands what it feels like, to be out there, or to be missing in action. Maybe God understands, better than we do, what it’s like to be hung up to dry.
In any case, Jesus told us these stories, and he leaves it up to us, to figure out what we’re going to do with them.
That’s all I want to say. Just remember the story, and take it to heart, and figure it out for yourself.