“There was a man who had two sons…”
How many of you, when Suzanne got to this third sentence of today’s Gospel from Luke, said to yourself, “oh, yes, I know this story. Younger son asks for his inheritance. Father gives it to him. Son goes off and squanders his money in dissolute and riotous living. Comes home asking for mercy. Dad throws a big party complete with new clothes and a fatted calf. Older son, who is angry and resentful at the lavishness bestowed on his scandalous brother, refuses to come to the party. THE END.”
Yes, we know this story. It is familiar. For many it is a beloved story of God’s extravagant love and mercy, particularly for the younger son.
Yet, I’d invite us today to re-listen to this well-known parable. To consider it with fresh eyes, to sit for a while with all the characters, and to see where we might find ourselves in the midst of it. Greek philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus reminds us that, “Stepping into a parable — even a much-beloved parable — is like stepping into a river; you cannot step into the same river twice.
The 15th chapter of Luke opens with the religious leaders of the day grumbling about Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners. It’s in the context of who is welcome to the table that we hear three parables. The story of the shepherd who abandons his flock to seek after the one lost sheep, and the woman who searches everywhere to find the coin that is lost. In each case – the shepherd, the woman – find that which is missing and gather family and friends to feast and celebrate.
Today’s parable, the third of three while similar, takes a bit of a different turn.
There was a man who had two sons.
Scripture is full of stories about sons and brothers – Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, today’s unnamed brothers. And those following Jesus, especially those steeped in the stories of their community , would know quite well that the younger son is the one is often favored.
For much of its history, the Christian church has understood the parable of the two sons as referring to two groups: the so-called lost son, the favored one representing the Gentiles who believe in Christ and the elder son representing the rigid self-righteous religious leaders who reject Jesus, alienated forever.
Even the name of the parable, “The Prodigal Son,” keeps this duality alive. Perhaps if we called this parable, the story of the lost sons, the parable of the dysfunctional family, we’d find our way to a deeper understanding.
New Testament scholar, Amy Jill Levine, in her book “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,” reminds us that parables are stories full of memorable characters, not historical portraits of real people but characters who challenges our stereotypes, characters who can inspire, humble, challenge and confront us. Characters who help us ask the right questions. Parables are not answers but invitations, she writes. They are stories that prompt us to draw our own conclusions and also force us to realize that our own answers to the questions we ask may be traps. They are stories to be shared in community so we might learn, assess, and challenge together.
Let’s consider the two brothers in this story and what we might learn from them this day.
Let me start with the younger son. Now I am the oldest child in my family, and I don’t quite trust this younger child. After squandering the inheritance given by his generous father, finding himself broke and starving, he seemingly comes to realize that perhaps it wasn’t so bad at home. Is his plea for mercy a clever story or is his contrition real. Does he truly realize the mess he’s made? Is he truly repentant?
And what about after he returned home? Does he get his act together, once the party was over and the fatted calf was eaten? Did he get up early the next morning, put away the chairs and tables from the party, take out the trash? Did he apologize to his brother? Did he understand that repentance is more than a teary speech composed along a dusty road? I want this younger son to really suffer for his foolishness, his recklessness. It shouldn’t be so easy to return. Shouldn’t the one who has done such wrong have some consequence, some punishment?
And I realize that these suspicions and wonderings about the younger child’s motives and actions aren’t about the younger one at all. They are about the father who welcomed him without rebuke, without condition. It’s me who wants to make the father’s extravagant embrace, his forgiveness of his younger child conditional. Could I accept such a love that is unearned? Am I able to just bask in the overwhelming joy and passionate embrace of a God who welcomes me home even when I’ve screwed up royally, squandered the love I’ve been given, been reckless or greedy.
I more readily resonate with the older son, the one who thinks that he has to earn his father’s love by being “good” – I’ve done all the right things, I’ve toiled in the fields, I’ve never asked for anything. I can understand his resentment at seeing his younger brother seemingly take advantage of their father’s love and generosity, the welcome lavished upon him at his homecoming. “But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him.” You’ve never done anything like that for me.
What appears to be self-righteousness and arrogance looks to me like pain and fear masked by resentment and seething.
How hard it is to acknowledge these hurts, to admit our longings. “Look at all I have done for you. Look at how faithful I’ve been. And you’ve never thrown a party for me and my friends.” The hurt, the pain – right there in the open.
This older child, he’s the lost one.
The father in this parable never goes out to look for the younger son, the one who has left home. The father doesn’t leave everything behind like the shepherd to go and find him. It’s when he realizes that his eldest is missing from the party that he recognizes who is still lost. “Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate.’” And the parable ends here – with two men in a field (not at the party) one urging and comforting and the other vacillating and resisting. And it’s too easy to write the ending with the older son lost forever with his anger and resentments leaving him separated from God’s table of welcome. It’s not a comfortable ending, it’s one that leaves me wondering what’s next.
But let’s remember where this all started – with the grumbling of the religious authorities about the unseemliness of Jesus’s invitation to the table for everybody – everybody.
The oldest isn’t shut out. The father’s invitation remains an open one to join the party that celebrates the restoration of relationship, that binds the wounds of division, that recognizes we can all return home to the unrestrained welcome and joy of the One who loves us unconditionally. Jesus leaves it as an open invitation for all of us elder children who come along in history that we, too, might join in the party.
There was a man who had two sons…
Perhaps this story is so compelling and beloved is because we are never only one of the characters, not just the oldest or youngest. Each of us has experienced squandering the love we’ve been given. Each of us has felt the sting of insecurity and fear of being left out. How might we all recognize the deep hope in each of that someone – God – will leave the threshold to welcome us before we can even get out a word of remorse or will invite us into the party in the midst of our fear of being left out.