Jesus continued: “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.’”
I hope that you were listening carefully to this morning's reading from the Gospel According to Luke because I'm going to ask that we try a little exercise before diving into this passage. In groups of two or three, I'd like you to share your paraphrase of this parable with your neighbor. I'll give you a few minutes before inviting us back together.
[Small Group Discussion]
What were some of the things you noticed during your time of retelling this parable to your neighbors? Was there a lot in common with the versions that you heard? Were there any details missing and if so why do you think they were left out? Of course, I don't expect you to know all these things right off the bat, but they are questions that are important as we consider what this story means for us today.
So I guess I should ask, "Who really is the prodigal son/daughter?" That depends, I think that depends on how you read this parable and how you see yourself in the story. Pay attention, because the prodigal might be someone unexpected! Because the prodigal might not be the self-centered individual, you think they are. The prodigal son might actually be a prodigal daughter, father, mother, or even a prodigal community. How we see ourselves in this text will humble us, remind us that we are not at the center of the universe, and call us to live lives of love and compassion.
Mark Allan Powell, Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, reminds us of the importance of seeing Jesus' parables in a new light. Powell once experimented on twelve American seminary students and had them read the parable of the prodigal son and then recall it from memory. Interestingly enough, Powell found that none of the students mentioned the famine that had occurred within that country. Powell admitted that at the time he didn't consider the reference to famine significant, but was surprised that not one of the students mentioned it.
This experiment continued when Powell went to Russia and did the same exercise with a group of fifty Russians. Compared to the group in America forty-two out of the fifty Russians had remembered the famine (Powell had conducted another trial with one hundred Americans of varying backgrounds and found that only six out of one hundred remembered the famine). What was different this time, though, was that many of the Russians did not emphasize the "squandering" of the prodigal son's inheritance. Which begs the question why? And of course, it comes down to cultural context.
Well, things get a little more complicated because as time went on this experiment continues to occur around the world. And we've found that in countries on the African continent and places in Asia, the problem isn't the prodigal son squandering or the famine, but it's the people who failed to help the prodigal son when he fell on a hard time! The failure of the community, the failure of helping a stranger who came to a new land is the great tragedy that occurs within this parable. We each bring something to the table, we all have something that we offer when we gather together and when we pray by ourselves as well. And each of these things influences who we are as a person who is unique and wonderfully made. So I ask once again, "Who really is the prodigal son/daughter?"
Again, that depends on how you approach this parable of Jesus. While we might be inclined to stick with what we know, the reality is we might feel a little uncomfortable in exploring other options because we might expose some of our own shortcomings. But that's the point! Each of us is a prodigal in some way or another. We aren't perfect, and if we think we are, we'll only end up like the elder son who became bitter and angry that the father showed grace and compassion. And if our hearts become so hardened and filled with spite, is it actually better to have been the one who followed all the rules?
And if we think we’re the only ones who are righteous and well off our hearts might become like those in the faraway country who refused to help the prodigal son during the time of famine? Surely there was enough to share, but their hearts were hardened as well. It wouldn’t be surprising if the people in that country had a “pull yourself up” kind of attitude, but how quickly did they forget that it takes more than one set of hands to help pick up a fallen person. We cannot expect to receive grace if we are not willing to give it to others as well. It means we’ll have to be vulnerable at times, but isn’t that better than living a life that hordes blessings for itself?
The point of our reflection this morning is to take a step back, look at the more significant scene that is before us, and see how each of us has played the role of the prodigal at different points in our lives. Perhaps we have squandered our possessions, but maybe we have also turned our back on our neighbor, maybe we've failed to help the stranger who came into our community from a distant place, perhaps we've struggled together in those times of hardship and famine (both spiritually and physically). We hopefully will find that we are a little more empathetic and a little more compassionate when we know what it is like to be in the footsteps of one who was lost and found.
Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son is a parable that speaks to us today because it resonates with the hazards of life we still encounter today. We wrestle with greed, caring for the earth, protecting one another, and balancing our egos in the presence of a God who passes out forgiveness and grace freely. And I think that is the takeaway for us this morning as we imagine ourselves, as we know ourselves, being in the position of the prodigal son that when we return there is a God who welcomes us. It's not about what is fair or just, but what is right, and when we choose to live in that kind of community everyone who is a part of it is better for it.
There is an open invitation for us to turn our back on the ways of death and destruction and set ourselves back on the path that leads to life. We are all prodigal sons, daughters, and children of a God who calls us to life-giving love. The prodigal maybe you and me, but that doesn't mean we wear that title like a scarlet letter around our necks. Instead, we move forward knowing that each day we are given a chance to do better, to live as Christ would have lived, and to go out into the world knowing how hard it can be to stay on the path that is before us. So don't be so quick to judge as we are never truly sure of the full story of another person's life. And live life knowing that there is always grace and strength that comes from God who runs out to embrace us. Amen.