The parable of the prodigal son, the gospel reading we just heard, is probably one of the two or three most familiar of all Jesus’ parables. Most of you have heard the story many times before—in sermons or in Sunday School. It’s so familiar and so beloved because it conveys to us an appealing image of a loving and forgiving God, an image that comforts and reassures us. As familiar as the story is, it is told with drama and detail that draws us in, inviting us to enter into it and to identify with one, or perhaps more, of the characters. So I’m going to invite you to reflect for a moment on which character you most identify with. Turn to your neighbor, introduce yourself if you don’t know each other, and share with each other where you find yourself in this story—does the situation of the older son, younger son, or father most resonate with you at this time of your life? And why is that the case?
This rich parable invites us to do what we’ve just done, to enter into it to put ourselves in it. When we do so, we begin to connect the deep emotions of each character with emotions we’ve experienced in the past, or perhaps are experiencing right now—feelings of repentance, resentment, joy and love. But now I’d like to shift gears a bit, inviting you to hold on to that exploration of your emotions and the emotions of the characters and look at the parable’s larger context.
Luke wants us to read the story in a particular way. The lectionary signals his desire to us by including the very first verses of chapter 15 that tell us about the Pharisees’ complaint that Jesus hangs out with tax collectors and sinners. Luke follows those verses with two other familiar parables before giving us the one we know as “The Prodigal Son.” Those are stories are the one about the shepherd with 100 sheep who loses one, and the woman with ten coins who lost one. So the set up, by the time the reader gets to today’s parable is clear: rejoicing upon finding that which was lost.
The other pieces of information that may help throw light on our parable are a couple of things about ancient culture. First, the idea that a father might give his son part of his inheritance, while not illegal was unheard of. One’s property was disposed of only at death, and for a child to demand his share of it before his father’s death is sort of like telling your father, “You’re dead to me.” Presumably, the property, in this case the land, would have been sold. It’s easy to imagine what both father and elder son thought whenever they passed by the property they had once owned and watched the new owners working it. It would probably also have meant loss of income.
In addition to all that, there’s what happens when the son “comes to himself.” He wastes his inheritance in dissolute living, ends up eating fodder meant for pigs, basically living with the pigs, and finally decides he’s had enough of it. He composes a speech that he hopes will, if not restore him in his father’s good graces, at least ensure him of a better life and half-decent food. He heads home tail between his legs. He is probably ashamed and embarrassed and he expects to be shamed further when he arrives back home.
In her commentary on the text, Alyce McKenzie points out that Roman Palestine village culture was a culture based on honor and shame. By his behavior, the son had brought shame on both himself and his family. Apparently, villages performed a shame ceremony when a villager returned after having left the community for the gentile world, or married a gentile woman. Upon his return, the whole village would gather around him, breaking jars with nuts or other items and declare publicly that he was cut off from the rest of the village. It was an act of public shame and shunning.
But the father’s behavior prevented that ritual of shame. By running out to greet his son, he prevented them from performing that ritual. Even more, he welcomed him back into his own bosom and the bosom of his household. There’s a sense in which the father’s actions are themselves shameful. Respectable men didn’t behave that way in public. They didn’t display affection in that way; they certainly didn’t kiss a son publicly. He’s acting more like a mother than a father, and his behavior is inappropriate. By allowing himself to be humiliated, he stopped the village from humiliating his son.
I’d like to go back to the question I asked you a few minutes ago. Then, it was, “With whom do you most identify in this story?” There are other ways of asking the questions, other questions that the story raises—one is, “with whom ought you identify in the story?” That is to say, where does the story challenge your understanding of yourself and God? It’s easy for us to put ourselves in the role of the younger son. Perhaps we don’t see ourselves as quite as awful a human being as he was. We might not offend our parents as deeply, sin as much, fall into as abject and dissolute life as him. But nonetheless, it’s easy to see something of ourselves in him. Having sinned, we are penitent and seek the forgiveness of a loving God.
But the parable doesn’t let us stay there. It challenges us to see us in those other roles, the roles of elder son or father. If we’re honest with our selves, how often is it the case that we act like the older son? Whether within our own families or at work or school, how often do we resent what seems to be the favored, and undeserved, treatment of someone else? How often do we feel as if we’re the older brother who finds out about the party only after it’s well underway? Do the father’s words offer any consolation to us when we feel slighted or underappreciated?
That’s one challenge the parable presents to us. But there’s an even more difficult one. Think of the father again. The story began with his younger son demanding his inheritance, treating him as if he were dead, jeopardizing his family’s financial security. Now he returns after squandering his inheritance, after years of hard living. He returns with a rehearsed speech on his lips, and the father runs to greet him, inviting more of the community’s humiliation. He pays no attention to past grievances or feelings of moral superiority; he embraces, kisses, invites his son back home and rejoices at his return.
If this parable invites us to imagine our selves in the places of its characters, where might we need to find our selves in the role of the father? Where might we need to offer the joy of forgiveness to someone we encounter in our daily life? Who might we encounter who is in as deep need of forgiveness and love as the younger son in this parable? To offer that forgiveness, to offer the joy of God’s love to someone who feels unable to receive it on their own, may be the greatest gift we can give and is certainly one way to share the good news of Jesus Christ.