“The Prodigal Father” (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)

Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 14, 2010

“The Prodigal Father” (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)

Our text today is probably the most familiar and well-loved of all of Jesus’ parables. It is the parable usually called “The Prodigal Son.” But this morning I would like to suggest another name for this story, and that is, “The Prodigal Father.” Yes, “The Prodigal Father”–he really is the hero of this story.

Well, first I guess I should explain that word “prodigal” and why we can apply it to both the wayward son and the waiting father. “Prodigal” is an old-timey word, isn’t it? We don’t use it much in our day, other than in reference to this parable. Literally, though, the word “prodigal” means “excessive” or “extravagant.” And when we’re talking about the prodigal son, we’re using the term in a negative sense. That son was excessive and extravagant in the way he spent what had been given to him. Our text says, “He squandered his property in reckless living.” Another translation says that he “wasted his possessions with prodigal living.” There’s the word. Other translations have “riotous” living, “loose” or “wild” living. That’s what it means to be “prodigal” in the context of this son. He blew his money carelessly. He was irresponsible. He was wasteful and reckless in how he lived.

But remember, the word “prodigal” can mean “excessive” or “extravagant” in a more neutral sense, even a positive sense. And this is where it applies to the father in our story. He was “recklessly extravagant” in his love. He was lavish and abundant in his love, in his grace, in his giving. And to both sons, really, both the runaway younger son and the stay-at-home older son. The father gave profusely and generously to them both. In that sense, then, I call him “The Prodigal Father.” Let’s find out how he does it–and how he is “excessively extravagant” in his love toward us.

First there is the younger son, the one who runs away. The father is more than generous to him. First of all, the younger son says to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” Well, that’s kind of like saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead!” What an insult, what a slap in the face, to tell your father, “I want my share of the inheritance, and I want it now!” The father would be justified in slapping down this impudent son! But no, he doesn’t. In fact, he accedes to the young son’s request, which was really more of a demand, and he gives the young man the money. Already the father is showing his patience and forbearance and his costly love. And he lets the young man go his way.

Of course the young man runs away from home. He is allured and attracted by the appeal of the world. In this way, he is like the wayward Christian who drifts away from the church and lives like the people of this world. It’s stupid, it’s foolish, but people do it anyway. They don’t realize how good they’ve got it at home, at home in their Father’s house. They think they’re missing out on the fun out there in the world. “Who needs church? There are more fun things to do with my time. It’s my life, and I’ll live it the way I want! Father, I wish you were dead! In fact, God, you are dead to me. I’ll live like a functional atheist, like the children of this world.”

Have you been there, done that? Got any t-shirts? Yeah, “I used my Saturday nights and my Sunday mornings to get drunk or go camping or sleep in or sleep it off, and all I got was this stupid t-shirt.” No life-giving word of God. No communion with my heavenly Father. No fellowship with the family of God. How dumb. But we’ve all been there, probably, to some extent or the other. Maybe not in outright vice and bawdy living. But at least in drifting away from God and living for our own desires. That’s the prodigal son in us all, wasting and squandering our birthright.

But hopefully, finally, we get our head screwed on straight and come to our senses. And sometimes it takes failure for that to happen, for us to finally bottom out and realize our need. That’s what it took for the prodigal son: “And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.” If there’s anything lower than for a good Jewish boy to have to hire himself out to feed pigs and to be so hungry as to envy their slop, I don’t know what it is. This boy has really bottomed out.

”But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ Well, the young man has come to his senses. He realizes, “I blew it! What a dumb knucklehead I have been!” And this is good. This is repentance. It’s good when we realize that our self-chosen ways are leading us down a dead end and that Father knows best. That’s only acknowledging what should be obvious: that the God who created us knows what is best for us. He makes a better God than we do. Duh!

Only there’s one thing wrong with the young man’s plan. He thinks to himself, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” And he’s right about that part. But then he proposes to himself that he will approach the old man and try to strike a deal, to work his way back into at least a paying job: “Treat me as one of your hired servants,” is what he plans to say. But that is where he will discover the true “prodigality” of his father, his father’s excessive, extravagant grace.

“And he arose and came to his father.” OK, now as he nears the old homestead, what can he expect? A beat-down? A public humiliation? A tongue-lashing, in front of the whole town? “Well, I certainly would deserve it,” he must be thinking. “But I’ll just have to take my lumps and propose this working-it-off plan that I’ve come up with.” But now what does he see, coming down the road, coming right up to meet him? “It’s . . . Father, and, and . . . he’s not angry! No, he’s running to meet me, and he looks . . . happy! He’s running to meet me, and . . . and. . . .”

A hug. A kiss. A father’s warm embrace. “I don’t deserve this! I, I. . . .” “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” And then the words choke off, melting in happy tears. No more working-it-off scheme. That’s obvious now. Father doesn’t want or need any more hirelings. He wants his son back!

Listen to this father’s reckless, happy, extravagant, lavish love: “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” Full restoration. And celebration! This is lavish, extravagant love on the part of this prodigal father! Costly love! Giving love! Love full of grace and tenderness.

How true this is to the character of our heavenly Father! God, who does not strike us down when we deserve it. God, who loves us so much he sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to show us that love in the flesh. Jesus, the friend of sinners, who welcomes them and eats with them. Jesus, who dies for sinners, the likes of you and me. This is gracious, costly love God lavishes upon us in Christ. Look to the cross and see the extravagant lengths God will go to restore us to his family. Costly love indeed!

And now you and I are back home, as God’s sons and daughters. What rejoicing there is! A festive celebration, and this is only the start! God has a meal for us to enjoy here in his house, and this is just a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to come. Body and blood, life and forgiveness, promise and pledge of eternal life and an eternal home. Excessive, extravagant, glorious–this is how it is!

“And they began to celebrate.” But there’s one other son to go, and he’s not celebrating. That would be the stay-at-home son, the older son, the really religious one. This is the good son, the golden child–at least he is in his own mind. If the bad boy, the runaway, is the “Prodigal Son,” then this one could be called the “Proud Ego Son.” The Proud Ego Son–proud of how good he is, so much better than his brother! And how deserving he is of all the honors that should come his way! That’s the older brother, upset that there’s this party going on for the runaway brat.

“But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him.” Again we see the patience and forbearance of this remarkable father. This son, too, is slapping his father in the face by not coming in, and yet the father comes out to meet him! What insolence on the part of this arrogant, defiant son! Listen to the disrespectful way he addresses his father: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”

Have you been there and done that also, this older brother routine? Looking down your nose at those bad people worse than you? Thinking that you deserve some honors for being such a good church member all these years–as though you deserve thanks and credit for getting to live in your Father’s house? There is the “Proud Ego Son” who lives inside us all, especially in us longtime church members! Well, thank God that he does not cast us off and cast us out when we come before him with this attitude!

So the older son speaks insolently and rudely to his kind and generous father. That the father puts up with this and lets the older son talk this way is a profound demonstration of his extraordinary patience. And then the father even entreats and invites this rebellious son in, saying, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”

How will the older son respond? Jesus leaves the story open-ended. He wants the scribes and the Pharisees in his audience to make the connection: God is calling them to repent. They are no better than the tax collectors and the prostitutes and the prodigals who have come home and that Jesus is now befriending.

So it is for us. All sinners are equal at the foot of the cross. We all come into the party the same way, only through the extravagant, excessive, lavish, reckless, costly love of our Prodigal Father. This is the running, rejoicing Father, who greets us all with open arms and holds a big feast for us that we don’t deserve. Welcome home, all you prodigal sons–and you “proud ego sons” too! Welcome home, one and all!

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Published in: on March 13, 2010 at 11:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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