Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 6, 2016
Luke 15:1-2, 11-32 Commentary
Go ahead, try to be creative. Mess with this story if you must. Others have. Texts that are super-familiar to many people always tempt one to do something different. “Goodness, people have heard this story SOOOO many times” we think.
Thus when it comes to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, folks have tried to preach it backwards, sideways; from above, from below. Some have tried to be fresh and novel by preaching the story from the father’s point of view, from the older brother’s point of view, from the pigs’ point of view (OK, I never actually heard one from that point of view but it’s surely just a matter of time!). You could even do what one well-known writer once suggested which was, in a way, to tell it from the fatted calf’s point of view!
But when it’s all said and done, we’ve still got the same basic story that Jesus told to make a very basic gospel point. And just maybe you shouldn’t mess with it. This parable is like your Grandma’s classic recipe for chocolate chip cookies: at some point you might try to tweak the recipe to freshen it up a bit—white chocolate chips might be fun, maybe some cinnamon. But when your kids bite into the resulting cookies, they usually end up crinkling their noses and saying, “Why did you mess with it? We liked the cookies better the old way!”
Actually, we have three yoked stories here of lost-and-found, though the Lectionary skips over the first two. Most experts on Luke agree that Jesus’ triplet of stories here should really be read as a unit. Of the three, the parable of the lost coin is the one that seems the most out of place. The lost sheep and the lost son were both in peril for their lives whereas the coin was just lost but in no danger per se (can a coin even be in danger, I mean aside from falling into the hand of shifty Wall Street bankers?). Still, Jesus is hammering home a central point, a point so vital that he tells not one story but three. As Calvin Seminary professor of New Testament, Jeffrey Weima, notes, all three stories end the same way: with rejoicing. The foil of all that jubilation is the sour-puss Pharisees whose abiding muttering (an imperfect verb in the Greek of verse 2) indicates their abiding/ongoing disdain for Jesus.
So keeping in mind that the Lectionary’s choice is just one part of a larger unit, let’s look at this well-known parable. Though often called “The Prodigal Son,” many have noted that in the end it is the father who is the truly prodigal one in the sense of lavishing grace and mercy and love on an undeserving child. The son’s prodigality, such as it was, focused on himself and on living “the high life.” His prodigality was one of dissipation and a draining away of life’s vitality and goodness. The father’s prodigality went the other way, thickening life, restoring a lost goodness, and insuring a good future.
It’s fairly well-known by now that the son’s request in verse 12 for his share of the inheritance was the ancient world’s equivalent of telling the old man to drop dead. These days, in part due to the popularity of Stephen Colbert and also the TV show “The Sopranos,” the phrase “dead to me” is common. Someone may still be alive but because of some grievous fracture in the relationship, you may refer to this person as “dead to me,” meaning that you will have no more contact with this person than if he were really dead and buried in the ground. (Of course, if Tony Soprano tells you that you are dead to him, you might just be in actual mortal peril but that’s another story . . .)
This is what the son says: “Dad, you are dead to me. And since once you’re dead your last will and testament kicks in, I’ll take my share now.” It’s a truly awful thing this son did and it makes him, properly, a loathsome character.
Please note: the younger son is a jerk. He’s a fool, too, of course, but he’s just not nice. Not pleasant. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to keep his picture up on their piano. Ever met someone like this? Chances are if you did, you quietly were glad he wasn’t your kid.
But that was just the point. In Jesus’ triplet of stories here, we go from a lost sheep who was of some value to a lost silver coin that was of significant monetary value to a lost son who, though once valued as a son, makes himself into a very grotesque and undesirable character. He’d be easy to write off. In fact, most people would write him off. Certainly the Pharisees would. And just here is where our story actually begins . . .
“I saw them eating and I knew who they were.” That saying, or some version of it, is well-known now. And it certainly describes the Pharisees whom we encounter in Luke 15:1-2. Jesus was welcoming the very folks whom the religious establishment had written off. Worse, he was at table with them, which was an intimate act of fellowship that implied a kind of personal bond and connection. So we’re told the Pharisees muttered into their beards about this. Jesus overheard their comments and knew their hearts and so told them three stories that reveal the heart of God.
And that’s really what is going on in Luke 15: we’re not here first of all being given stories of the “go and do likewise” variety. The parable in verses 11-32 is not in Scripture first of all to encourage fathers to be forgiving of their naughty kids any more than the first two stories were an instruction to shepherds or a cautionary tale to take better care of your fiscal assets. No, all three reveal the heart of God—a heart that is broken clean in two by lostness but a heart that sings with a joy as wide as the cosmos when even the silliest sheep or the meanest of sons comes back and/or is found again.
As a Lenten text, Luke 15 reminds us that for all its somber tones and focus on Jesus’ grim sacrifice and suffering, Lent is also a season of joy for God. Every confessed sin, every ash-smudged forehead, every sonorous singing of the hymn lyric “I crucified you” sounds in God’s ears like joy. Because each such sentiment is being prayed, uttered, and sung by people who “once were lost” but now are found.
The phrase “Lenten Joy” may sound like an oxymoron (like “elementary algebra” or “jumbo shrimp” or “deafening silence”). But it’s not. As the writer to the Hebrews said, Jesus endured the hell of the cross and all his sufferings not because he was tough or merely bowing to the will of his Father. No, he endured it all “for the joy that was set before him.” Just so. Remembering God’s joy in Lent brings us very close to the bright center of the universe!
But that, in turn, leads us to the one character in this story who lacks all joy: the older brother. We find out only retrospectively that he never did take joy in the work he did for his father. He says that all along it had been a “slaving away.”
The older son “slaved” for his father, and that’s as ugly as it gets. Who loved the father less? Was it the rude younger son who told the old man to drop dead just once or the paint-by-the-numbers older son who spent his every waking moment wishing his father were dead in that he was a cruel slave driver?
BTW: Note a piece of irony: Although he never gets this far when actually confronted with his father’s exuberant welcome, in the original version of his well-rehearsed confession, the younger son decides to conclude by saying, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.” Hmmm . . . apparently the older brother more-or-less had seen himself this way all along! He wasn’t a son but a slave, a hired man!
The older son lacked joy. He took no joy in the tasks he performed for his father. He failed to sense the joy in his father’s own heart, the generosity of spirit that marked the man. And hence he never even asked to throw a party for his friends. Maybe he had no friends! He lacked joy. He lacked verve. He lacked a celebratory spirit. Life for him was duty and drudgery, suspicion of his father’s motives and a pinched attitude toward that which was indeed his.
Basically this is the world’s caricature of the hyper-religious. There is an old definition of a Puritan or a Calvinist as being someone whose #1 fear is that somewhere in the world someone is having a good time. That’s cruel and an outsized caricature indeed but we know what is behind it. And we know how well it described the joyless Pharisees. They slaved away for their God. They suspected their God of his own divine stinginess and so worrying about their own standing with Him was enough to keep them from ever wondering about whether they were reaching out to others who needed God’s love.
Indeed, when you serve a stingy and joyless God, you assume that this is a God who has to work extra hard just to love YOU. It’s a cinch then to assume that this same God hates people “out there” in the world who don’t even look remotely religious. And since not getting caught up in their ways—or contaminated by their spiritual germs—is your primary goal, you avoid, you shun, you judge from afar. What you most certainly do NOT do, however, is sit at table with those greasy characters.
Near as we can tell, the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus was eating in Luke 15:1-2 were simply attending an ordinary meal. It may have been a dinner of no more than flatbread and broth with a little fruit for dessert. It may have been peasant fare or it may have been something a little nicer. We don’t know. But whether it was bread and soup or veal with mushrooms, in God’s eyes it was the feast of the fatted calf. For the Son of God was eating with the very last, least, and lost souls who needed to know more than anybody that the God in heaven above whom Jesus represented was a God of generous joy who is enthusiastic about our lives and eager to throw one party after the next for every bedraggled sheep, lost coin, or lost son who shows up on the front porch of God’s heart to say, “Still got room at the table for me?”
In verse 31 when the father replies to the older son’s lament, he does not really say (as the NIV and some other translations have it), “My son” but in the Greek uses the more tender term TEKNON. A better translation would be “Child.” Far from a gruff rejoinder, the father’s words to his squirrelly older son are fraught with kindness. This is no slave-driver (as the son hinted at in verse 29 when he said he’d been “slaving” for his father) but a father full of compassion and mercy. “Oh child, my child, just what are you talking about?” Of course, there may also be a slight hint here of childishness on the part of the son. Since he’s acting like a petulant child, it could be that the father used this term as a double-entendre: yes, he is the father’s tender child but he’s also acting like a little boy. If I had to choose, I’d go with the former option because it accords with the tender words that follow. “Child, you are always with me” Turns out, the younger son had always been “with” the father too—he was always in his heart, even when in a far country. That’s just the kind of father this is!
From Robert Farrar Capon’s “The Parables of Grace” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1988, p. 144):
(The father is speaking to the older brother): “The only thing that matters is that fun or no fun [in the far country], your brother finally died to all that and now he’s alive again—whereas you, unfortunately, were hardly alive even the first time around. Look. We’re all dead here and we’re having a terrific time. We’re all lost here and we feel right at home. You, on the other hand, are alive and miserable—and worse yet, you’re standing out here in the yard as if you were some kind of beggar. Why can’t you see? You OWN this place, Morris. And the only reason you’re not enjoying it is because you refuse to be dead to your dumb rules about how it should be enjoyed. So do yourself and everyone else a favor: drop dead. Shut up, forget about your stupid life, go inside, and pour yourself a drink.”
The classic parable of grace, therefore, turns out by anticipation to be a classic parable of judgment as well. It proclaims clearly that grace operates only by raising the dead: those who think they can make their lives the basis of their acceptance by God need not apply. But it proclaims just as clearly that the judgment finally pronounced will be based only on our acceptance or rejection of our resurrection from the dead. Nobody will be kicked out for having a rotten life, because nobody there will have any life but the life of Jesus. God will say to everybody, “You were dead and are alive again; you were lost and are found: put on a funny hat and step inside.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!