This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/27/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
Most people who have been raised in a Christian (or post-Christian) society are at least aware of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s one of the most famous stories to come out of Jesus’ ministry – right up there with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Even if you’re not a Christian, even if you’re not much interested in religion, it’s likely you’ve heard this story.
Which, for me as a preacher, is a big flashing warning light: Danger! We think we know what this story means already! We’ve heard this story so many times. We’ve drunk it in, in our cultural upbringing. And that can make it really hard to hear the story fresh.
First, a quick plot summary:
The younger son went off and did bad things, wasting half of his family’s estate on what the Bible calls “dissolute living.” Meanwhile the older son stayed and worked, taking care of the family. Finally, the younger son got himself into so much trouble that he had to come back. And when he arrives home – wearing rags and having squandered his inheritance – Dad welcomes him back with open arms. He even throws a party!
At this point, the older brother gets upset. “Why is this good-for-nothing brother of mine being rewarded for his bad behavior? You never threw a party for me! And Dad explains, “Son, we have to celebrate. We had lost your brother, but now we have him back again. He was dead, but now he is alive!”
Now, the standard interpretation of this passage focuses on the amazing way that the father (who clearly represents God) turns the tables on his two sons, showing his abundant love for the repentant prodigal, despite all his disrespect and evildoing. It also interprets the older brother as being like the religious folks (Pharisees, Sadducces, and all of us) who are tempted to think we’re better than others because we followed the rules.
This interpretation is the accepted one, because it is largely correct. This is a fair reading of the story, and it seems fairly clear that Jesus was telling a story about the holier-than-thou, goody-two-shoe hypocrisy of the Pharisees and other religious people.
But we’ve heard that story, and that interpretation many times before. It’s become almost rote. So I want to examine a different angle, a different way of looking at the story, which doesn’t in any way negate the standard interpretation. I hope this additional angle on the story will add even more illumination to our reading.
So what’s the angle? Well, basically that being the prodigal is nothing to aspire to. The prodigal son is not the hero of the story, any more than the whiney older brother is. The father is the hero of this story; both of the sons are screw ups.
Something that we may gloss over in this story, because we’ve heard the standard interpretation so often, is that the prodigal son really messed up his life. The consequences of his actions do not go away just because he asked for forgiveness.
What is commendable in the prodigal son, what makes him different from his older brother, is the fact that he truly does repent. He understands that his selfishness and greed have been so destructive, that he is no longer worthy to be called his father’s son. When he returns home, he has no sense of entitlement to anything at all. He hopes that he can earn honest wages as a hired hand.
The prodigal son is seeing things clearly! He’s messed things up really badly, and his inheritance is gone. He’s going to have to deal with the consequences of his behavior for the rest of his life. The father clarifies this at the end of the story, when he comforts the older brother, saying, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The remaining inheritance belongs to the older brother – the father is not going to subdivide it again.
This reveals something very important about God, that is often missed when we retell this story: God is not only boundlessly loving. He is not only the great forgiver and healer. He is also a God of justice, and he created a world in which our actions have consequences – even when we have repented. The repentant evildoer returns home and is part of the family again. The father rejoices over him and loves him with everything in his being. But the estate goes to the older brother. Choices have consequences.
This is important to understand – whether you identify more with the prodigal son, or with the older brother. Because, seeing that the path of the prodigal son is a difficult one, those of us who haven’t been the prodigal recently can avoid being the judgy older brother.
The prodigal son really is suffering. And he really will have to deal with the mess he has made. In God’s time and with God’s love – yes – but there’s no free pass. The Father’s love doesn’t erase the past, but it does give us the opportunity to be part of the family again as we start making different choices.
This has implications for us as a community, too. We are a community called to demonstrate God’s abundant love. We are called to throw parties for people who have messed up big time but who want to come home to God. (And let’s be real, that’s been all of us at some point.)
We are also a community where each one of us is called to responsibility. We’re a church where we speak the truth in love. And sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes it means we need to change. Sometimes, it means realizing that the path to real redemption is making amends for the harm that we’ve done.
Being a community in Christ means throwing the party when the prodigal returns; it also means being a community where the prodigal can find meaningful work to do the next day. The kingdom of God is one in which we all give what we can to help others, and we take responsibility for our actions.
This is a message that our culture needs to hear right now. Because the major message we get is “live your bliss!” and “you do you!” But that’s not very good advice. It certainly didn’t work out well for the prodigal son. He did him. He lived his bliss, right to the edge of oblivion. It was only when he remembered home, remembered family, remembered the love and discipline of his father, that he came to his senses and found a path back to wholeness. It was a path that he would need to continue walking for the rest of his life.
This is the same path that is laid out before each of us. We have an opportunity to acknowledge the harm that we have done to others, the ways in which we have abandoned God and served our own appetites and ego. We have a chance to return home and be welcomed with open arms. There is forgiveness here, from God in this community. In the Father’s house, we are family.
But the next morning, after the feasting is done – it’s time to get to work. It’s time to care for others. It’s time to make amends with the people we have hurt along the way. It’s time to stop blaming others and take responsibility. Just as Jesus laid down his life and ego for us, we are called to do the same for others. Like Jesus, we are called to become brothers and sisters who welcome the prodigal home with open arms.