Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Although it only appears in the gospel of Luke, this morning’s reading is one of Jesus’ most famous parables. Jesus has been busy ministering to the tax collectors and sinners. He has been spending his time with those on the edges of society, those who were unfit for church or community. Naturally, the religious leaders are upset that Jesus is setting such a bad example so they complain about him. In response to their complaints, Jesus launches into a series of parables about lost things. From the lost sheep to the lost coin, Jesus eventually winds his way to this story of the lost brothers.
You could probably retell the story to me as easily as I can retell it to you. There once was a father with two sons. The youngest asks for the inheritance early, a total insult, and then runs away and wastes the money. After realizing he is a complete failure, he returns home with his tail between his legs, to beg for a job from his father. The father runs to embrace the lost son, and throws a giant party to celebrate his return. The elder brother is upset because that isn’t fair, and refuses to celebrate with the family. The end.
There are countless sermons to preach on this text, and it is rich territory for any pastor. This week, as I was trying to approach the story from a new direction, I realized that I have played the role of all of these characters at some point in my lifetime. And my guess is that you have too.
Let’s start with the obvious choice, the younger son. The most common interpretation of this text is that we are like the younger son. We have sinned against the father, whom we interpret to be God, and yet God continues to welcome us back in grace. That’s a great reading but I think it only scratches the surface.
In a desire to dig deeper, I was trying to imagine the younger brother’s motivation this week. A lot has been written about how offensive his behavior is. He is asking for the money he would receive upon the death of his father now, while the father is still alive. Plus, to get that money, the father would have to sell the ancestral land which is an insult to religion as well as family. He is asking a lot, so why?
All I could think of this week was how much we think we understand the world when we are young. Do you remember those days? Those times of high school and early college when you thought you had all the answers? It is further back for some of us than for others. I certainly remember thinking I knew it all. I remember thinking I understood the world better than my parents did, that I knew what I was doing, and that the world was my oyster to plunder. It’s probably not hard for you to imagine that I was a confident youth. In hindsight I might even call myself arrogant.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t what was happening with that younger son. He saw how money was managed, he saw how the farm was run, and he knew he could do better. He could invest funds for a higher yield, he could try a new breed of goat for a bigger return, and he could better grow that money now. Why let his father keep holding on to it and improperly managing it when he, the younger son, could make them all rich with his financial prowess.
His actions start to make more sense then. He doesn’t mean to insult everyone, he just means to help the money grow fast now. He understands the world, he knows what to do, and he is trying to help. Do you remember those days of youthful ambition and drive in your own life? Do you remember the arrogance that led to mistakes when you were young? I certainly do. When I was young I thought I knew it all, but now it seems the older I get the less I know. We have all made mistakes like the younger brother. We have all sinned in arrogance and pride, and like him, we have most often hurt ourselves and our families.
What about the elder brother, are we ever like him? I think this is the role where we spend most of our lives. Eventually we grow up and realize that it is not dreams that will make us rich, it is hard work. We get things done, we do what we’re told, we tow the party line, and we are rewarded with a life of minimal drama. At least that is what we hope for.
It doesn’t take long in your adult life to realize that the world runs by a certain amount of justice. When things are working right, you get out what you put in. You work hard so you can live comfortably. You save for retirement so that you can live comfortably even after you’ve stopped working. You pay your taxes, you follow the rules of the road, you vote the way you are told to vote, and things just work out. At least, they are supposed to.
Of course we are offended by the actions of the father in the story. The younger brother doesn’t follow the rules of the system and yet he still gets the reward. That’s not fair, and we expect life to be fair. Nothing wrong with that, is there? We expect the good guys to win and the bad guys to get what’s coming to them because that is the way the world should work, that is what is fair. Deep in our hearts, all of us want things to just be fair.
Of course, things are never actually fair, and thus we enter into the role of the father. Although it appears otherwise, in the text the father is actually fair in his treatment of the children. For some reason he allows the foolish actions of the younger brother, but he also lets the consequences of those actions remain. Yes, he welcomes the son home, and yes he celebrates, but he cannot wave a magic wand and suddenly reproduce that lost inheritance. That half of the family land is gone, that son’s share of the money is wasted, there is no bringing it back. The father can share his things in celebration but he cannot erase the mistake. The son will still have to live with those dire consequences for the rest of his life. No wonder the father is trying to support him while he can.
And the father shows equal love to the elder brother. He too has earned a share of the land and he stands to retire comfortably. He has been treated equally and fairly. As the father says to him, “All that is mine is yours” which is true as the elder son’s inheritance is all that remains of the estate. While he is jealous of the affection the father shows the younger brother, he has been treated most fairly.
While the Father is clearly meant to represent God in the story, and we could never measure up to God’s love and mercy, I do think we can get a taste of this role in our own lives. Parents, think of the way that you love your children. The way you strive to treat them equally and the way you long to offer them love and care. Think of the way their birth changes the very make up of your heart, and the way you would do anything for them. We are not so different from the father.
While I have not seen parents literally give children an inheritance early, I have seen them slowly dole it out over time. A little help here, a little boost there. Some kids need a little more assistance than others, and before you know it the nest egg has dwindled. Many of us would do anything for our children, sometimes even when it is not in their best interest.
And imagine if a child were to reject you and run away. Would you not sit and watch for that child’s return. When our children hurt us emotionally, at first we are very angry and resentful. But over time those feelings cool. It is not too hard to imagine sitting on the porch and being overcome with joy when you suddenly see the lost child on the crest of the hill. What parent wouldn’t run out in joy? What parent wouldn’t want to celebrate the child’s return? Are the acts of the father really so strange?
If we can experience love and mercy in such a way, then perhaps we can begin to imagine the vastness of God’s love for us. In our lives on this earth, we will likely experience all of the roles in this story. We will be headstrong and arrogant, thinking we have all the answers to the world’s problems. We will be focused on justice and fairness, longing for a world where everyone gets what they deserve. And we will love with a fierce abandon, that throws all of the easy answers out the window.
If we return to the start of our story we will remember that Jesus is telling this story to explain his actions. He has been spending time with the people on the fringes, and he is explaining that God’s love is for them. I want us to remember that he hasn’t only been spending time with them, he has also been spending time with religious people, with disciples, with regular people, and with everyone he happens to meet. Jesus is showing that the love of God knows no boundaries. It is equal, it is fair, it encompasses younger brothers, older brothers, and loving parents. The love of God is for us today, in whatever role we might find ourselves in. Thanks be to God. Amen.