Homecoming - the Prodigal Returns - Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4C (Luke 15)


Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

                15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 
                3 So he told them this parable: 
                11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 
                25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”


             With the exception of the Parable of the Samaritan and the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Prodigal is probably the best known of Jesus’ parables and perhaps the most loved of the parables of Jesus. You don’t have to go to church to know this story because it's part of the fabric of our society.  One reason for its popularity is that it seems to resonate with our own life experiences. Where there is separation from family or friends or community, there is this desire to return home. In the words of Paul, we long for the experience of reconciliation so that the old has passed and the new has arrived (2 Cor. 5:16-21). To put it another way, we long to return to the Garden, to Paradise. These desires are rooted, perhaps, in our own sense of being the prodigal. Or perhaps we recognize in ourselves the older brother. If we are parents with estranged children, we might desire to be that gracious parent who welcomes the one who is separated home. 

                The story of the Prodigal Son has always been understood in terms of grace. That is a good reading, but if we wish to understand the message of the parable we would be wise to consider its context. The lectionary places the parable within a context of a conversation between Jesus and his critics, who are scandalized by whom he has chosen to dine with. He is accused of eating with sinners. This leads to a set of parables. The first parable, the one not provided in this reading tells the story of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to find the lone lost sheep (Lk. 15:4-7). There is a second about ten coins, which are lost and then found, leading to a celebration (Lk 15:8-10). Each of these parables speaks of something lost and then found followed by a celebration. These parables lead to the parable of the Prodigal. 

           In context, the parables serve as a response to an exclusive attitude toward those society deems unpresentable. It's a message that many of us heard the message growing up that our character will be seen in the company we keep. If you hang around with the wrong kind of people you will be seen as like them. In the confrontation Jesus has with the religious leaders, the message is that Jesus was hanging out with the wrong kind of people (sinners and tax collectors). In telling the parable of the Prodigal Jesus seems to turn the conversation on its head. The company Jesus keeps doesn’t speak of his character, but rather the transformative nature of his dining habits. This has interesting implications for how the church celebrates the Lord's Supper. Is it a meal for the holy ones or a meal of inclusion and transformation?

             Jesus answers his critics with several stories, including the story of a young man who decides it's time to go out and see the world. Since it will take some cash upfront to make this happen, he tells his father he can't wait until the father died to receive his portion of the inheritance now not later even though his father is still living. It's as if he's telling dear old dad that in his mind dad is dead. By asking for the inheritance before his dad died, he was also cutting himself off from the family. In spiritual terms, this is sin. He's turning his back on God and the ways of God, choosing to go his own way rather than continue as part of the people of God. 

            As the story proceeds, things begin to go bad for this intrepid traveler. Before too long his funds have dried up and he faces famine. This fact leads him to take a job feeding pigs. But even that job doesn't earn him enough to put food on the table, so he begins to envy the pigs, who apparently eat better than he does. Apparently, the farmer (most assuredly a Gentile) values the pigs more than the workers and thus is less than generous to the farmhands. Things are going so bad he’d be willing to eat the slop offered the pigs.

        For a Jew, all of this has to be humiliating. Not only is he broke, but he is servicing an animal considered unclean and is willing to eat the slop fed to the pigs just to survive. He has hit bottom! It's at this moment that the young man comes to his senses. He looks back fondly at the way his father treated the family employees. So, he decides to return home not as a son but as a hired hand. Surely, life as one of his father's hired hands would be more bearable than this. So, he leaves behind the sty and heads toward home, not as a son but as a prospective employee. As he walks along the road, he begins to rehearse a speech asking his father to take him back as a hired hand. In this speech, he essentially confesses his sins toward the father. 

              At this point, the story takes an unexpected turn (at least for those who haven’t heard it before). While he is still on the road, his father sees him. Instead of waiting for the son to return home and beg forgiveness, the father runs out to greet the prodigal. You see, the father has been watching and waiting for his son to return home. So, while the son plans on confessing his sin against the father, the father brushes it aside. He doesn't let the son finish the speech but instead reaches out with open arms and welcomes the son home, not as a hired hand but as his beloved son. 

           Not only does the father embrace the son, but the father tells the servants to get his best robe and put on the son. Then he tells them to put together a big party, which will include a fatted calf, to celebrate the day the son returns. Everything is wonderful, correct? After all the family is back together. Of course, not everyone is happy with this turn of events. There is this other son, the older brother, who never left home or abandoned his father. He was the good and dutiful son. As the older brother, I know how this works. As you might expect this older brother isn't happy with this turn of events. It's not fair that the younger brother takes off, spends his portion of the inheritance, and then gets welcomed home with a big party. It's just not right. There are rules and rules to be obeyed.

             Apparently, the father isn't as concerned about the rules. He's focused on restoring the family. The father is thankful that the older brother has remained faithful, but that doesn't mean the father can't welcome the lost son home? Now that the one who was lost has been found, it's time to party.  

                At first read, I engage the parable as a parent. I ponder my own responses to my child's decisions. Am I as gracious and welcoming as this father? I hope that this will always be true of me. I realize that not all parents are like this father. Nevertheless, I do believe that most of those who heard Jesus share this word would resonate with the message. They hope God is as gracious and forgiving as this father. If this is true then surely they should be of the same mind and attitude.

            Each of these parables Jesus told in response to his critics is meant to address the question of how God views humanity. Most interpretations of this parable assume that the father represents God. It makes sense in the context of a patriarchal society. Besides Jesus was known to speak of God in fatherly terms. In this context, God as parent is pictured as being gracious and loving. Jesus pictures God as one who responds to humanity with open arms, seeking to reconcile those who are lost to Godself (see 2 Cor. 5:16-21).  Not only does God welcome the prodigals when they return home, but God is pictured as one who actively looks to restore the lost to the family. The implication here, since the context is the critique of Jesus' dining partners is that if God welcomes the sinner back into the fold, shouldn't we do the same? 

             This parable is usually interpreted in terms of the Jewish/Gentile relationship within the early church. In this interpretation, Luke uses the parable to address the concern about how Gentile believers should be included in the church. Do they even belong? In the immediate context, Jesus' critics question his dining partners. It just doesn't look good for him to eat with tax collectors and other kinds of riffraff. In this interpretation of the parable, the critics are represented by the older brother. He responds to the critics by letting them know that when it comes to God'table it's open to everyone. In fact, even those who are estranged from the family have a place at the table as family members.  

             The parable has a number of possible applications. I'd like to close by suggesting we might read it in eucharistic terms. If we do this then the Lord's Table becomes a place of forgiveness and reconciliation. If this is true, then should we not open the Table to all who would come to it? Or is the Table only open to the "righteous"? If so, then on what basis do we come? Is the Table not a place of grace, where God in Christ can encounter those whom God desires to graciously reconcile to Godself? Or are we the protectors of God's honor? The parable invites us to consider how we invite to the Table. 

Wesley, Frank, 1923-2002. Forgiving Father, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=59207 [retrieved March 19, 2022]. Original source: Contact the Vanderbilt Divinity Library for further information..


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