by Daniel Harrell
Most people recognize this parable of the Prodigal Son—prodigal from the Latin meaning irresponsibly extravagant. It is one of the most beloved stories in Scripture, if not in all of literature. Despite its familiarity, or more because of it, I’ve never preached a sermon about it. Its message of overwhelming, undeserved grace moves us to reconsider those moments when our own sin and shame would otherwise keep us from coming home, as well as those times when obsessive concerns for rightness and fairness threaten to overshadow the primacy of love. Seriously, what’s left to say?
Well, I got a few things. The parable actually begins rather ominously enough. For any good Jew, to hear “A father had two sons” would have immediately churned up bad memories about Ishmael and Isaac. Esau and Jacob. Joseph and his colorful coat. David and his bag of rocks. All stories of conflict between older and younger siblings over preferential treatment which younger brothers in the Bible typically enjoyed. Here we go again.
An ungrateful jerk of a kid shockingly seeks his share of inheritance from his father—in effect wishing his daddy dead since inheritance only happens once pappy buys the farm. And this father consents to it? This would have meant him selling off assets, likely an actual farm with land and livestock, liquidating his investment portfolio, and then giving it all over to this scalawag of a son whom the father had to know was going to go off and blow it all on what Jesus calls “dissolute living”: drugs, booze, sex, the whole party manimal thing. And then after the money’s gone and the kid comes repentantly hang-doggin’ it back, the father welcomes him home no questions asked. He hardly even lets the kid apologize. So who’s the real prodigal here? Show me one parenting magazine that would ever commend such irresponsible child-rearing. Vanderbilt New Testament professor Amy Jill-Levine, a Jewish mother from Massachusetts, argues that the parable should be re-titled “The Absent Mother” because as any good Jew knows, none of this would have happened had the mother been present.
At the turning point in the parable, the good-for-nothing son—having deeply dishonored his father—ends up on his knees at a non-kosher pig trough where he comes to his senses: “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” Is this remorse? Christians tend to interpret this coming-to-his-senses moment as the roots of repentance—which is why the parable gets assigned to Lent. And Jesus does tell it in the context of two other parables about a found sheep and a found coin, the punch line of both being the finders’ inexpressible joy. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Joy is evident on the part of the father too. But repentance from the son? Not so evident. Of course lost sheep and lost coins can’t repent. But once we finally get to the story about a human being who can repent, it’s not obvious that the prodigal son does.
Knowing daddy as he did, the son’s turnaround could be interpreted as just another dishonorable scheme. In this case: “run back to daddy and act religious.” He rehearses his lines: “I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands.’ Yeah, that should do it.” Now maybe I’m stretching it here, but I wouldn’t be the first. For any good Jewish audience, familiar with Old Testament patterns and human hypocrisy, suspicions of motive are always in play.
And then there’s the older son, a sanctimonious goody-two-shoes who still has a valid gripe. His resentment isn’t as much against his brother’s inexcusable behavior as it is against his father’s indulgence—a father who had never cooked him so much as a goat-burger for being the good boy he was. The father tries to comfort his firstborn by reminding him how “all that is mine is yours.” Really? What comfort is that? Of course all you own belongs to me because my share of the inheritance is all you have left. Little brother has already squandered his. And still he gets a whole cow? Why does the baby in the family always get off so easily?
Fine, so maybe this story cuts simply too close to home. As you know, I am the oldest son. I am the good boy. I am the pleaser. I made good grades, did what I was told. Played by the rules. Went to church. Went on and became a minister for Christ’s sake. My little brother? He was always getting into trouble growing up. Problems in school. Questionable relationships. Jail time. Skipped church. My dad felt bad for him. Helped him start his own construction business. Made him a millionaire. Not that I’m bitter.
C’mon, says the dad. “This little brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. We have to rejoice!” The late Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen, contemplating this story through the aid of Rembrandt’s famous depiction, observed how “resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, because resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don't receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.”
The table for such envy is plainly set in the first two verses of Luke 15: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” There’s the resentment. Tax collectors were universally despised in Luke’s world for their dishonesty and exploitation. Sinners were all those whose behavior excluded them from the category of proper society—from the merely detestable to the outright criminal. These were prodigal people, not the kind you want sitting beside you in church. By contrast were the Pharisees. Good people. Well-mannered, devoted and righteous with strong reputations. They’re offended that Jesus so blatantly betrays social and religious protocol. He acts as if immorality has no consequences. Doesn’t he know that to coddle sinners only encourages them to sin more? How will they ever learn to do right?
That Jesus flouts religious convention is irksome to be sure, but what really ticks off the Pharisees is how Jesus has become so popular for doing it. Here’s where the envy sets in. It’d have been one thing if Jesus had been a bad boy sinner himself, iniquity loves company. But instead he’s hailed as a wise rabbi and wonderworker, a paragon of virtue and a real peach of a guy, basically the sort the Pharisees had worked so hard to be like themselves. He’s stealing their lines and their thunder; hogging a righteous limelight they’d labored all their lives to secure, all by just dispensing love and hugs all around. No wonder they can’t stand this guy. Dang right they’re resentful and envious. They want him dead!
There’s another Jewish parable that never made it into the Bible that tells of a greedy man and an envious man who appeared before a king. The king said to the two men, “one of you may ask something of me and I will give it to him, provided I get to give twice as much of that same thing to the other.” Now, the envious man did not want to ask first, for he was envious of his companion who would receive twice as much. The greedy man did not want to ask first because he wanted everything that could be had for himself. The greedy man eventually prevailed upon the envious man to go first; but only because the envier had conjured up a malicious idea. He requested that the king pluck out one of his eyes—knowing that this meant his greedy companion would have both of his eyes plucked out.
Envy is as old as humanity itself. In the first utterance of the word sin in Scripture, a man had two sons; two brothers who come to grief over, of all things, an offering given to God. “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground. Abel brought the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. The LORD looked with favor on Abel, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry.” He killed his brother. Was Abel’s offering better or more generous? Or did the Lord just have a thing for shepherds? It’s hard not to suspect some favoritism at work here—the same kind of favoritism that unfairly parcels out beauty, intelligence, ability and opportunity to some but not all. Why doesn’t everybody receive the same? God’s response? “Thou shalt not covet.” Thanks a lot, Lord.
We all know what envy feels like. You look around this Meetinghouse and can’t bear to behold what you imagine to be the full lives other people enjoy. Just look at their happy marriages, their successful careers, perfect children, good looks. They make you sick—and these are your brothers and sisters in Christ. Frankly, if you have to hear one more word about how their great their life is you’ll scream. Oh sure, you could rejoice in their happiness; but why do that when you can begrudge their existence and fuel your own misery? If only they could taste just a bit of your bitterness. Not that you’d ever pray for that to happen. OK, you might. And then when their misfortune finally hits, ha-ha, you can mask your perverse delight behind a façade of fake compassion. Though you never had anything genuinely positive to say during their good times, now that they suffer you are so there for them; not because you care, but because witnessing their pain close up brings such satisfaction. Sure, I’ll give up an eye if it means you lose two.
So it’s possible I’m being a little melodramatic here. I like being melodramatic. You judge yourself. After all, Lent is the season for self-examination. In Luke’s gospel, the tax collectors and sinners respond to the gospel. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the sinful brother comes from far away back to his father, whatever his motives. But not the older brother just out in the back yard. He refuses to step one foot in the door. No way he’s participating in that happiness.
“For most of my life,” Henri Nouwen wrote, “I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair. Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. Maybe the question is not ‘How am I to find God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be found by God?’ The question is not ‘How am I to know God?’ but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.”
At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, one of at least two possible sites for Jesus’ empty tomb, competing branches of Christianity vie for control of a grave that is still empty. The Greek Orthodox control the empty tomb proper, filling it up with all manner of iconography and liturgical folderol, smells and bells. The Armenian Apostolic church has their ornate chapel off to one side, with the Roman Catholics off to another, candles and music and prayer chiming in each. The Ethiopian Orthodox have been relegated to one of the entry ways, with their own dimly lit protocols, and the Syriac Orthodox theirs. And then tacked on to the main shrine with a separate entrance, like some sort of add-on Ikea closet, sits this odd little Coptic Christian chapel staking out its territory. Inside when we walked by was a lone monk reading his newspaper by candlelight, his sole responsibility being to swat intrusive tourists trying to take pictures.
On a hot summer day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its agreed spot into a cooler part of the church. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, and eleven were hospitalized after the resulting brawl. In 2004, the Greek Orthodox monk left a Roman Catholic door open which was taken as a sign of disrespect leading to another melee. Then on Palm Sunday in 2008, a fight broke out over some other perceived liturgical slights requiring the Jewish police to come in and break it up. It’s been this way for centuries. Pious Christian brothers preaching the love of Jesus can’t stand each other. Their silliness is symbolized in an immovable ladder that leans against an upper window of the church for no reason. Somebody leaned it there a couple of hundred years ago, and there is remains since to move it would represent an infringement against one of the religious orders though nobody knows which one. Still, that ladder might be mine. When it rots every hundred years or so, the groups all chip in to replace it, just in case. Tension floats in the air like so much religious incense. Incensed being an appropriate word to describe the smoldering emotions. All I can say is that’s it’s a good thing the Protestants never became involved or things might really have got ugly. Ironically, or perhaps providentially, a Muslim family owns the keys to the church’s front door.
With the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus leaves a lot of tension in the air. This father’s love—God’s love—defies any anything commonly practiced by people. No father who truly loved his son would ever behave so foolishly, would he? And not just the father, but the shepherd who abandons a hundred good sheep to find a single stray? Isn’t losing a few just the cost of doing business? Or that crazy woman who upon finding her lost coin spent more money to celebrate finding the coin than the lost coin itself was worth. If this is love, it’s not a love that makes any sense. OK, so maybe if you’ve hit rock bottom and are forced to eat pig slop you can understand it, but that’s hardly the preferred strategy for getting people to Jesus. “Go screw up your life and then you’ll find out how much God loves you!” Seriously? Where’s the incentive to obey?
One New Testament professor I heard suggested how that fatted calf killed for party boy was probably one nurtured and raised by the obedient son. Can you imagine? The good boy carefully and diligently raises a calf as a 4-H project, tends to it and nurtures it as his own pride and joy. And then my dad takes it and gladly kills it to celebrate home that worthless, little no good piece of …
How does God do that?