Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father. "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "
This is clearly a family with issues. In my training for doing work in planned giving we would hear horror stories about families that had been torn apart by poor estate planning or conflict between heirs. My manual for estate planning is called ‘Love, Money and Control’, which should tell you a little about how things can go. Inheritance issues can tear a family apart.
What going on in this story?
It was normal in the ancient world, just as it is now, for a parent to pass their accumulated wealth on to their children. But usually that happened after the parents had died. The younger son wants his sooner, which was a lot like wishing his father was dead already.
The son takes what the father had gathered and turned it into cash—the most liquid of assets. He blows it in wasteful living. Ever seen the TV show ‘Cribs’? It’s the young person’s version of ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’. The waste on that show is conspicuous and offensive—that’s what the younger son did with his money. He wasted it on things that he didn’t need and ended up with nothing. When he runs out of money and times get bad, he works with pigs and envies their food. This would have been so shocking to Jesus’ listeners. We all know that eating pork isn’t exactly Kosher, but it’s even worse to work with pigs. The idea of envying what a pig might eat was too many bridges too far for Jesus’ listeners.
And so the son ‘came to his senses’—he didn’t repent, but coming to our senses is usually one of the steps before we repent. He decides to go home and ask his father if he can be one of his servants—he can’t be the son anymore—he spent that privilege when he left. The servants eat well, so he decides to go back and work for his father. The son works out a speech with three parts: ‘I have sinned’, ‘I’m not worthy’, ‘treat me like a slave’. It’s not exactly ‘I’m sorry’—it’s not a real gesture of repentance. Besides, we’ve already seen that his primary motivation is to get some of that good food the servants get to eat.
When the father sees his son coming home, he breaks two major rules of his culture. First, he doesn’t let his son come all the way back and say he’s sorry—he goes out to meet him, which would have been shocking to the listeners. But even the way he went out to his son would have offended most people back then. Dignified men were not supposed to run—ever. ‘A proud man makes slow steps’ was a common saying back then. A wealthy man in the 1st century also would have been wearing long robes, meaning that in order to run he would have had to hike up his robe and expose his legs. In other words, the father spared nothing—not his position, not his image, not even his dignity—the father spared nothing to prove to his son that he loved him and welcomed him home.
When the father reaches the son he hugs him and kisses him and doesn’t let him give his little self-serving speech. When the son finally does start talking, his father won’t even let him finish—he never gets to the part about becoming one of the servants. Instead the father throws a party and gives him some nice clothes to wear—his best robe.
This story isn’t complete without the reaction of the older brother, the ‘good son’. He’s angry at his father for being generous to the younger son, even after he behaved so badly. He’s really angry that he never got a party of his own, even though he followed all the rules. Most people interpret the older brother as a symbol of the Pharisees—people who followed all the rules and then resented Jesus for spending time with—for having parties with—sinners. In the end the older brother is just as abusive to the father as the younger guy was. The younger brother wanted the estate so he could spend it now, and the older brother wanted it preserved so he could spend it later. Neither of them cared about the father—not about his position, not about his hard work, not about his feelings, not about how much he loved his family. They were both disrespectful, and yet they both received grace.
The real star of this story is the father who loves his two sons no matter what—no matter how little they understand or value that love. It’s the father who steals this show and drives home the point about who God is and how God loves. It’s the father who forgives both of his sons even before they can repent. This really isn’t the parable of the Prodigal Son at all. It’s the parable of the Father Who Loved More Than We Could Ever Imagine.
So what do we learn from this parable?
As we’ve said many times over this past year, between the Sermon on the Mount and the Psalms and now the parables of Jesus. The point of the life of discipleship is never about following the rules and getting your reward. It’s also not about checking to make sure God deals with all of us in the same way. We have to be careful that we aren’t so moralistic about our relationship to God that we lose our sense of imagination about how he might deal with someone else. It’s too easy to list the things we don’t do, and assume that God’s grace is limited to people with the same list. That’s the path to frustration and envy and cynicism—none of which help as we try to grow in our lives of discipleship.
Second, and related to that, this parable reminds us that God’s grace is about his character and not ours. The two sons never even had a chance to say the right thing out loud. The father knew their hearts and loved them how he wanted to love them—rather than how they deserved to be loved. God’s love for us isn’t about us—we receive it, but we don’t earn it. That should be a comfort to all of us—God loves us because that’s who he is.
Finally. Most importantly, as we begin our season of Advent, we have this amazing reminder of a Father in heaven who doesn’t wait for us to figure out a way back to him. That we have a Father in heaven who sees us from a long way off, who catches a glimpse of us turning toward him and is thrilled. That we have a Father in heaven who comes running to us, and when he gets to us shows us love so lavishly that we can’t even get our prepared speeches out of our mouths. As we celebrate the coming of Christ to the world, we have to see it as God, running toward us, throwing away his right to be heavenly and mysterious and remote. Running toward us so that we can know how much he loves us. Running toward us so we can be his children again. That’s the message of Christmas—that’s what we celebrate through gifts and meals and good feelings—that’s why we worship and serve and follow and repent.
When someone asks you what Christmas is all about, or if you’ve come here wondering about that yourself, here’s the answer: Despite all the different ways we’ve managed to create inheritance issues between ourselves and God—While we were still a long way off, the Father saw us and was filled with compassion for us. That’s why the father ran to the son in our parable. That’s why his son runs to us—once in history and every year since as we celebrate the Advent season. While we were still a long way off, God ran to us. That’s why we’re here.
And that’s why we come to the Table. Communion is a symbolic feast—like the real one the father made for his wayward son. We’re all wayward children, and yet we still get invited to the party. We’ve all messed with our inheritance, and yet God gives us something better than we could ever imagine. Anyone and everyone who is on that journey, or even just wants to be on that journey, is welcome to this Table.
Welcome to Advent. Amen.