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Will the Real Prodigal Please Stand?
February 15, 1976

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

LUKE 15:11-32

Parents in every generation have felt that their particular generation was the most difficult time in which to raise kids. Parents think that their particular time has the most headaches. Parents have to live on faith because we never really know if we’re doing the right thing. There are no clear cut answers, we have to operate on faith. One of the stories Jesus told in the Bible put a father in such a dilemma. The window we’re looking at this morning depicts the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is popularly called the Story of Two Sons. This story of a father who had problems with his two sons is one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible. I believe that every single one of you this morning will see yourself in the window. You will identify with either of the two sons or with the father. One of the meanings of the story, which I assume was in Jesus’ mind, is that the father is a picture of God as God relates to his children, to you and me. The two sons in the story represent all of humanity. And we’re going to see ourselves in this story. 

The younger son came to his father and asked for his share of the inheritance. He wanted to go and make his own life. The Bible doesn’t tell us, but the customs as we understand that day, would dictate that one-third of the estate upon the father’s death would go to the younger son and two-thirds to the elder son. Probably what the younger son received that day was one-third of the estate. And off he went. Sometimes our popular interpretation accuses this boy of being a bad boy. But really, he wasn’t that bad. After all, he did show initiative. He wanted to go out and make it on his own. He wanted to test his own wings. He wanted to assert his own independence. He wanted to make his own life. He wanted to test the values handed down to him by his parents. He wanted to test the relationship he had with his family, with his brother. He wanted to try to make it by himself, and off he went to a far country. I like that expression. He went into a far country. Many of us think we have to go far to make our lives and to test ourselves. “I want my own apartment, I want my own life, I want to make my own decisions.” There’s nothing wrong with that because we each have to test. We each have to become independent. 

The younger son took his inheritance and went into the far country and there he lost it. The text says that he squandered it in loose living. I’m sure you all would like a little more explanation of what squandering and loose living means, but you do have imaginations. Hollywood would make a great movie. I imagine they would take the story and 90% of the movie would be on the squandering and loose living part. Whatever he did, he blew it. He used bad judgment. He was carefree. He squandered it, he lost it. The father had quite a dilemma, didn’t he? When his son came and asked for his inheritance, the father must have struggled with that for days. Should I let him go? Should I give him his money? He has a right to it, but should I give it to him? I don’t think he’s mature enough. I don’t think he’s old enough. But if I don’t let him go, for years and years and years, he’s going to throw it up to me. “Oh, if only you had let me go. Just think what I could be today if you’d let me have my inheritance.” The father had quite a dilemma. What do you do? When do you cut the strings? When do you let them go? When? The father let him go like God does. There isn’t much God can do with us when we put our minds to it. God doesn’t overrule us. God doesn’t interfere with our freedom, our free will, our free choice. God lets us ruin the world any way we want to ruin it. The father let his son go. And he squandered it, he lost his fortune. 

Then one day and, I like this phrase, according to Jesus, he came to himself. A famine hit the land. He lost his money, he was poor. The only job he could find was on a pig farm taking care of the pigs. You remember from the dietary laws of the Old Testament what the Jewish people thought of pigs. Nothing could be lower as an occupation, nothing could be lower on the social scale than to work with pigs. And he had to take that job of feeding the pigs. In his hunger, in his poverty he actually wished he could eat what the pigs were eating because they were eating better than he. But here’s where the boy showed courage. He came to himself. That’s a painful experience—to take a good, long, hard look at yourself, and see what you really are, and what you really have come to. Repentance is to look at yourself honestly, squarely in the face, to look at who and what you are, and to have the guts and the courage to turn around and to say, “I’m going to go home with all my shame, with all my embarrassment, with all with my failure. I’m going to go home.” To his credit, the boy said, “I really won’t ask for a second chance. I’ll just ask my dad to hire me because a hired servant on my dad’s farm would fare better than I’m doing.” It took shame. It took embarrassment. It took failure. But he went home. I imagine he thought all along the way, how will I be received? 

The father saw him afar off. He saw him walking in the distance. Now that says a lot about what his father was doing all those months and years. The father must have heard little tidbits every now and then, “I saw your son over in such and such a place. He was really having quite a time.” Or maybe even heard a little tidbit say, “Your son’s not doing so well. Your son’s in trouble.” He must have heard all kinds of things. What was in his mind, what was he doing those years, what was he doing those months? Because he saw his son coming afar off, we know he was waiting and watching. The major role of a parent is to wait, to watch. A parent or a school teacher, or minister, any profession that wants to help people grow into maturity, hoping they will be the best people they can be spends their time waiting. You can’t pressure people. You can’t force them. You can’t force maturity on someone. You can’t force good judgment on someone, you can’t force common sense, you can’t force experience, you can’t force a sense of responsibility. They’ve got to do that themselves. And all you can do is love and watch, hurt and wait. 

The father waited and when he saw that cloud of dust, when he saw that familiar figure walking across the fields, he ran. With open arms he ran to meet his son. And he didn’t say, “I told you so!” What a temptation. He didn’t say, “I knew you’d come home with your tail between your legs. I knew it.” He didn’t rub salt in the wound like we like to do with each other. With open arms, with love he reached out and greeted him. And before the son could even ask for the job as a hired servant, his father said, “Let’s have a party.” He arranged for the fatted calf, the calf that was fed specially and saved for big occasions. He said, “Kill the fatted calf! Call the neighbors, get the musicians. We’re going to have dancing, we’re going to have a party for my son who was dead is now alive (that’s the inscription on the window). My son who was lost has been found.” 

That’s a picture of God who waits, watches and agonizes for you and for me. The great message in this story is that you are loved. No matter how you flub it up, no matter how bad you fail, no matter how ridiculous you make your life, God is waiting with forgiveness and acceptance. When you come back to God, repenting, coming to yourself, God throws a party. Jesus’ most popular image of what it’s like to be in relationship with God is a party with dancing, merriment, gaiety, frivolity, carefree abandonment. That’s what it is to be loved by God, to be in relationship with him, and with each other. Someone asked Abraham Lincoln, “What are you going to do when we win the war, when the South has to come back into the union?” Oh, the temptation to scold, the temptation to rub it in. But Lincoln said, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.” That’s what relationship with God is, he treats us as if we’ve never been away. 

But, the story has another son in it and he is a gem—the elder son, the one who stayed home, the one who took care of the property, the one who took care of the farm, the one who was loyal, who knew his duty, who accepted his responsibility, who was conscientious, the one who took care of his father, the one who was good, who was so good that he made himself sick, who was so righteous. You often see in families how the sons compete with each other, how the competition is often too severe, so they go in different directions. One goes into music and the other one goes into football. One is a good student and the other one could care less. One will have a terrific sense of duty, loyalty and a  sense of responsibility and the other carefree and happy go lucky. 

My family was like that. I am the elder son. My brother is five years younger and we have a sister. I was the older brother. I was the religious one. I was so sanctimonious, so good, and so conscientious that I knew I was better than anyone else in the family. I was a very strong fundamentalist. I had my literal interpretation of the Bible, and I knew it was right. I knew how I should behave and how the whole world should behave. I must have been awfully difficult to live with, but my parents, my brother and sister put up with me. And thank God, I loosened up. I loosened up to the extent that after I became a minister, someone said to my cousin who was 12 years old at the time, “I understand your cousin’s a minister.” And he said, “Yes, but he’s not very religious!”

The elder brother came in from the field that day. He heard the musicians. He smelled the fatted calf. People were coming. He said, “What’s going on? What’s the party?” The servants told him, “Your brother has returned. He’s all safe and sound and we’re having a feast.” And you know what the brother’s reaction was. He was angry. He was bitter. He pouted and sulked and wouldn’t go inside. “I’m not going in there.” His father had to come out to him. This father really had a time, didn’t he? The father had to come out to him and the elder son said to him, “I’ve stayed with you all these years. I’ve never disobeyed anything you ever asked me, I’ve done everything you wanted me to do. I’ve taken care. I’ve done my duty, conscientious, responsible, and you never gave me a party. Never. Never has a fatted calf been killed for me and my friends. But this son of yours…” Notice, he doesn’t say “my brother”. He says “this son of yours”. The fraternal relationship has been broken. He goes on, “This son of yours goes off and throws away your money. He comes home, and he gets a party.” That hurts. He probably felt, “I always knew you liked him better than you like me. I probably was an orphan anyway!” 

How does the poor father relate to this guy? How do you tell a son, “I can’t treat everyone the same. My love is the same for everyone, all of my children. My love is equal. But I have to relate to you in different ways.” A teacher knows you don’t have a set of rules to run a classroom. You can’t. They’re all individual people. You can’t have a set of rules to run a family because you have to relate to each one differently. He tried to explain that to his son, “Son, you’ve always been with me and everything I have is yours. But your brother was dead and he’s now alive. Your brother was lost and now he’s found. We make merry.” 

Who is the real prodigal in this story? Who is the real one in need of the grace, love, mercy and forgiveness of God? Traditionally we’ve assigned the younger brother to the role of the bad boy who needs the love of God, the boy who recklessly, irresponsibly messed up his life but had courage enough to come back home. Or, is the bad boy the elder brother who in his sense of duty, in his knowledge of what was right and what was wrong was not merciful, was not forgiving, was not flexible, was insecure. Was Jesus more drawn to the younger son? As you read the Gospels, Jesus exhibited compassion, tenderness and mercy to all those who have their lives messed up. He offered them forgiveness and a new chance. And how severe he was on the church people of that day who were so righteous, so sure what was right and what was wrong, who were so dutiful they were not merciful. 

The real prodigal in this story is both of them. They both need the mercy, love and forgiveness of God. We can see the church in this story too. For the church at its best in history, has been the accepting father reaching out with open arms, welcoming everyone with no judgment. And the church at its worst in history has been so arrogant, proud and righteous it’s been unmerciful and unforgiving. The real prodigal in the story is that we all need the mercy, love and grace of God. Don’t we all stand in need? Even you!

© 1976 Douglas I. Norris