Cross Training Week Four: The Running God
This week I am preaching on one of the most familiar parables that Jesus ever shared with his followers---the story known most widely as The Story of the Prodigal Son. It's interesting that most commentaries, translations of the Bible, popular literature, etc. all use this title for the parable---especially since the story isn't exactly about one son, but two. Further this isn't just a story about sons, it's a story about a father and his sons.
This is probably a good moment to simply read the passage:
There is an easy way to understand this parable, which isn't exactly a wrong understanding, just one that stays completely on the surface of the parable. This easy understanding is the one that we often share in Sunday school lessons, sermons and short devotionals.
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 Then Jesus told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 “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. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 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. 21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “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. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. 25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ 28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ 31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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.’”
Rembrandt's Prodigal Son from a Photo
I took in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg Russia
On the surface this parable seems pretty straightforward doesn't it? A story of Rebellion, Repentance and Redemption... The prodigal who leaves home in rebellion and soon discovers that his old man was a lot wiser than he thought finds himself in dire straits whereupon he repents of his waywardness and returns home where the Father forgives him and has a party.
The older brother is miffed that after all that the younger brother has done the Father goes ahead and welcomes him back home. In this simple understanding, the prodigal stands for sinners--just like you and me---and the older brother stands for the Pharisees that opposed Jesus, the keepers of the law, rules-oriented types who were joyless and didn't get the Gospel.
Oh, and the Father stands for God, just in case you were wondering.
But by now you should know that there is nothing straightforward and simple when it comes to the teachings of Jesus. And his parables were full of cultural context that can't be ignored. When you combine the Jedi-like structure of Jesus' teaching moments with the oft-ignored cultural clues that were part of his parables---you've got some pretty awesome and deep stuff, my friend.
Let's get to it.
First, the thing that started this whole teaching was when the Pharisees and scribes that were gathered to hear Jesus teach started griping about the fact that he was hanging with people they didn't like, and didn't think deserved the grace of God. "This man receives sinners and eats with them," they grumbled.
Then Jesus threw down.
We need to understand a bit of what was happening with this whole grumbling thing that necessitated a throw down. This will require us to conduct a quick and nerdy word study.
To begin the grumblers are focused on "sinners," but they are also lumping in the sinners with the "tax collectors," which are mentioned earlier in the preceding passage. "Sinners" means people who are breakers of the law, unclean folk, people of low character that are not worthy of any sort of esteem other than low. When you mention the word "sinners" in with "tax collectors" you up the ante a tad. Tax collectors were seen as traitors and collaborators with the Romans. And since Pharisees tended to see Jews who broke the law of Moses with impunity as betrayers of their own people---they were describing the worst of the worst they could possibly imagine.
So... it was an insult.
They claim that Jesus is "receiving" people like this, which is another way of saying that he "welcomed them into fellowship," which no good Jew would ever dream of doing. In other words, they are lumping Jesus in with the degenerates they are describing.
And the Bible says they "murmured," about this, which is the same word that we find in the book of Exodus when we hear descriptions about what the people of Israel did when they were moaning and complaining to Moses. Which tells the reader all they need to know about the kind of people we are dealing with here. These are people who have forgotten their own history, they have fallen in love with their traditions and have forgotten what it means to be outcast.
Which is why Jesus tells them a story. There's just something about stories, isn't there? A good story can teach far more than a factual lecture---and Jesus was really good at telling them.
This story is often called the Story of the Prodigal Son, but if we focus only on him we lose half of the story. The Younger Son, as we'll call him here, is worth examination, though. We need to understand what Jesus' audience would have heard when Jesus began his parable with a son who had a death wish.
When the Younger Son approaches his father and demands the right of his inheritance, the words he utters would have been unbelievably shocking to those who heard them. What the Younger Son is essentially saying to his father is "I wish you were dead." The laws of inheritance would not be enacted in the ancient world until the father had died. If he became old and incapacitated, the eldest son would assume responsibility for the family and would essentially inherit the lion's share of the property, money, etc. But he would have right of possession, not disposition of his father. This comes into play a bit later in the story. A younger son in this case would have been entitled to approximately one third of the total.
By demanding his inheritance, the Younger Son wasn't breaking the law--he was breaking his father's heart. He chooses the privilege of his inheritance, but wants none of the family responsibility that comes with it. He wants out--completely. He wants nothing to do with his family. And so it is given to him. Those listening would have known that in order to liquidate his third of the inheritance a fire sale would have been in order, which would have further weakened his family in the eyes of the community.
Then we learn that the Younger Son "squandered" or "scattered" his money in another land. We don't know exactly how he spent the money. Jesus leaves this to the imagination. The Older Brother has ideas of his own, but even he was not entirely aware of how his brother managed to waste what he'd been given.
When a famine strikes the land where he's living, the Younger Son "attaches" himself to a landowner who has pigs. From cultural understanding we know that he groveled and would not stop bothering the landowner until the man finally gave him a job that was so terrible that almost no one would have done it---feed the pigs. He finds himself being covetous of the husks and pods that the pigs are eating even though they are inedible to him, because the pigs can fill their stomachs while he cannot.
The Younger Son, it says, finally comes to his senses. He comes up with a plan that entails returning to his father's house and finding a job---even a menial job--so he can start earning some money in order to pull himself out of the jam that he got himself into. Contrary to the way the story is usually read, there is no sign of repentance here. He rehearses a speech that is not really repentant---it's a sales pitch. The Younger Son is still trying to make it on his own. And so he makes his way home and to his father.
At this point I want to jump to the Older Son, who we know from a cultural reading has some problems of his own. What he has essentially done is neglected his sacred responsibility to his brother. When the Younger Brother insulted the father and shamed the family, it was the Older Brother's duty to do whatever it took to keep him from leaving and to mediate the restoration with his father. Instead he lets him go without a word.
When his brother returns, the Older Brother is angry upon finding out that a party is underway. It is within the Father's rights to throw such a party because even though he is "retired," he still controls the family business. The Older Brother is angry because the profit of the estate is being spent on a party that he believes is in honor of his wastrel brother. His place is inside at the party. In the ancient world when a community celebration was given, the eldest son of a family would often act as head waiter, so to speak, honoring his father and the guests by serving them. His refusal to enter the party is a public insult to his father---much in the same way his Younger Brother insulted him by leaving.
The Father could have had him drug into the party and shamed, in order to restore the hierarchy of things. Instead, the father gets up, leaves the party and goes out to speak to his son and try to get him to come join the family celebration.
Which brings me to the Father...
The Father in this story acts so unexpectedly that the people hearing it would have been floored by his actions.
First, he could have had the Younger Son beaten and disowned for demanding his inheritance. Instead, the Father humbles himself and gives the son freedom.
When the Younger Son returns home, the Father does something incredible. He sees him coming from a long way off and runs out to meet him. Here's a deeper understanding of this action that takes it up a level. By returning home in shame, the Younger Son could have faced what is known as a kezabah, or a "cutting off." Because of what he had done, the community could have ganged up on him as he walked back into the village. A clay pot would have been broken in front of him and then he would have been beaten, kicked, pummeled and shamed beyond belief. The crowd in these situations often drove the offender out of the village without question.
So when the Father sees his son coming into the village he knows what faces him. In order to save him from the kezabah he "races" out to meet him. In order to "race" he would have had to pull up his robe and run as fast as he could. This was an unbelievable degradation for a man of his stature. In the ancient world, successful, well-regarded patriarchs walked slowly and did things deliberately. This was a rash, and shameful act.
The Father heaps shame on himself in order to save his son from experiencing it.
And this is so awesome...
The speech that the Younger Son rehearsed---he only gets to the part where he says, "I am no longer worthy to be called your son." All that he feels his brokenness in the face of his Father's suffering--suffering endured for his sake.
The Younger Son had scorned his inheritance and wasted it. The Father shames himself by returning it to him. He gives him his own robe. He commands the servants to bring the signet ring of the family and to put new shoes on his feet. All of this signifies restoration.
When the Older Son scorns his Father by revealing the truth of his heart---that he cared as little for his Father as the Younger Son---the Father shames himself in front of all of the village to go out and plead with him to come join the party.
The sons miss the point... One son think's he's breaking the law, and the other thinks he's keeping it. They both probably thought the party was in honor of the Younger Son, but it wasn't. It was in honor of the Father, whose suffering had created Shalom. The grace that he offered to his sons was not cheap grace, it was grace bought through suffering, shame and sacrifice.
This, beloved, is the Gospel.
It doesn't matter which son you feel that you might be right now. Perhaps you feel like the Younger Son. You've been trying to make it on your own for a very long time. You haven't wanted God in your life---in fact you've acted as though you wished God was dead.
Maybe you feel like the Older Son. You've been trying to do what's right. You've kept the rules, you've tried to be a good person, and it seems like nothing seems to work out for you. The happiness and joy that you want so desperately have eluded you again and again.
I want you to hear this...
This is how precious you are to God: There is no obstacle too high, no lengths too far, nothing too impossible to keep God's love and forgiveness from those He loves.
This is the parable of the Running God.
A parable of unimaginable love.
Here endeth the lesson.