The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Christ Church, Shaker Heights
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The familiar parable of the Prodigal Son is one of a triptych of parables in Luke chapter fifteen. The first one is about a lost sheep whose owner leaves the remaining flock of ninety-nine to go and find it. The second is about a woman who loses a coin and relentlessly sweeps and searches the house until it is found. The third – our Gospel for today - is about the younger of two sons of a father, who asks his dad for his share of the family fortune; in other words, his inheritance before his father dies. This was a very insulting thing to do, as the subtext of so doing is like saying to your father, I wish you were dead. But inexplicably the father does so.
Being young and impetuous, the son goes off to a foreign country – read gentile territory - engages in dissolute living and quickly squanders everything he has, leaving himself impoverished. He is so desperate that he is compelled to hire himself out as a farm hand where he ends up slopping the pigs. This is dirty work, made more so by the fact that the son is a Jew and pigs are treyf, a Yiddish word meaning non-kosher and therefore unclean. So, the younger son is not only submerged in the filth of his dirty work, but surrounded by – for him – the dirtiest of animals. For him it’s a disgusting, seemingly hopeless, and deplorable situation.
The scripture then tells us that, “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! 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."
The phrase “when he came to himself” is critical here. It tells us that he has hit rock bottom. He can’t fall any further in his life. He is bereft of everything: his dignity, his self-worth, his rightful place in the social order of life. But in coming to himself, he has an epiphany, he comes to his senses. The son realizes that there is food enough at his father’s home where he can at least escape the ravages of hunger and maybe find a place for himself as a laborer among his father’s hired hands. In other words, at least break out the degradation of his current circumstances among the pigs.
It is important to note that the son has no intention of asking to be reinstated to his former status. He clearly states that he will tell his father, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He is remorseful for what he has done and humbled. All he wants is an opportunity to not starve any longer and to have a modicum of his dignity restored. His basic hope is to escape the hell he is in.
But when the father espies his son coming down the road he is filled with compassion and he runs to meet his lost son, throws his arms around him and kisses him. Then he tells his servants to get a beautiful robe to cloth him with, put a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. And oh, yes, get that fated calf and prepare a huge feast because we need to celebrate, “’for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. The filthy son is covered with honor and love.
When his older brother comes home and learns of what has happened, he becomes angry and refuses to join in the celebration. He gets into an argument with his father. I’ve been loyal to you and worked my fingers to the bone on this farm. I’ve done everything right and yet you never give me a thing. But when this reprobate brother of mine, who squandered your money, comes home you pull out all the stops and have a feast.
At this juncture of the story I always have this uncontrollable desire to smack this guy on the side of the head, and tell him that it’s not all about him! Some people just love a pity party!
Ever compassionate the father replies, “'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.'" In other words, you have at your disposal everything that I own, you have all that you need, you may have what you desire, you just didn’t opt to take advantage of it. Please don’t become the party pooper when I choose to share from the abundance that we have when your brother has had an amendment of life, has redeemed himself and come home. Because that calls for rejoicing!
In the opening verses of this parable we are told, “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." This is the lens though which we must view this parable. It is a response to Jesus mingling with sinners and tax collectors, which was seen as deplorable behavior by the religious elites. Just like the older son sees his father’s behaviors toward the younger son as deplorable.
Earlier in Luke when Jesus encounters such grumbling about who he associated with from the same religious elites, he stated, ““Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”(LK 5:31-32) I can only imagine he made that statement with more than a touch of irony and a dash of sarcasm. Because the truth is none of us are righteous or well, all of us are sick and sinners. Which means we are all in need of the healing love Jesus the physician dispenses. We are all in need of redemption. None of us has the right to look with disdain from some lofty perch of superiority at another person and consider them inferior or beyond the pale.
But the sad reality is that like the Pharisees and scribes, many of us do. And many of us would prefer to see a perceived sinner kept in misery, if not actually destroyed. We have an adverse response when we think someone who has sinned and becomes remorseful for their sins is being forgiven and offered an opportunity at redemption. At new life. In fact, we even resent the opportunity being given. We prefer the suffering to the rejoicing.
Our criminal justice system is a prime example of this. It is built on the principle of retributive justice where the so-called repair of justice is based on punishment by incarceration and the hellish culture of prison life; punishment, which is all too often applied well-beyond the level of any committed crime. And also, with a huge racial bias. We enjoy seeing people who we see as sinful suffer – long and hard. Even if they are repentant and make amendment of life. Stay filthy, we think. Stay slopping them hogs. And stay away from me. We are the Pharisees and scribes. We are the older son.
Yet the father in the parable offers restorative justice. He desires the rehabilitation of his son and his egregious behaviors through reconciliation with his victims – who are he and his older brother. Truth be told this story is really about the prodigal father. He is the one who offers extravagant, even reckless love, to make his son’s life whole again. This parable tells us that restorative justice is the way of God. It is the way we are called to as well.
Where in your life do you seek the undue punishment of someone who may have wronged you? Even if that person is remorseful and desires reconciliation. Where do you engage in canceling or ghosting them? Of being angry instead of choosing to rejoice? Where do we desire in keeping a person filthy – like the younger son- instead of covering them with honor and love, like the father did.
No one – and I mean no one - who desires to be restored to right relationship with God and their neighbor is beyond the restorative, redemptive love of God. Even those who deliberately rebel and sin. Just like the prodigal son. And frankly what we think about that kind of justice doesn’t matter. That’s the point of the parable. It’s the way of God’s Reign. And that’s good news!
We don’t know if the older son came to himself like his brother did. The parable is left open-ended for us to imagine: for us to become the older son and ponder what we would do. Will we come to our senses and apprehend the truth of Jesus’ love?
Jesus said, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (LK 15:7) Again, he had to have said that with some irony. But I hope we get the point. In God’s realm it’s all about the redemption and rejoicing. So, let’s come to ourselves and like the father rejoice. Let’s enter the feast and party.