Who could blame him if he didn’t want to go to that party? I wouldn’t. I bet you wouldn’t either. He’s rightfully mad. All these years – nothing – gone to waste.
The Lost Sons and our fear of intimacy
Lent 4C | Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Before the Prodigal Family
This morning we get a retreat from the hard teachings of Lent and receive stories of hope and restoration. Perhaps we should enjoy this moment before I try to ruin it by actually talking about this gospel.
Nobody said the gospel was “easy news” just that it is “good news”.
But before I ruin our morning (and then try to fix it), let us take a short moment to notice the story from Joshua. It can really set the stage for the Lost Sons story.
Remember that it was GOD who liberated the people from Egypt and they were stuck wandering in the wilderness and they had nothing to eat and they demanded Moses go to GOD to save them. So he does and GOD offers them manna to arrive every morning. And birds every evening. And they are to eat their fill of the manna, but don’t save it for later, for it’ll get all maggoty and gross. Besides, the birds are coming in the evening. They don’t need to hoard it.
For 40 years they lived like this, receiving all they could eat every morning and every evening. Regardless of their faith, GOD was faithful to them.
So eventually they come to the promised land and the generation who had been liberated has passed and Aaron and Moses have died and Joshua leads them in. And it is there, with the promise fulfilled, that the daily provided food ends and the fruit of their labors begins.
This is a big moment in the life of the Hebrew people. It’s a little like graduation. They have arrived and are being entrusted with independence. Like they’re given keys to a new car.
But the question for them is this: have they understood GOD’s teaching in the Manna? Did they even notice it? Or did they just eat it up and move on? Like the disciples who “didn’t understand about the loaves” in the feeding of the five thousand story.
You have enough. And everyone must have enough.
GOD entrusts the people to share of their abundance so that their may be sufficient food for everyone. Is that what they do?
Jesus tells this story when he’s confronted by some grumbling Pharisees and scribes. They are mad because he’s eating with the unsavory. But before he gets to this story, he tells two other stories.
The first is about a shepherd leaving 99 sheep in the wilderness alone to go after the one who has gotten lost.
Then he tells a story about a woman who loses a coin and cleans her whole house looking for the missing coin. She throws a big party when she finds it.
Then he tells a story about this man who has two sons. The younger comes to his father and says to him, essentially, I wish you were dead and I never want to see you again. Of course those aren’t his actual words. He actually asks for the inheritance he would receive when his father dies. So give to me now what you would give to me then.
What he would receive upon the death of his father is one-third of the farm. But he doesn’t want that. He isn’t a farmer, really. He wants the cash. So his father sells one-third of the farm and hands the son the money.
It is no coincidence, I think, that the word translated as property throughout the story is actually the Greek word for being. He asks for his father’s life. In cash.
Too much is made of the young man’s lifestyle, I think. Mostly because it isn’t the substance of his life that is a problem as much as it is all of the commandments he breaks. We’re supposed to read this and look down at him. We’re supposed to feel smugly superior. Unless that’s us. Unless we recognize what the bottom looks like. Unless we know what it’s like to go to our parents and beg.
In a masterful turn of storytelling, Jesus describes the younger brother rehearsing the speech he isn’t ever able to deliver. His Dad won’t let him. Instead, he runs out to him and throws his arms around his son and welcomes him home without question. He is eager to throw a party for the son who was dead has risen. He ran out of his father’s life and yet he lives.
This story is often called the Prodigal Son story, but there are two sons. So I call it the Prodigal Sons Story because there are two sons who run away from their father. And because it is told with two other stories of things lost, it is even better to call it the Parable of the Lost Sons.
Considering how badly behaved the younger brother is in the story, breaking several commandments, including dishonoring his parents, the elder brother is a natural foil. He stayed behind and learned the family business. He didn’t abandon family or waste his life irresponsibly. He worked the farm. He became a leader and was no doubt respected. He is so relatable.
But did his Dad show him enough respect to send word to him out in the field, working hard that fateful day? The day his brother returned. He had to hear it from a servant. Your brother’s alive and there’s going to be a party for him!
Who could blame him if he didn’t want to go to that party? I wouldn’t. I bet you wouldn’t either. He’s rightfully mad. All these years – nothing – gone to waste. What good has my work been? He asks himself. Who am I to my own father?
So when the father comes out to see him, to invite him to come in the whole town is here! he’ll say. The elder son, well, he can’t help it. Who could blame him? So he unloads on his Dad. About feeling used and underappreciated. About how hard he’s worked and how unfair the whole thing is.
And I imagine this moment, these two grown men standing there, but it really feels like a man in his early 40’s talking to a pre-teen son. That’s who fathers and sons become when we let out the pent-up frustration, when we’ve been holding it in this long. You can’t blame them for how it comes out.
The man/boy says
“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you.”
The words cutting into the father over and over. But his mind can’t hear any of the words that come later. Only “slave” bouncing around in his brain. My own son thinks he’s a slave!
And the Father barely gets his wits enough to hear him say about his brother who has been raised from the dead “has devoured your property.”
We don’t know if the man hears his father’s words in the kindness and generosity in which they are spoken. Whether he hears his father call him son and assure him, remind him that he isn’t a slave. That all this property, life itself! isn’t the father’s: it’s his. And has been. Given to him when his brother left. All this life is his. Does he not understand?
All that is true. But a greater truth has broken through. The dead lives. And we celebrate that.
It is so easy to hear this story and divide ourselves into our identity camps. Are we the younger brother? Have we screwed up and need to be saved? Probably, we think.
Or are we the elder brother who feels justified in his outrage: how generous the father is being with our property!
And it’s easy to see ourselves in a brother and GOD as the father and here comes out to us: wrapping his arms around us when we’ve screwed up, or coming out to us when we’re standing in the field, as an adult throwing a childhood tantrum. But I don’t think that’s the point of the story.
Henri Nouwen argued that Jesus came to us like the younger brother, divorced from GOD and left for dead. But look! He lives!
But Jesus also transcends both of these brothers to become the beloved son: the one who doesn’t disrespect the father as a young man or as an older one. He doesn’t run away, but knows his inheritance and love and intimate relationship with GOD is eternal. He never leaves.
But then, perhaps we hear the challenge of the story, to see ourselves in it, not stuck in the shoes of a younger son who can never be redeemed and never live up to the estimation of his elder brother. And also not stuck in the shoes of the elder brother who cannot free himself of his self-imposed prison, enslaved to his shallow and selfish view of the world, jealous of his younger brother and ignoring the father who loves him.
The challenge of the story is that it tells us to grow up. Maybe have children. Or vicariously love some nieces and nephews or some of the kids from church. And learn how to love like we’ve never loved before. To take the insults and the shaming and the guilt and the abuse our children throw at us for our imperfection. For our weakness. For our inconsistency and bad communication skills. For never learning to set the clock on our VCR only to have our children make fun of you for still having a VCR.
This story isn’t about sibling rivalry, it’s about generosity. It’s about not worrying about our stuff. For what good is our wealth if it costs us our lives and our families?
Don’t just be one of the sons, not even the beloved son. Learn to also be the father. The father whose love keeps expanding. Whose love can overlook all of the faults. Whose love goes beyond measure. Learn to be the father and then extend that love to everything. So that we all might have enough. We all might be well. That we all might have life.
When we love like that, we don’t worry about property and possession. We learn to seek forgiveness and give it to those who need to be forgiven. Isn’t that the picture of a Christlike life? Isn’t that what we’re trying to find? So be the father. And most of all, do not forget to throw that great big party.