Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Who are we supposed to identify with in this very familiar parable? Are we supposed to be the prodigal?
How many of you have ever gone against your father’s wishes?
Well, maybe not to the extent that this young man went. Maybe you never asked for your inheritance early, to go spend it all, partying—or—how does the KJV put it?—with riotous living.
Maybe you’ve never journeyed far from home. His journey, by the way, was both literal—he went to “a distant country”—and figurative. While he was there, in that distant country, after living riotously until he had nothing left, and after a famine swept over the land so that most everyone was in need, what’d he do but hire himself out to feed pigs?
Pigs! Swine! Unclean beasts! Not kosher!
So he’d sold off all his inheritance, which was most likely land, a commodity more precious than gold to Palestinian Jews; and he’d spent everything partying; and now, as if he hadn’t distanced himself from his people enough already, he was feeding unclean beasts!
Effectively, he’d become no longer a son of Israel or even of his own father.
Maybe you’ve never journeyed this far from home.
But what about figuratively? Have you ever journeyed so far from your heavenly Father that you effectively cut yourself off from him?
Have you ever sensed God calling you to do something and instead of doing it you ran in the other direction? Have you ever been so upset at God that you shook your fist at him and wished you’d never been born? Have you ever denied your Lord Jesus when others were putting pressure on you?
Well, so did Jonah, Job, and Peter—if that makes you feel any better.
But, to return to my question for today, so is this who we are supposed to identify with most closely in this parable, the prodigal son?
Or are we supposed to identify with the merciful, benevolent, gracious father?
Now, you’ve got to understand, this guy, the prodigal’s father, breaks with all convention.
He’s a Palestinian Jewish man. Convention says ancestral land is something you must hold on to with all tenacity, like a bulldog with a lamb shank bone. (Or like Rocky, my friend’s Boston Bull Terrier, with a Frisbee.)
When your son whines and wheedles his share of the ancestral lands out of you and then goes off and sells it in order to live selfishly, against all you’ve ever taught him—well, that’s got to be the end of it! Convention, not to mention common sense, demands that you disown such a profligate, rebellious, and riotous son!
Besides, have you heard what the neighbors are saying?
But what does the father do instead? He watches for his son: he keeps vigil, like Aegeus straining day after day to see Theseus’s white sails crossing the sea. (Greek mythology tells the story of Theseus sailing off to kill the Minotaur and thus save his own land. While he is away, his father, Aegeus, watches day after day for his son’s ship to return.)
And when his prodigal son is still far off—who cares what the neighbors will say!—he runs to greet his son, embraces him, and weeps for joy over him.
Faugh on convention! His son was dead but is alive again; he was lost but now is found.
And so, is this what we’re to learn from this parable? Are we supposed to be like the father—merciful, benevolent, and gracious beyond all convention?
It doesn’t matter that none of us really is this way, or that none of us will ever be this way during our respective lifetimes. That’s not my question. Rather, are we supposed to try to be like the father here? Should we strive to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect?
Who are we supposed to be in this parable?
Oh, but there’s a third character, an often overlooked, or maybe ignored character: the older son.
He’s the one, remember, that has obeyed the rules. He’s the one who did not ask for his share of the inheritance, but instead kept to convention. He’s the one who remained faithful and loyal to his father throughout his younger brother’s selfish time of foolishness.
And yet what thanks does he get? Has his dad ever thrown him a feast for all his years of faithfulness? Has his dad ever even served so much as barbequed chicken for him and a few friends? No!
Yet when his profligate partier of a younger brother returns home without a penny to his name—he’d spent all his inheritance, for crying out loud!—he’s receives no punishment at all but a full prime-rib feast! What the heck!
I wonder, are we supposed to identify most closely with him?
While it is certainly true that we identify with the prodigal son, at least to some extent; and while it might be true that we aspire to be like the father, isn’t it actually the case that we are more like the older son than anyone else in this parable?
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.” So Jesus told them this parable.
Ah, there it is: tax collectors and sinners. Here are the people, surely, who represent the prodigal son. And I’m a sinner. I have no problem wearing that label.
Okay, so far so good. But are you a bookie? Are you a drug dealer? Are you a prostitute?
Tax collectors, in Jesus’ day, were nothing short of extortionists. Normal John-and-Jane taxpayers hated them. Tax collectors were social outcasts.
Prostitutes were outcasts too.
For that matter, so were the demon-possessed, the lepers, the blind, and the other so-called sinners Jesus welcomed and ate with.
Is this you? Are you a societal outcast?
For most if not all of us, the answer to this question is no. We’re not societal outcasts. We’re not drug dealers. We’re not bookies. We’re not sinners in the sense meant here. And so, as much as we might like to think so, we’re actually not much like the prodigal son of this parable.
So then, what about the father? Are we like him?
Well, I think this answer is a little easier for us to see. The kind, watchful, benevolent, merciful, and gracious father who breaks with all convention is a picture of Jesus. And as much as we try to be like him, we all know we are not him; and thus the prodigal’s father is not really a picture of us.
Thus we are left with the older brother.
He’s the one who has tried to be faithful throughout his life. That doesn’t mean he’s been perfect; that he’s never messed up. On the other hand, faithfulness suggests repentance. When he has messed up, both in big and little ways, he has repented of his sins and mistakes and turned to press forward.
Just like us.
Yes, we are the older brother in this parable.
But here’s the rub: if you look at the parallels to the parable’s three characters, then we are effectively Pharisees.
Am I right?
The Pharisees were grumbling because Jesus was eating with and welcoming tax collectors and sinners. So Jesus told them—the Pharisees—a parable.
Now the Pharisees couldn’t have been the tax collectors and sinners—i. e., the prodigal son. Nor could they have been Jesus—i. e., the father in the parable. For these were the very people they were complaining against!
That leaves the older son: the faithful, obedient older son who was left in the end saying, “What the heck, Dad!”
We can’t avoid it: we must identify with the older son; and the older son here is the Pharisees.
But, we protest, the Pharisees are the bad guys!
To which, I answer, maybe they are. Or at least maybe we’ve been conditioned to think so. On the other hand, they were the established “church” of their day.
But so what? Let’s not allow our conditioning to distract us from the point!
In this parable, what the older brother decides to do in the end is left unsaid. Will he celebrate with his father and younger brother, because his little brother was dead but is alive again; and because he was lost but is now found? Or will the older brother continue to brood and sulk? We don’t know: the answer is not given; Jesus doesn’t tell us.
History tells us, however, that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day chose the latter: to brood and sulk over Jesus’ dining with and welcoming sinners. Their brooding and sulking led to hatred, bigotry, and death. Obviously their brooding and sulking was the wrong choice.
But, despite our connection to the Pharisees here, our history has not yet been completely written.
We are a church that has tried to serve our heavenly Father faithfully and obediently, not nearly perfect yet repentant—a lot like the older son. But how are we going to respond when convention is thrown off—when things are no longer done in the same way they always have been?
Will we brood and sulk over it? Or will we rejoice with our heavenly Father as he throws a prime-rib feast in celebration of the one who was once dead but is now alive?
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day no longer have a choice. We still do.