But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
Chapter 15 opens with an account of disreputable folk from all over the place, ironically, seeking Jesus and finding him to be not only friendly, but beyond friendly — he welcomed and even ate with these unclean sinners. The Pharisees take note:
This man receives sinners and eats with them.
Then Luke presents three of our Lord’s best-known narratives: the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin, and the prodigal son is positioned to be the climax of chapter 15.
By way of some background I want to say a few things about the Sermon on the Mount because that sermon is a way of talking about the theology and ethics of Jesus that are enfleshed in this narrative. That sermon was not intended for some kind of generalized human society, but rather it was intended for the Church. Jesus preached an ethic not to humanity, not to the nation-state, but to his own disciples who are the citizens of his present and future Kingdom. For example though we live in a society that thrives on anger, Jesus said that insults and anger are equivalent to murder and his disciples would not practice anger, insults or abusiveness. He also equated lust with adultery and he advised by whatever means necessary to pluck lust from your life and caste it away.
Jesus said that his disciple would live selflessly and that their obedience to Jesus is itself a “sign of the Kingdom of God.” But that raises some big questions. What happens when a child of the Kingdom does not fulfill his destiny? What happens when I am not a sign of the Kingdom of God? What happens if I am a sign of God’s failure? To be a sign of God’s failure would be to live as though God didn’t matter or didn’t even exist. Rather than living as though one was already breathing the fresh, free air of the Kingdom of Christ, one would live in accordance with this present culture. I want to suggest to you that when a child of the Kingdom makes such choices it is like what happens in chapter 15 of St. Luke. It is like I go missing. I am similar then to a lost sheep, a lost coin, or a prodigal son. Now if that is all I have to go on, my willfulness, my turning from Christ, then it is a pretty grim situation. Jesus said, “If your eye offend thee, pluck it out. If your hand offend thee, cut it off.” If instead of being a sign of God’s Kingdom, I become offensive, odious to God’s Kingdom, will Jesus then pluck me out of his life? Will Jesus caste me away? Chapter 15 of Luke is the answer to that question and in particular the parable of the prodigal presents. So let’s look at the parable.
The boy was in his late teens. Unmarried. The Law provided for settlement of a family’s wealth prior to the death of the father, but that was not normal. In the case of a distribution of property ownership prior to the death of a father, two requirements were made: First, the beneficiary obtains ownership of the property at once, but the father continues to have free hold of the property –- including any interest or productivity that may be gained from it — till his death and only then does the right to interest and produce pass to the beneficiary. Secondly, the elder son would get a double portion of the estate and in this case that would mean that the younger would receive one-third. In the texts the young son called the property “ton bion” which literally means the life; or we might call it today “a living.” The son asked for his portion of what his father’s life is worth. Furthermore the son demands not only possession, but also the right of disposal immediately. This boy intended to sever his relations to his father and his family.
Astonishingly the father allows the boy’s demand and his material inheritance is converted into cash and he leaves his family for a new life in a faraway land where he threw away his wealth in undisciplined living. He went on a spending spree acquiring nothing of value till he has spent his last cent. Then came the unexpected — a famine. The table turns and the boy’s life falls apart. He was hungry in a foreign land and he had no money, no family to turn to, and he ended up hiring himself out to a Gentile looking after the pigs. This image of feeding pigs is a vivid description of what happens when a child of God goes missing.
Then we entered the boy’s interior life where we learn his subjective experience: He would have eaten the sweet beans he was feeding the pigs if he could have brought himself to do it. And he had no one in that distant land to take pity on him. Jesus says that it was at this point that the boy “came to himself,” which is roughly equivalent to our saying, “coming to one’s senses.” This is the beginning of repentance; he begins to turn. Notice that there is not much of what we would call heart-felt repentance or sorrow going on here. The boy was hungry, his life had fallen apart and he knows that there is no one to blame but himself. Even the day laborers that worked for minimal pay for his father were better off. He put together a plan to return to his family and acknowledge his foolishness before God and his father. He acted immediately and he acted humbly. He would forfeit all his birthrights of sonship. He planned only to place himself at his father’s mercy, to acknowledge his sin against him and God and his only request was that he be hired on as a day laborer — the very lowest of three classes of laborers. The boy accepts the consequences of his actions without making excuses. He confesses. He makes his humble request. This is what real repentance looks like.
The son left and carried out his resolution to throw himself upon his father’s mercy. But even before he arrived home his father saw him coming and ran out to meet him and fell on the boy kissing him. Now this is breaking all protocol. No Middle Eastern father in antiquity would have greeted or responded to an insubordinate son in this manner. Coming home in this context was risky business to say the least. But Jesus is not conducting sociological research, he is teaching us about his Kingdom and he is teaching us about his Father. This is what God is like: he is full of mercy and grace and love.
I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
But the father calls his servants to get the best robe for the boy, and a family ring and shoes and then kill the fatted calf and prepare a feast. Why?
For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.
At this point, the table turns again when the elder brother shows up and he finds out that his good-for-nothing younger brother has returned and he refuses to enter the home. The boy who was once an outsider is now inside and the boy who was once the perfect insider has taken his brother’s place as the outsider. And he is indignant. This isn’t fair. Maybe in his world.
But in the Kingdom of God repentance and confession wipes the slate clean. Repentance, turning around, brings not only a new direction, but repentance is also the beginning of the restoration of relations. Nevertheless he is so consumed with fairness that he cannot rejoice with his brother’s return to the family. The parable leaves us hanging: the obedient brother is become disobedient, the insider has become the outsider and he essentially says to his father: “You old fool! He wasted your livelihood on prostitutes!”
Jesus addressed this parable to men who were offended by his behavior toward sinners and outcaste; people who were offended at the Gospel. It is as though Jesus is saying to his critics, “Look at how great God loves his lost children. Contrast his love and grace with your own joyless, loveless, unthankful and self-righteous lives. Look here; look at these outsiders and sinners coming to me, rising to new life, returning home. Rejoice!”
So what happens when I don’t fulfill my destiny? What happens when I am not a sign of the Kingdom of God? Does Christ pluck me from his life and caste me away? We know the answer. Repentance, turning back, confession and throwing one’s self upon the mercy of God, knowing from the mouth of Jesus himself, that this father in the parable is descriptive of God the Father. The Father has provided a home for us all in the Church. A home that is ordered in holiness and infused with kindness, graciousness, and big hearted forgiveness.
For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.