“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.”
The parable of the prodigal son is found only in Luke’s Gospel and it is positioned to be the climax of Chapter 15. Chapter 15 of Luke presents three of our Lord’s best-known narratives that deal in some manner with precious things that are lost and then found. The first part of chapter 15―the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin―is given for the Gospel for Trinity III. 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.”
From the point-of-view of the Pharisees, Jesus could preach about the Kingdom of God all he wanted to, but this scene of the gathering of the dregs of Israel around him is hardly an image of the Kingdom of God. It is a rather a kingdom of sinners.
A few weeks back we looked at a portion of the Sermon on the Mount and the various attempts to interpret it away or at least the attempts to get around what most interpreters have referred to as Jesus’ impossible ideal for humanity. But as we saw then, the Sermon on the Mount 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 alone, who are the citizens of his present and future Kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount describes the way the children of the Kingdom of Christ will live right now and forever. 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 according to his teaching in the Sermon, selflessly, and their obedience to Jesus’ Sermon 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 I was already breathing the fresh, free air of the Kingdom of Christ, I would live in accordance with this present culture. I want to suggest to you that when a child of the Kingdom makes such choices, when I don’t fulfill my destiny as a son of the Kingdom of Christ, 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 a judgment on that matter that is extreme, offensive and frankly far-fetched. 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 it was not the normal course. But there was provision and in the case of a distribution of property ownership prior to the death of a father, two requirements were made: First, the beneficiary obtains possession of the property at once, but the father continues to have full 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. Another rule was that 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 this family and go his own way.
Astonishingly, the father allows the boy’s demand and his material inheritance is converted into cash. He leaves his family for a new life in a faraway land where he throws away his wealth in a wild and undisciplined life. He went on a spending spree acquiring nothing of value till he has spent his last cent. The table turns and the boy’s life falls apart. Then came the unexpected―a famine. 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 is a vivid description of what happens when a child of God goes missing. 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. His life had fallen so low that he desired the meal of an unclean animal. 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; the boy himself 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 on a day-to-day basis for his father were much better off than he was. He then 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 forfeited 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 the faraway land immediately and carried out his resolution to confess and 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. After his father greets him with such extravagant love, the boy follows through and makes his confession and request.
“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. Now the elder brother refuses to enter the home. “This is not justice, this is not fair,” he declares. 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. His concern for justice is natural, but he misses the point entirely, which is that God is gracious and his mercy is not deserved. But in the Kingdom of God repentance and confession wipe 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 transformation. The parable leaves us hanging: the obedient brother has 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 outcasts; people who were offended at the Gospel. It is as though Jesus is saying, “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 let us return to our questions: 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 cast me away? The answer is repentance, turning back, confession, and throwing one’s self upon the mercy of God, knowing from the mouth of Jesus himself, that this father is descriptive of God the Father. Not only do repentance and confession restore us and set us back on the way of Christ, but also the Father with joy and total acceptance welcomes the penitent, and he has already provided a home in the Church. Furthermore, everyone in the Kingdom is called to respond to the penitent, not by comparing the penitent’s reconciled state with one’s own state. No. Christ calls us to imitate the Father. If he, the one who has been most offended and sinned against, can be gracious and forgiving, so can the children of the Kingdom.