4th Sunday in Lent, Year C. March 10, 2013. (Text: Luke 15:11-32)
If you spent much time with Jesus, you got to hear lots of stories. Jesus didn’t give lectures; he mainly told stories—the best kind of stories, the kind that pull you in and make you feel like the story is being told just for you. And those who listened to Jesus very much, soon learned he usually told stories that describe what God is like.
Jesus knew most people are either confused about God, or scared of God, or have exceedingly strange ideas about God. Even religious people. (Maybe especially religious people!) That makes Jesus’ stories particularly good for us to hear over and over again.
The story we just heard is usually called “the Parable of the Prodigal Son.” A better title might be “the Parable of the Loving Father,” because the father here clearly stands for God. But I have my own name for it: “The Story of the Bad Boy and the Ideal Child.”
A prosperous Jewish farmer had two sons. The older of the rich farmer’s two sons was an Ideal Child: obedient, hard-working, perseverant, and thrifty. The younger was a Bad Boy—a rascal—flippant, fun-loving, and irresponsible, chafing under authority, cocky and shallow. But clever, too, in a way. No doubt, the Bad Boy mocked his self-righteous older brother, and even teased his father. But Daddy just laughed and indulged him.
The Bad Boy was bored on the farm. He was ambitious. He knew that if he just had some capital, a little stake, he could become really big somewhere else—far away from the country bumpkins that surrounded him. All he needed was for his Daddy to give him right away what was going to come to him anyhow, when the old man died. He asked for it, and his father gave it to him. Such a thing was unheard of, amazing. Of course, it never occurred to the young man that such a request showed everyone that he wouldn’t really care if his dad were dead. The message of his request was obvious: As far as I am concerned, ol’ dad is just a convenient ATM.
As Jesus’ tale goes, things didn’t work out well for the ambitious Bad Boy. He had fun as long as the bankroll lasted, but before long the money was gone and so were his new friends. The boy had not so much indulged in immorality as he had demonstrated his own foolishness. He had been self-indulgent, improvident, impulsive, and un-teachable. He had been sure he was so smart. But he was wrong.
This Jewish boy ended up across the Jordan, living in Gentile territory and reduced to the lowest job imaginable to someone from his culture: feeding pigs. And nobody across the river had ever heard of his rich daddy back in Judea. The local economy was in the tank and folks there didn’t give a flip about a foreigner like him. As far as his boss was concerned, he could survive on the slop he fed the pigs. Or not. —Our smart-alecky Bad Boy had hit rock bottom. His big dreams were gone; his fantasies, swept away. He felt worthless.
Then, Jesus says, “He came to himself.” That’s the pivotal moment in the story: “He came to himself.” He remembered his identity: he was his father’s child. Sitting in the pig-sty, the kid realized how insulting he’d been toward his dad. But he also recalled that sweet man’s nature—slow to anger, patient, and merciful. So he said to himself, “I’m going to get up from here and go home to my father.” What a momentous decision!
Millions of people today have deliberately cut themselves off from God and thumbed their noses at him. How wonderful if all of them found themselves in situations that made them say: “I will get up and go home to the Father.”
So the Bad Boy went home, rehearsing on the way a humble speech of apology he planned to make to his father as soon as he laid eyes on him. His dad’s field hands had a decent, if humble, life. Maybe that compassionate man would let his rotten failure of a son become a common laborer on the land. His inheritance was gone, but at least he’d have a roof over his head and decent food.
Now the Father comes to center stage, shading his eyes, peering down the road. We sense that he’s probably been out, looking down the road, every day since the Bad Boy left home. Therefore, when his son is still a long way off, Daddy sees him coming. He recognizes his silhouette, or his walk, or something. He knows: “That’s my boy!” And so off he goes, running out to meet him.
See? Jesus is telling us what God is like! You may not know it, but prosperous gentlemen back then never ran, not even for sport. They walked—with stately dignity. Lower class people— flunkies, servants, children—they could run. But rich men had too much pride to be seen running. Nevertheless, Jesus says this father ran down the road to welcome home his foolish, willful, younger son, the Bad Boy.
When the two meet, the boy falls to his knees and launches into his speech: “Daddy, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you, and I no longer deserve to be called your son....” But the father won’t let him finish. He doesn’t get a chance to say “just let me be a field hand.” His dad hugs him and kisses him. Then he snaps his fingers and a servant runs to fetch sandals for the Bad Boy’s bare feet, a robe to replace his rags, and a ring for his finger. The Bad Boy knows he’s forfeited his right to be called a son, but miraculously his sonship is restored! Then the old man orders a feast: “Let’s have a celebration! Music! Dancing! He who was lost is found. He who was dead is alive again.” So the party begins, and it’s a wing-ding. People can hear the racket over in the next valley.
Big Brother, the Ideal Child, out working hard in the field as usual, hears the zydeco music, the fiddles and accordions, playing in the middle of the day. And when he learns what’s going on, he’s enraged. The Ideal Child won’t join the party even when his Daddy comes out and gently, oh so tactfully, invites him inside. Big Brother has always been obedient, frugal, hard-working, respectful of authority, sensible, and pious. He’s been the rock his father could rely on. (After all, he IS the Ideal Child.) Little Brother has never been anything but untrustworthy and foolish.
So, now Big Brother’s righteous indignation boils over. He tells off his dad for never showing him enough appreciation and scolds him for putting on such an extravaganza for the Bad Boy: “This is not fair! This loser of a son of yours gets a big party, but what do I get? —Nothing!” Even though Daddy quietly points out that the whole estate will one day belong to him, that doesn’t mollify the Ideal Child one bit. He’s ticked off at his father, and he hates his Little Brother.
Consider the possible symbolism here. If the wandering Bad Boy who comes home stands for people who once fell for the myth of self-sufficiency, thumbed their noses at God, and nearly died trying to manufacture happiness for themselves —who, then, does the Ideal Child stand for? Why, he stands for us, of course! Good religious people in every age who always work hard and “do the right thing.” He stands for people who are self-disciplined, responsible, and pious, people who go to church every Sunday, while our neighbors down the road are self-indulgent, irresponsible, godless egotists—maybe even atheists.
Jesus’ story pulls us in, though we’ve heard it a thousand times. We have sympathy for the wastrel who came to his senses and went back home. But we’re “religious people” here, and chances are that we’re more like the Ideal Child than we are the Bad Boy.
What shall we do with this story? Jesus told it to show what God is like. And what picture does he paint? —the picture of a lavishly loving Father who takes the initiative in being reconciled with the most rebellious, errant “bad boys” in the family, and who yearns for his “ideal children” to be just as loving and merciful as he is.
Jesus leaves this perfect little drama tantalizingly without an ending. —What happens next? Will the bitter Ideal Child decide to go to the party, realizing that he has been just as self-centered as Little Brother ever was, just in a different way? Will the Bad Boy be transformed by his father’s mercy?
You get to write the next chapter.
A version of this sermon is found in: Bruce McNab, Let Your Light Shine (Xlibris, 2010), pp.125-129.
Please click here for a pdf version of this sermon.