Monday, September 16, 2013


          In the Gospel today we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Of the four Gospel writers, Luke is the only one that tells us this parable.  Why is that?  Why didn’t Mathew, Mark and John bother to tell us this story?  Did they not know it?  It is a pretty good story that you think would have made the rounds.
          Maybe the other Gospel writers left it out on purpose.  Maybe they didn’t like this parable.  That’s possible, because I don’t much like it either.  Because even though we call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I don’t think this story is really about him.   And the older son, while important to the story, is also not the real focus.  It is the father who is, I believe, the center of the story.  And it is a depiction of God that is highly unusual and rather unsettling.
          How are we to understand the story?  Remember the context.  In Jesus’ day society was very patriarchal.  One’s social, economic and even religious standing depended on your relation to the head of the household.  Respect for the father of the family was very great.  So it would have been shocking for the audience of Jesus to hear that the younger son should brazenly demand his share of the estate.  First of all he had no share coming to him.  Inheritance at that time followed the law of primogeniture, meaning that the eldest son got everything, and daughters and younger sons got zip.  This was kind of harsh, but it prevented small plots of land being divided into useless, tiny parcels.  So the younger son had no claim whatsoever.  And secondly, the younger son was effectively saying he wished his Father was dead, since that is when the inheritance would come into effect. 
          The only thing more shocking than the younger son’s atrocious behavior is the Father’s.  Instead of smacking the kid up the side of the head as he so richly deserved, the Father indulgently and foolishly gives the younger son half of his estate.  What?  Are you kidding?  That is totally irresponsible!      This is not a parable about good parenting.
          The younger son, egotistical twit that he is, is soon parted from his money and finds himself in dire straits.  Driven by hunger, if not by remorse, the younger son returns home in the hopes of finding a meal. 
          Meanwhile, the doting Father is yearning for the younger son, scanning the horizon for his hoped for return.  While the younger son is still a long way off his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.  He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”   In that culture, where the appearance of dignity counted for a great deal, to see the old man running down the road would be most exceptional.   That sort of thing was just not done.  It would have been undignified in the extreme.   
          Not letting the prodigal son finish his apology, the Father commands his servants to get a ring for his finger, sandals for his feet, a robe for him to wear, and to kill the fatted calf for a home-coming feast. 
          That is the last we see of the younger son.  Has he really matured, or just been driven by hunger?  Probably the latter.  In any case the Father is a hopelessly irresponsible parent.   As one commentator writes, “Indeed, we might well wonder if the reason the son is impossible is that the father is so inept.” 
          Now the story shifts to the older brother.  He was supposed to inherit everything, but now half of the estate has been squandered away by his wastrel brother.  He got jipped!  In his anger he refuses to go into the feast.  Ever indulgent, the Father comes out to plead with him.  The older son states his case, that he has been dutiful and diligent but has not been rewarded, while this younger son blows off half the estate in parties and loose living and then he is given a hero’s welcome on his return.  It is unjust, unfair, and wrong to say the least.
          The Father never answers the just claims of the elder son.  Rather he states a deeper need, a deeper reason than strict justice.   He said to him, 'My son, you are here with me always;  everything I have is yours.   But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'"
          The Father operates by a different logic than what is fair, what is just.  And the Father is, of course, a stand in for God.  This is not a parable about repentance, but rather a parable about the incomprehensibility of love and the mystery of God.  God’s love just doesn’t make sense.  It is not fair. 
          God just doesn’t see as we see.  God doesn’t think like we think.  God loves.  That is what God does. 
          God loves in crazy, prodigal, even unfair and irresponsible ways.  But God loves.  That is what God does.  It is unnerving and upsetting and even unjust.  But God loves.  That is what God does. 
He makes his rain come down on the bad and the good, shines his sun on the good and the bad.  That is the God Jesus knows, and that is the God Jesus teaches us about:  a crazy Father who loves first, foremost and always, even in the face of the claims of justice. 
          He loves.  That is what God does.  And we are to be like Him. 
          The younger son doesn’t deserve anything.  But God loves him.  The older son is uptight and focused on his rights, on what is due to him.  God loves him. 
          God loves.  God loves.  God loves.  That is what God does. 
Are they open to receiving God’s love? 

Are we?  

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