[Texts: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; II Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32]
Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the Triune God in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A few years ago, my friend Dan– who is much wiser than me– preached on this puzzling Gospel story, this parable of the prodigal son. His sermon, entitled “Repenting of the Emptiness”, began with the premise that we English speakers are missing something when we read this story.
I would normally be one to argue that reading the Bible in English—or any language in which it was not originally written—always leaves us missing something. Something, some essence of meaning, is always lost in translation. And that tends to be true. The loss of meaning isn’t always as egregious as it is in case, though.
Dan explained it like this:
In English, our parable does not convey
the force of life and death
at work in the original Greek.
Our English keeps going on about property.
The Son says “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”
The Father divides his “property.”
The son squanders his “property”.
But in Greek, the son asks for the father’s “being.”
The father divides his “life” between his sons.
The younger son then squanders his “being.”
This isn’t about money or property.
The money is a symbol of life.
The son wants his life cut loose from his father’s life.
That seems like a pretty substantial difference, right?
So, I got out my giant, leather-bound Greek New Testament and double-checked it, just to be sure. And, sure enough, the Greek word that’s translated as “wealth” in chapter 12 is βίος (BEE-owess), the root of “biopsy” and “biography” and “biology”— βίος means life. Dan was absolutely correct. The word is, in fact, “life”.
So, it doesn’t actually say, “So he divided his wealth between them,” in Greek. It says, “So he divided his life between them”. (Luke 15:12b, my translation)
Now, granted, it’s likely that βίος is being used here as an idiom for the material things that this man owned—his livelihood—but, nevertheless, I think it’s significant that Jesus chose to use a word that actually means “life”, rather than opting for a more literal word for money or material things.
Jesus goes on to tell the story of these two boys, these two brothers. We don’t know what their relationship was like prior to the day the younger brother left home. Perhaps they were inseparable, partners in crime as it were. Perhaps the younger brother was always trying to tag along with his cool older brother, whose style he was always accused of cramping. Or perhaps, like my little sister and me, they were too far apart in age to really have much in common with each other.
All we know is that, one day, the younger son did choose to leave home, and he did it in a way that totally flies in the face of every cultural norm imaginable in his day.
Think about it: When does a person normally get their inheritance? When someone dies, right? So, when this boy is asking for his inheritance right now, he’s basically saying he wishes his dad were dead so he could have his money. Can you think of anything more disrespectful or insulting for a kid to say to their parents? I don’t think most of us would be alive right now if we’d ever talked to our mom or dad that way.
This father has every right to open up an enormous can of you-know-what on his little jerk of a son right now. But does he? No. He doesn’t even cuss him out. The text just says that he divided his life– his livelihood– between the two boys. (According to custom, that would have meant that 2/3 of his money went to the older son and 1/3 to the younger son.)
No knock-down-drag-out. No opening of a can. No argument. He just says, “no problem” and divvies it right up. Already, to any first-century Jewish listener, this story has gone way off the rails and is beginning to sound absurd.
A few days after this totally weird exchange, the younger son packs up everything and hits the road. He travels to a distant country and blows all his inheritance by living loosely– the Greek word can be translated as “recklessly” or even “riotously”.
He’s having a good old time, until his money runs out.
However, it’s not really important how he ran out of the life and livelihood that his father gave him– just that he did.
Dan made that point later in that same sermon we were looking at a moment ago.
It doesn’t matter whether he spent his life
carousing in a casino or climbing the corporate ladder.
What matters is that he has squandered his life,
his resources, his energy, and his time
on things that are not real and do not last.
Cut off by his own selfishness, he is now spiritually
and existentially dead.
When did he notice that his heart no longer beat?
When did he realize that he could no longer hear birds sing?
Not until the famine hit.
Not until the useless things he had spent his life on ran out.
This is no spiritual awakening
– only a drunk noticing that the bottle is empty.
We don’t know if this young man developed any sort of addiction while living on his own– perhaps alcohol or sex or gambling. If nothing else, it seems he at least suffered from compulsive spending. Perhaps he even ran afoul of the law at some point, or found himself in the company of criminals. Who knows?
All we know is that he cut himself off from his father’s life, then went out and squandered his own. There’s no life left in him. He’s so badly broken that he probably doesn’t hold out much hope of ever being healed.
So he starts to head toward home, desperate, without any other options. He goes armed with a plan: he’s going to try to convince his dad to hire him as a laborer. (The father must have owned a large farm or a vineyard– something that would have required a lot of hired hands to tend to.)
But before he can even begin reciting his contrived apology– in fact, before he even makes it to the front gate– his father sees him and runs to him. Literally runs, and throws his arms around him and kisses him.
To us, that might not look so weird; most of us have been to an airport or train station and seen the joy of families being reunited after a long time apart.
To a Jew in Jesus’s time, it’s not just weird, it’s mortifying.
No grown Jewish man in the first century ran anywhere, and he certainly did not run to another grown Jewish man and then proceed to publicly embrace or kiss him. (Remember, this is taking place outside the gate to their home; they’re in public.) It would be a tremendous understatement to call such behavior a embarrassment in the context of that culture. It’s even more of an embarrassment because, I guarantee you, everyone in town probably knows how much shame that boy brought upon his family with what he did. Seems like the kind of thing people would gossip about, right?
I’m sure Jesus’s listeners are absolutely horrified by the image. There’s a lot to be horrified by in this parable, granted, but the image of the father making a scene like that is one of the biggies.
The father’s reaction is made even more shocking by the fact that we know what the son did. We know what a totally disrespectful and hurtful thing he did by asking for his inheritance early. And then he went out and squandered it doing Lord-knows-what, Lord knows where, with Lord-knows-whom.
And, even knowing all of this, the father’s reaction isn’t what we would expect– to take him out back and stone the ungrateful little wretch, or at the very least, tell him he never wants to see him again. But, no. He runs to him, hugs him, and kisses him.
All of this brings to mind a scene in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I won’t say too much, because not everyone has had a chance to see it yet. But if you have seen it, you’ll know what I’m talking about. There’s a very dramatic and somewhat shocking interaction between Kylo Ren and Han Solo in which Kylo does something unspeakable. The scene ends not with Han cursing Kylo or being angry, but stroking his cheek. The father’s tender, unexpected response to his son in our parable today is every bit as shocking and poignant as Han Solo’s reaction to Kylo Ren’s betrayal.
The father brings the son– who, no doubt, looks a hot mess at this point– a fine robe to wear, and starts planning a big party in his honor. He overwhelms his errant son with grace and love. As the father put it, his younger son was dead, but now is alive. He was lost, but now he’s come home again.
Sounds like a happy ending, right?
Well, not quite yet.
The older brother– remember him?– is out in the fields, probably overseeing the hired hands, which is what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s living at home, taking care of his dad and helping manage his property, learning the tricks of the trade so he can one day be a good steward of what he’s going to inherit. He’s not the one who said, “Hey, Dad, why don’t you go ahead and die already so I can have your money?” He didn’t run off to some faraway hive of scum and villany and blow all his dad’s money. He stayed home, like a kid, and did what was expected of him. And that’s where we find him– where we’d expect to find him, doing what he’s supposed to be doing.
He hears what sounds like the beginning of a party, and asks someone what in the world is going on. He’s told, “Your brother’s back, and your father’s throwing him a party!”
It’s his duty, as the older son, to be the host of this party– he knows that. But he’s not really in a partying mood. He’s mad. Instead of coming and helping out with the party, he sits in the field and pouts.
His dad goes outside to beg him to come join the party. The older brother tells him, “You know what? While that good-for-nothing son of yours was off gallivanting around and wasting your money, I was here at home where I belong, being obedient to you. And he’s the one getting a party thrown in his honor? Where’s my fatted calf, Dad? Heck, I’d settle for a goat, but you’ve never even given me that. Where’s my party?”
Rather than become impatient with his angry son, the father responds, “You’ve been here with me all along, and everything I have is yours.”
And then it ends there. We don’t get to find out what happened. We don’t get to find out if the boys make up. How infuriating! I want to know– don’t you? The younger son has been redeemed– he’s been brought back into right relationship with his father and with the community. He once was dead, but now has new life because of his father’s grace and love.
But what about the older son?
Perhaps some of us see a bit of the younger son in ourselves. We’ve all made big mistakes. We’ve all been selfish. We’ve all been reckless and wasteful– we’ve all squandered our lives, our being, in some way. It’s easy to condemn the actions of the younger son. He left, he squandered, and he didn’t even come back for a noble reason– he was just broke and hungry because of his own poor choices. His course of action looks pretty unambiguously bad.
But then we see the older son’s behavior, and I think many of us have a tendency to stand up for him. “Well, he has a point,” we might think to ourselves. We may even find ourselves being indignant on his behalf– especially those of us who are the oldest child in our respective families. Perhaps the reason we have sympathy for him is because we don’t want to condemn in ourselves what we see in him.
But, look: at the end of the story, who is sitting at the table with the father? Not the “righteous” older son. It’s the younger son. It’s the screw-up!
And why is he there? Because he chose to be. He chose to accept the grace and love that his father had for him, and he took his place at the table to enjoy the party. Good food, good wine, good company, and a seat at the father’s banquet table– sounds a lot like Heaven to me.
And what the older brother is doing is his own choice too– he’s sitting in a field, away from the party, having a hissy fit because he’s offended by the grace that his father is showing to someone he doesn’t believe deserves that grace.
(By the way, self-imposed exile from God’s presence because you refuse to be in community with others sounds like…well… precisely the opposite of Heaven.)
He refuses to come to the table– even though he’s invited– because that person is going to be there.
You know who that person is in your life. The person you’d rather sit and sulk than share a table with. The person who doesn’t deserve the Father’s grace or forgiveness, and frankly, it kind of offends you that they somehow got it anyway. Maybe they wronged you in some unspeakable way, or hurt someone you love. Maybe they’re a famous person, or a religious leader, who did something horrifying.
Maybe they’re your own family.
Or perhaps it’s not an individual, but, rather, that group. Those people. Maybe they’re a different color from you, or love differently than you, or voted for someone you find despicable. Maybe it’s what they believe, or how they worship.
Whoever they are, you hope and pray that, when you get to the big banquet the Father is throwing, they won’t be there. Because if they’re there, you may even just sit the whole thing out. That might be better than having to acknowledge that God had the audacity to invite them.
Well, I hate to break this to you, but whoever they are, they’re invited too. They’re every bit as welcome at God’s table anyone else. They may be horrible screw-ups (in whatever way you define a horrible screw-up, which conveniently excludes yourself). They may make you uncomfortable. You may find them thirty-one different flavors of distasteful. They may be wildly different from you– as opposite from you as these two brothers are from each other– but I promise, they’re invited.
You’re invited, too, of course. But no one’s forcing you to go. You can choose to sit around and feel sorry for yourself instead. That’s entirely up to you.
We don’t know if the older boy followed the example of his little brother and accepted redemption. We don’t know whether he came in from the field and joined the party, or chose to exclude himself from his father’s table because of his hatred for another person. Jesus leaves it open-ended.
You do, however, get to decide what you’re going to choose to do every time the Father beckons you to come inside and dine with him and with the whole human family.
Yep. Even those people.