The Parable of the Prodigal Son
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Several years ago, conductor Robert Shaw was interviewed on the anniversary of his 25th consecutive year to conduct the Bach B Minor Mass. In the course of the interview, he was asked the obvious question, “How can you conduct this work, year after year, without getting bored, without simply going through the motions, without losing your cutting edge?”
Shaw responded with a comment I’ll never forget. He said, “Every time I step up to the podium to conduct the B Minor Mass, I remind myself that there may be someone in the audience who will be hearing this great work for the very first time, and I want the performance to be the best it can be for that person.” He paused for a moment, then he said, “And I also remind myself that there may be someone in the audience that will be hearing this work for the very last time, and I want it to be the best it can be for them as well.”
I thought about that statement when I began preparing for yet another sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Most of you have heard this parable before. Some of you have heard it many, many times. And yet, there may be someone here today who will be hearing it for the very first time. I want it to be the very best it can be. And, though I certainly hope it’s not the last time you hear it, I hope that, whenever you hear this parable, you’ll hear it as a parable that speaks of God’s grace and forgiveness and unconditional love, both for sinners in need of repentance and for the righteous, who are steadfast and faithful in their devotion to God.
The parable begins, “A certain man had two sons.”
The younger son was wild and rebellious. He wasn’t content to plod along, day after day, doing his chores and helping run the family farm. He wanted to get away, see the sights, experience for himself all that the world had to offer. And so, one day he went up to his dad and said, “Father, give me my share of your property.” (12)
Now, there were three things wrong with this request. First, to ask for his inheritance before his father died was a slap in the face. It was as if he were saying, “I wish you were dead.”
Second, by asking for his inheritance now, he was separating himself from his brother. The farm would have to be divided, and, obviously, he intended to sell his part of the property. So much for the father’s dream that his two sons would keep the family farm intact and work the land together. And third, to ask for his inheritance at this point was to break the rules of social etiquette and subject the whole family, especially the father, to ridicule.
Be that as it may, the younger son asked his father for his share of the property, and it was such an unusual request, and so out of line, you would have thought that the father would have simply said no. Instead, the father did what the son asked; he divided his property between his two sons. According to Jewish law, the older son got two-thirds, the younger son got one-third.
Once the property was divided, the younger son sold his part of the property and took the money and left home. He was off to see the world.
Before we go on, let me just make a quick point: We all have this tendency to be our own worst enemies. As often as not, we suffer not from disasters or undue hardships, but by our own bad choices. My friend, Wes Seeliger used to put it this way: “The wrath of God is not that we get what we deserve, but that we get what we choose.”
The younger son was determined to exercise his freedom, and, as painful as it must have been for his father to go along, he refused to stand in his way. He gave him what he asked for.
So, the younger son took the money and ran. He indulged himself with wine, women and song, and, as long as he had money to burn, he had lots of friends, and I suppose he had a lot of fun. It was like a week of Spring Break all year long. But, wouldn’t you know it, the money soon ran out, and, when it did, the music stopped, and his friends were nowhere to be found. He was all alone and broke in a land distant and far away.
At first, he bummed around panhandling and picking up odd jobs, here and there. But then, there came a terrible drought. Times were hard enough for honest, hard-working folks, who had family and friends nearby. It was just about impossible for sojourners like the prodigal son. And so, in desperation, he took a job slopping hogs – something a good Jewish boy would never, ever consent to do. Pigs were a no-no. But, as I said, he was desperate. Even then, he was on the verge of starvation. He said to himself,
“How many hired servants of my father’s
have bread enough to spare,
and I’m dying with hunger!” (17)
At that point, he plopped down in the mud and began to cry. And, after he’d had a good cry, he made a decision. He said,
“I will get up and go to my father,
and will tell him, ‘Father,
I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight.
I am no more worthy to be called your son.
Make me as one of your hired servants.'” (18-19)
Now, some commentators think of this as an act of contrition, being sorry for what he’d done and promising not to do it again. And it may be. But I see it more as a matter of survival, making the best of a bad situation. The truth is, he was stuck and had nowhere to turn. If his father would take him back under any circumstances, it’d be better than what he had. So, he made up his little speech, gathered up his belongings, and set off on his long journey home.
At this point in the parable, the most remarkable thing happens The father sees his son coming up the lane, and he hikes up his robe and runs to greet him. That’s remarkable because, in that day and age, for a Jewish man to run was unheard of. To run would be interpreted as a loss of dignity, pride and self-respect. Yet, that’s what the father did. I doubt that he cared what other people thought.
He ran to greet his son, and when he reached him, he threw his arms around him and kissed him. He was overjoyed that his son had come home. I can only imagine his exuberance.
The son gave the little speech he’d been practicing all the way back: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But it fell on deaf ears. It was as if the father said, “Yes, yes, whatever.” Because, no sooner than the words were out of his mouth, the father called back to his servants and said,
“But the father said to his servants,
‘Bring out the best robe, and put it on him.
Put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.
Bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat, and celebrate;
for this, my son, was dead, and is alive again.
He was lost, and is found.’
They began to celebrate.” (22-24)
At this point, the spotlight shifts to the older brother, who – wouldn’t you know it – was out working in the field. By contrast to the prodigal son, the older brother was a paragon of virtue. By the time he was two, he’d potty trained himself and learned his ABCs. By three, he was tagging along with his father, trying to help with the chores, and by the time he turned five, he was carrying his own weight. At eight he could run a team of mules and plow an acre a day, and, by the time he turned twelve and celebrated his Bar-Mitzvah, he was, in effect, managing the whole farm.
He was an Eagle Scout, self-disciplined and respectful of his elders. Not once had heever talked back to his mother or father. He had a strong work ethic and could quote the Torah backward and forward. He was sober-minded and serious about every aspect of life. He played by the rules, and he expected others to do the same.
So, you can just imagine what went through his mind when he heard music and laughter coming from the courtyard in the middle of the day. He called to one of the servants and asked, “What’s going on?” And the servant said,
“Your brother has come,
and your father has killed the fattened calf,
because he has received him back safe and healthy.” (27)
Well, of course, none of this made sense to the older son. Not only had his younger brother made a stupid mistake, he’d disgraced the family’s name and jeopardized their future by selling off a third of the property. He’d forsaken his heritage, and, if it were true that he’d come to ruin, well, he only got what he deserved. So, the older brother stopped at the fence and stood there, looking with disdain at the party going on in the courtyard below.
His father looked up and saw the older brother standing in the distance, and so, he put down his food and drink and went out to meet him and try to coax him into joining the festivities.
But the older son was indignant and refused. He said,
“Behold, these many years I have served you,
and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours,
but you never gave me a goat,
that I might celebrate with my friends.
But when this, your son, came,
who has devoured your living with prostitutes,
you killed the fattened calf for him.” (29-30)
The father let him vent his anger, and then he said,
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad,
for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again.
He was lost, and is found.” (31-32)
And that’s where the parable ends, with the father and his older son standing by the fence together, the father’s invitation extended, “Come, join the party,” and the older son’s response, well, hanging in the balance.
Now, I’ve said all along that a parable is a simple story using concrete imagery to make a single point, in Jesus’ case, about the kingdom of God. So, what’s the point of the parable? The point is this: The kingdom of God is like a father who had two sons, one who was faithful and one who was not, and he loved them both with all of his heart and wanted nothing more than for them to love one another and be reconciled to each other.
In this sense, the parable should be called the Parable of the Loving Father, rather than the Parable of the Prodigal Son, because that’s really what it’s about – a father’s love for his children, with little regard for whether they deserve it or not.
When you think about it, it’s pretty obvious how this parable speaks to us today. For example, if you identify with the prodigal son, it says no matter what you’ve done, no matter how far you’ve strayed, no matter what poor choices you’ve made, God loves you and wants nothing more than for you to come home. There’s no need to be ashamed. All is forgiven.
God’s loving arms are wide open to you. On the other hand, if you identify with the older brother, it says that your good works have not gone unnoticed. God’s message to you is simply,
“Well done, good and faithful servant.
You have been faithful over a few things,
I will set you over many things.
Enter into the joy of your lord.” (Matthew 25:21)
The Good News is God loves both the righteous and the sinners and wants us – the righteous and the sinners – to love one another and be reconciled to each other. And this is the catch, because it’s a lot simpler for those who’ve screwed up to admit their mistakes, make amends and be forgiven. But for those who’ve played by the rules through the years, kept their noses clean and done nothing wrong, it’s more complex. How do you experience the joy of salvation when you’re already saved?
I’ve seen it over and over through the years – those stalwart members who are the pillars of the church become so entrenched in their faithful obedience that they become callous and immune to the celebration of God’s presence. Sunday after Sunday, they teach Sunday school and pass out the bulletins, take up the collection and sing the hymns, but they don’t feel anything.
They’re so reliable and responsible and faithful in fulfilling their obligations, and they’ve done it for so long, they go through the motions as if they’re on autopilot.
What’s worse, they become bitter and resentful of those who haven’t paid their dues: Why kill the fatted calf for them? Unintentionally, to be sure, they come to expect what can only be received as a free gift – the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness and unconditional love.
Well, I can’t say how any of this will speak to you today, except to say, if you’re a prodigal and you’ve strayed from the fold, come home. And if you’re one of the faithful who’s gotten embittered and angry at a God who’s soft on sinners, you come home, too. Because there’s a fatted calf on the grill, and God wants us to sit down together and feast on the riches of his grace and love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2004 Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.