Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Rev Stacy Swain
Bad behavior. The passage bristles with it. The story Jesus tells today and that we know as the “Prodigal Son,” I think would more aptly be named “An Epidemic of Bad Behavior.” For it is not just the youngest son who behaves badly, everyone does.
It all starts when the youngest son asks his father to give him his inheritance while the father is still alive — flaunting social convention and insulting his father profoundly. And then this emboldened son leaves home for a foreign land and behaves so badly that he ends up starving and tending pigs.
Then, there is the father. This esteemed patriarch breaks with convention and does the unthinkable. When seeing his wayward son on the rise of that road, he hitches up his robe and runs to meet him, clearly a gross violation of social norms and a down-right embarrassment.
And finally there is the prickly eldest son, so is so full of self righteousness, that he’d rather stand on principle than cross the threshold and join in the party.
And if we were to widen the focus of the passage a bit we would see that the very reason Jesus tells this story is because a some Pharisees and Scribes are grumbling about Jesus’ bad behavior of consorting with tax collectors and sinners.
But as Jesus speaks this parable to those grumbling Pharisees and Scribes, I would not have been surprised to see a slightly bemused look creep onto his face for I bet Jesus seems to be saying “if there is bad behavior here, my friends, it is yours.”
But, before we parse how any of this has to do with us, let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.
The passage today comes when Jesus is already well into his ministry and has become something of a sensation. Great crowds are traveling with him wherever he goes and the air is abuzz with the amazing things he is doing and saying. Jesus is gaining fame and a following so much so that the religious establishment cannot ignore him any longer. They are trying to figure out what he is all about – is he one of them or is he a threat to who they are?
The problem, of course, is that he is also doing things that are not, in their minds at least, appropriate for a Man of God, for a Rabbi and respected teacher to be doing. For not only is he welcoming sinners which would have been bad enough, but he also sits down and eats with them. And we know that sitting down and sharing a meal together is akin to welcoming one into your own family, embracing one as kin. Here is this clearly gifted and quite remarkable Rabbi, debasing himself by intentionally embracing those that really ought to be kept at arm’s length.
This troubles them. They are grumbling. And hearing them grumble, Jesus tells them three parables.
In the first parable, Jesus asks the Pharisees and Scribes “which one of you having 100 sheep does not leave the 99 and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” In the second parable he asks them “what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”
Searching for that which is lost is reasonable and commonplace behavior? For that one sheep is of much value to the shepherd, as is that one coin to the woman. And having found the sheep and having found the coin, what do the shepherd and the woman do? Well rejoice, of course! Throw a party! Invite your friends — for what was lost has been found!
Now I can completely relate to this because last Wednesday after our council meeting, I went out to my car only to discover that somehow I had lost my key. So for the next half hour or so, I looked everywhere. I turned this church upside down. I looked and looked but could not find that key. And later, as I lay awake, I kept going over all I had done at church that night, retracing my every step in search of those lost keys. So, imagine my thrill when I came in the next day to find that key on my desk! Someone had found it in the parking lot. I was so thrilled I felt like throwing a party. That key was valuable and could have cost me $500 to replace.
Searching for what is lost and rejoicing when what was lost is found makes sense. Especially when what is lost, like a sheep, or a coin or a key, is of such value! And I imagine the Pharisees and Scribes hearing these first two parables would have, like me, nodded in agreement.
And then Jesus tells the parable read for us today — and in it he makes an unsettling leap. By telling this parable after the other two, Jesus sets up the parallel that the father’s joyful response to the returning son is just like that of the shepherd or the woman. Far from being inappropriate or even scandalous, the father behavior in rejoicing at the homecoming of his son is exactly what ought to be done. It makes perfect sense.
And so, (and here’s the unsettling leap), one ought to conclude that not only is Jesus not behaving badly in searching out, welcoming and eating with sinners; but doing so is what ought to be done; and if the Pharisee and Scribes like Jesus are doing the work that God asks of them; then they too, like the father ought to be hitching up their robes and running to receive, embrace, restore, celebrate anyone and everyone who come over that horizon line regardless of whether they have mud on their sandals and the stench of pigs on their skin.
Now, I bet that caught the Pharisees and Scribes up short. I bet they did not see that coming and I bet that was not what their grumblings would bring.
But that is the nature of grace. It surprises us. We just don’t see it coming. It certainly surprised the youngest son. He never expected that he would see his father running out to receive him, not after all he had done, all he had lost. The best he had hoped for was to be taken in as a hired hand and permitted to work until he could repay his father for all that he had squandered.
He must have been dumbfounded as first he is caught up in his father’s embrace, then given the signet ring and the father’s own cloak, clear signs of restoration to his place in the family as beloved son; and then welcomed into an extravagant party — A party to which the entire community was invited.
What I think Jesus is saying through this parable, and what must have been so theologically shocking to those Pharisees and Scribes, is that the sinning of the son does not diminish the father’s love for him — failures and folly do not diminish the value of a person in God’s eyes. Let me say that again, what Jesus seems to be saying is that sinning (getting lost, falling down, messing up, behaving badly) does not diminish the value of a person in God’s eyes. And what matters most to God is not the shame of our transgressions but joy of our restoration.
Simply said, God is dying to forgive us. Isn’t that the heart of it really?
If you look at this parable, the younger son’s bad behavior kind of just falls away all together when he is met by the extravagant love of the father, when met by grace. There is no more mention of transgression. There is only an invitation to come live anew, life out of love.
No more mention of transgression? Well that is not entirely correct. The father never mentions it but someone else sure does, right? There is one who is not going to let all that loose living go so easily.
It’s the eldest son. The father may be overcome with joy but the eldest is miffed. He is so miffed that he won’t even go into the house. When his father comes out to find him and plead with him to come into the party, the eldest basically tells him that what the father is doing is wrong. The eldest has been playing by the rules doing what is right while his brother has been breaking every rule and doing what is wrong. And now the younger son is to be celebrated while the elder son get’s nothing? Well that is just upside down and down-right wrong.
As irritating as the eldest son is, I cannot help but empathize with him. It is really hard to let go to the idea that we really ought to be rewarded for good behavior, that somehow love should be allocated by merit. To let go of that construction can be really unnerving leaving us feeling rather vulnerable. For if we have defined ourselves as good and expect others to do the same, it we set that down — then who are we? Can we let ourselves be loved period and then let that love shape how we live so that all we do is not for reward but out of joy. Can we let love not obligation be the starting place of all we do? How different would our lives look if we live out of love?
And so with the eldest, the parable comes full circle, back to the Pharisees and Scribes. For Jesus could have said that that son was the older one — described him that way. The younger son and the older son, that would have made sense right? But Jesus did not say that, he chose not older but elder to describe the first born. Why? Well it turns out that is the same word that was used to describe those who sat on the highest Council or court of the Jewish people, the Sanhedrian, those who sat in judgment of and presided over the Jewish people, those who will soon condemn Jesus and hand him over to Pilate. So is Jesus subtly indicting the Scribes and the Pharisees by tying them rhetorically to this eldest son? Is Jesus implying that they too may be missing out; missing the joyous celebration of their own home coming; missing out the love that is looking them right in the eye? I think so, yes.
But of course not just them, but all of us who are so set in our own understandings of what we must and must not do to earn God’s favor that we miss out on grace that may be right in front of us. We might miss out on what is truly our deep down desire, more than anything else. We may miss out on looking up and seeing our heavenly parent rushing out to meet us, catching us up in her embrace, wrapping us in love and taking us home again.
The parable ends with the father pleading to his elder son while the sound of celebration hangs in the air. We don’t know what comes next. Will the elder son follow his father into the party or will he turn away, alone?
If there is an epidemic of bad behavior in this parable, if there is something that is truly problematic, maybe it is the behavior not that of those who have sinned or those who eat with the sinners, maybe it is of those who refuse to come in and to take up their place at the table.
And that is food for thought for all of us. Amen.