In this spell-binding tale, a rich man’s son who has everything asks for his share of his father’s estate. He wants to see the world, find himself, live his own life. With tears in his eyes, his father watches him leave. Then it’s bright lights, fast company, loose money, easy companions – until the money runs out. The scene shifts. The fast living is over. He fights a rich man’s pigs for scraps of food. When he realizes what he has done to himself, he goes home. He is overcome with repentance and regret. But never was there such a glad homecoming as the prodigal spies his father running down the path. What a story, and how skillfully it can be used if the preacher suspects there are some in the congregation who are like the younger son.
Maybe tonight, particularly if it is the last night of the revival, and if we’ll sing just one more chorus of “Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, O sinner, come home.” maybe one prodigal in the congregation will indeed repent and oh, sinner, come home.
The only thing wrong with that summary of the story we call the prodigal son, is that it is wrong.
Centuries ago when the Bible was first printed, new to printers, some unknown printer thought he would put titles over the stories. He called this section the prodigal son, and his error lives on. If the story stops with the going home part, the point of the story will be missed.
Jesus told the story at a dinner party. He knew they were saying that this man welcomes sinners and eats with them. The Pharisees and scribes might have thought more of Jesus if he’d kept better company. But he welcomed sinners. He even sat down with them to eat. Luke, the writer of the Gospel, saw here a marvelous opportunity to answer the question “Does God love sinners?” The Pharisees and scribes wanted God to love only those whom they believed deserved his love, who were obedient, who stayed home, looked after their aging parents, tended the family farm.
So Jesus told them three parables. The first is about a shepherd who left 99 to find one sheep. A picture in a Sunday school room in the church where I grew up showed a shepherd reaching down a thorny, tangled hillside, rescuing one little lost sheep. The story is about the shepherd.
The second story is about a woman who lost a coin and made a light to sweep the floor until she found it. The story is about the woman. The shepherd and the woman rejoiced over what had been found. Jesus is answering the question, “Does God love sinners?” His third story is about a man who had two sons. “There was a man…”He did not say, “There was a younger son…” because all three stories are about the God whose acts are recorded in scripture. These stories show the willingness of the Father to take care of his children. Sometimes God lights a lamp and sweeps the room until she finds the coin.
She looks under every chair and table, sweeping the floor inch by inch. The story is about God. Or God goes out and searches for the lost sheep, facing dangers, finally giving his life for the sheep. The story is about God. Sometimes God simply waits. The father keeps a candle in the window. The story is about God. Blessed are those who know they are lost; they have a home to come back to.
Jesus was answering the question, “Is the heart of God big? Big enough to search like a shepherd for one sheep that was lost? “Mercy wide enough to rejoice over finding a lost coin? Does God love a sinner who strayed?” The resounding answer shatters all our misconceptions about God with an everlasting yes. The heart, and the love, and the home of God are all big enough to welcome sinners. For behind all these stories, there is the father of love, who deals with his children in all kinds of ways, but always with a heart of love.
The man who had two sons was anxious, worrying, waiting for the one son to return home, and then working with the other son who apparently never understood what it means to be at home with God. The stories in the bible tell us how God the father deals with all his children.
Sometimes God may do exactly what the father did with the younger son who grew restless and self-centered. We are living in the age of tremendous assertion by each individual of his or her own will.
Most of the discipline that has restrained evil and wickedness has broken down, and many are totally wrapped up with things earthly and of the moment with no interest in God or eternity.
The young man who couldn’t accept his father’s life-style became just one more hungry mouth, nameless, without position or stature. No one cared that he was a rich man’s son. Then he remembered his father, wanted to go home, glad to become a servant in that house. The truth of the matter is that he remembered he had an identity only with his father and in his father’s house.
When he recognized himself as lost, he was willing to go home. Did he hope to see his father running down the path? The parable is about the father who waits, and looks, and loves, and never gives up. The father keeps on saying, “Maybe today, and if not today, then tomorrow. He will return.” If we think this story is about only the prodigal, then the part about the elder son makes no sense. The father treats the elder son differently, but with the same heart of love. All that the father owned has always been within reach of this elder son. He could have had the kitchen and the wine cellar and the swimming pool and the country home for his friends.
He could have had the forests and the fields for a hunt, and a robe and any fattened calf he wanted. But he was selfish and stingy. He didn’t believe the love of his father. Like the younger son, his interest was so much on his own self-preservation that he missed the father’s generosity. He never understood being his father’s son. He was jealous instead of rejoicing. He might have worked the suppertime conversation around so he could mention his younger brother’s faults.
“He really was worthless, you know,” he would say to his father. He’s gone, but I’m concerned for your estate and your wealth and your domain, and I’ll take care of everything for you. But he was selfish and proud. He was alienated from the spirit of his father, even though he was under the same roof. When he heard the commotion of his brother’s return, he was angry because his father was treating his brother as his equal. Imagine! Being angry with the Father, that is, God, because He loves someone He created! What does that say to us about those who spend their nights in camps and alleyways, and their days on the street?
So there the father stands with tears of joy still on his cheek for the son who has returned, now beset with the reproach of the son who thought his brother should have been punished. The story about the father who deals with different sons is Jesus’ answer to the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes that he welcomes sinners and eats with them. Is the story finished, with the return of the prodigal? No, the brother objects to the party. The situation shows the Father’s love.
And there in the fields, the conversation ends with the father assuring his elder son of just how much he has loved him, and how everything there has been his. The father is waiting, caring, loving. We know his name. He is the father of Jesus Christ our brother.
We need not identify ourselves as the prodigal or the elder because we vacillate between being one or the other, and even both at the same time. We need to see the Father’s love. It goes on and on and on and we are all his children.
Blessed are those who know they are children of God. The father waits, and looks, and runs down the path to meet us, or searches for us when we are sullen and selfish and unbelieving that he would welcome sinners.
The table of the Lord is ready for a feast. We are all invited because God welcomes sinners and wonder of wonders, we are there.