Hearing this parable can be like hearing from a longtime friend. Strong memories rush in, and we are eager to resume conversation with a familiar voice.
Those dynamics offer preachers opportunities and challenges. Chances are people already connect to this parable in meaningful ways. They have found their space within it and allowed it to speak to them already. This offers opportunities to build on that preexisting relationship and acknowledge its importance.
The challenge lies in crafting a sermon that lets people discover newness. If we think we already know what the parable is about, or think that it only means a couple of things, then we close ourselves off to its depth. How might we twist the kaleidoscope to allow people to see the parable's pieces arranged in different ways, so people might experience its power even more greatly?
Lost Things in Luke 15
Part of understanding parables involves noting where, when, and how Jesus tells them. This one comes in response to Pharisees and scribes who criticize Jesus' penchant for associating too intimately (and perhaps too raucously) with "sinners."
Actually, Jesus tells three parables. Each involves recovery or reclamation followed by celebration. The first two (15:4-10) declare that finding a lost thing legitimately results in rejoicing. They also equate finding and recovery with repentance, an idea that was central in last Sunday's Gospel reading.
By contrast, Jesus' third parable, in 15:11-32, does not include the word repentance or any of its cognates. It offers a different answer to the scribes and Pharisees, for the three parables do not simply repeat the same point. The three parables' characters evidence a variety, for the third moves away from society's more invisible members (shepherds and women) and takes us inside a privileged family. Furthermore, this is a much thicker parable, not merely due to its length, but because of its narrative complexity and ambiguities.
Jesus' parables typically include moments of odd behavior. These details seize attention through their strangeness and illustrate the alterity of the kingdom of God. That is, they depict God's ways as alien to our usual expectations and to conventional wisdom. Notice the odd aspects of the interactions between the father and his younger son:
*The son affronts his father. His request for his part of the inheritance is out of line, perhaps the equivalent of wishing his father were dead. The son could have expected a share of the family estate, a much smaller piece than that due to the elder son, but only upon his father's death. Nothing compels the father to grant the request.1
*The father appears recklessly indulgent. Because the son's request would bring such shame to the household, granting it makes the father appear foolhardy, not generous.
*The father appears recklessly credulous. Dignified men in Jesus' culture would not run like this man does. Clearly the father longs for the son's return, for he sees him "while he was still far off." But by welcoming him as he does, greeting him before hearing a word, the father appears ripe for exploitation. He does not wait for his son to express contrition (only a brief confession) before restoring him to full status in the household, symbolized by the robe, ring, and sandals.
Is this what grace looks like? Is God's grace a grace so eager to give and restore? Will not those who value responsibility and propriety consider it dangerously permissive?
That's a Surprise
We encounter at least two interpretive cruxes. That is, our decisions about what is happening in two places affect our perspectives on the parable as a whole.
First, does the younger son earnestly repent, or is he a manipulative scoundrel?
Some argue that the son's repentance is implied, even if it is not clearly named by the ambiguous expression he came to himself (verse 17). After all, he hits rock bottom, longing to eat what unclean animals eat, once he is done in by a trio of calamities: "dissolute living" that squanders his resources, a "severe famine," and a social neglect in which "no one gave him anything." As signs of contrition, he confesses sin and plans to ask his father to welcome him home as a slave instead of a son. As signs of sincerity, he rehearses his speech and begins to deliver it even after his father embraces and kisses him.
On the other hand, "he came to himself" can indicate that he came to his senses and got clarity on his situation (see Acts 12:11). The absence of repentance language is striking, particularly since the previous two parables condition readers to expect it. The son's rehearsed speech smacks of insincerity and a plan designed to tug at his gullible father's heartstrings. Perhaps Jesus' point is that even scoundrels are joyfully welcomed in God's household. Just pointing oneself toward home is what unleashes God's welcome. Any motive will do.
However we judge the younger son's motives, still the story retains a deeply scandalous flavor in the father's exuberant response to his returned son. The father welcomes home a loser, as a loser, and restores him to his standing as a son. Coming home at rock bottom was all he had to do.
Second, is the elder son correct?
The elder son makes the parable especially complex and interesting. He surprises us by breaking the pattern set by the two parables in 15:4-10. One sheep was lost while ninety-nine stayed together. A woman searched for a coin while holding onto nine. But both sons in this family are lost, including the one who never left home.
As soon as the elder appears in 15:25 we sense his alienation. No one bothered to call him in to join the party! Accordingly, he does not enter the house. He does not address his father as "Father" and speaks to him about "this son of yours" instead of "my brother." His refusal to celebrate stems from his deep resentment.
Why is he resentful? He is taken for granted. No extravagance celebrates his reliable service. He accuses his father of showing preferential treatment. He expresses this with the visceral intensity that such unfairness can generate within family systems. The elder son forces us both to digest just how scandalous are the father's actions and to ask what this son's reactions say to us.
This son cannot see the situation in any way but according to his own conventions of justice and through the torments of the lack of appreciation he suffers. The father's response to the younger son utterly confound the rules, doctrines, and convictions that confine the elder son.
Is the elder son correct? By his own reckoning, he surely is. And many of us need to be brought to the realization that, deep down, we tend to reckon things in similar ways, according to similar standards of fairness and belonging. How can we not?
Church folk fall into a trap when they write off the elder son as different, an outsider, or especially reprobate and self-righteous. He is the consummate religious insider, for he understands and articulates the scandal of God's grace better than any theologian.
The father does not cast the elder son away. The parable denies a zero-sum economics that would have one child accepted and another rejected. "There is no 'Jacob, I loved, but Esau, I hated' (Malachi 1:2-3) note here."2 For the father calls the elder son "son" and confirms his full place and favored standing within the family. All that remains to be seen is how this son will respond.
A Parable for Feasting
Wise preachers will avoid gorging congregations on this rich parable by realizing that they cannot serve up each and every thing it offers. I close, then, with a handful of recommendations around any one of which a preacher might construct a homiletical meal.
*Both sons, each in his own way, misunderstand the workings of grace. The younger seeks to bargain or manipulate, while the elder cannot let go of sacred canons and grudges. Yet both are welcomed home, regardless. They call us to reassess our own standards and the basis of our relationship to God.
*The elder son crystallizes questions about who has the rights to enjoy benefits as a member of God's family. Who rightly belongs to this family? Who gets to determine the benefits? Who in God's family remain objects of our disdain?
*The parable focuses on coming home as an occasion for celebration. This gives it an odd but powerful relationship to Lent, given that season's associations with temperance. Next week's Gospel text offers another story about surprising extravagance. Live it up!
*Sensitive preachers will be careful not to romanticize the notion of home. This parable only hints at how messy a place home always is, perhaps never quite what we want it to be. Our own ideas of home usually simultaneously attract and repulse us. Those who have read Marilynne Robinson's powerful novel Home (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008) might think of this parable with Jack and Glory Boughton in mind, two characters who want to find themselves at home but seem unable to recover from the wounds that home and family inflict. Where can people like this experience grace and inclusion?
*Likewise, people see themselves and their relatives in the passage. This begs us to consider how we relate to the parable's characters in light of our family systems and all their rifts and resentments. If we are going to persist in referring to congregations and the church with familial language (which is problematic in several ways), then we need to be honest and careful about what we promise and how people will hear such imagery.
*Preachers might devote three Sundays to this parable, using each to examine a different character in detail.
1To be fair, a handful of scholars insist that law or custom allowed the son's request.
2Mikeal C. Parsons, "The Prodigal's Elder Brother: The History and Ethics of Reading Luke 15:25-32," Perspectives in Religious Studies 23 (1996): 171.