Number Two Son asks Dad for a handout, skips town, squanders his inheritance, and decides to come home only when he runs out of options.
Number One Son never shirks his responsibilities and does everything his father asks of him, but he resents his father’s gifts being showered upon his younger brother.
Which son needs to repent? Both. Which one deserves to feast on the fatted calf? Neither. And yet, both are invited to join in the celebration.
In conjunction with the two parables that lead up to it, the parable of the Prodigal Son is not just a good story about family dynamics. It is an illustration of God’s love for those who have remained faithful and also for those who have not.
More than enough
The three parables in this week’s reading constitute Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and scribes, who were grumbling amongst themselves about Jesus eating (repeatedly) with those people, “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 15:1-2; see also Luke 5:29-30; 7:34).
Then and now, sharing a meal is a sign of inclusion and hospitality. It creates a bond among those who eat together. Some, however, prefer not to bond with those who are, in their view, less than desirable.
Like many who enjoy the benefits of privilege, the Pharisees and scribes very likely see themselves as the ninety-nine righteous persons in the parable of the Lost Sheep who do not need repentance. However, their complaint that cheats and rogues receive welcome at Jesus’ table sound very much like the complaints of the elder son about the extravagant celebration for the family scoundrel.
They (and the elder son) are caught up in zero-sum thinking; they fail to recognize that in God’s reign there is more than enough to go around.
It is worth noting the unexpected actions of the parable characters. A shepherd cares so much for one lost sheep that he leaves ninety-nine behind in the wilderness. A woman expends significant energy to find her lost coin, and then hosts a party that likely costs her more than the coin is worth. A father showers gifts upon his disrespectful, wasteful son, simply because the kid shows up. Such are the ways of God.
Also worth noting, perhaps, are how such twists in expectations echo OT stories about two sons; Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. Despite cultural regard for eldest sons, the younger (and often badly-behaved) sons emerge as favored ones.
By first-century standards, the prodigal son is way out of bounds. Not only does he ask for his share of the inheritance before his father is even dead (a highly presumptuous request that puts the whole family’s resources at risk), he runs off to a “distant country,” separating himself from the people of God. He gets a job feeding unclean animals. He squanders all his money. His life choices are not the sort that parents would make public by inviting the neighbors to a party.
Repentance: a change of mind
The Greek verb for repentance (metanoeo; cognate noun metanoia) means to change one’s mind. That is, it represents a new way of understanding, a change of view, a way of seeing things that is different from before. Parables about repentance are designed to evoke repentance; that is, they reveal a new way of understanding.
As for the younger son, does he repent? Or is he simply looking for a way out of a terrible situation?
On one hand, the father extends his gracious welcome before the son even has a chance to finish his confession speech (compare to Pharaoh’s words in Exodus 10:16). In addition, there is no explicit mention of repentance in this third parable, even though the word and its cognates appear in Luke-Acts more than in any other NT writing. The parable says simply that the younger son “came to himself.” We could say that he remembered who he was.
On the other hand, the parables of the lost sheep and coin both emphasize repentance as a cause for rejoicing. The very clear structural and thematic parallels between the Prodigal Son and these two parables suggest that repentance plays a role in all three stories. Preachers might consider, however, where the emphasis lies in the third parable. Is it not possible that the older son is the one most in need of a repentant change of perspective?
In the story-world of the parables, as in Jesus’ own ministry of table-fellowship, this kind of change does not happen as a result of punishment, shunning, or rejection. Instead, it results from the generous care of the shepherd for his lost sheep, of the woman for her lost coin, of the father for both of his sons, of God for each of God’s children.
Imagine the ending
From the eldest son’s perspective, such generosity is simply not fair. He is the good son. He shows up for work every day. He does his job, lives properly, follows the rules. When he discovers the feast and celebration being offered to the younger son, who most certainly does not deserve it, he launches into a bitter tirade.
For all his righteousness, he refuses to recognize his own privilege. The father reminds him: “Son [literally, “child,” a term of affection] — you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” In one sentence, the father affirms the closeness of their relationship and gently reminds his eldest son that he loses nothing by welcoming his own brother home and joining in the celebrations.
In the end, neither son deserves a party. The younger son breaks all the rules and violates his relationship with the father, while the older son lives in joyless resentment. Neither deserves a party, but both are welcomed. Will they celebrate together?
Preachers might consider reading all three parables through the lens of Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Rejoicing Father,You celebrate when one of your lost children is found because no one is worthless to you. We stand humbled and in awe that you would count us among your most prized possessions. Give us eyes to see the priceless value of every living soul, for the sake of the one who became human for the sake of our souls, Jesus Christ our seeker. Amen.
Oh, that the Lord would guide my ways ELW 772Amazing grace ELW 779, H82 671, UMH 378, NCH 547, 548Come, thou fount of every blessing ELW 807, H82 686, UMH 400, NCH 459
Lead me, guide me, Doris Akers