Summary: Rian Adams: Sermon on the parable of the lost son, Lent 4, Year C. The sermon looks at family dysfunction.

?The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family

The Rev. Rian Adams

The father in this parable makes me uncomfortable. Some of his ways even bother me. I’m also willing to guess that he might seem “off” to you as well.

There is one thing we can see; he wasn’t very good at raising sons. We know this story far too well to miss the family dysfunction that occurred on his watch.

Instead of raising two boys into respectful men, one was immature and irresponsible while the other was a workaholic loyalist whose jealousy colored his world in shades blacks and whites.

One professor of religion said, “This parable quickly becomes that of a dysfunctional family – it’s a story of a weak patriarch with an absentee wife and two rebellious sons, he seems unable to control. To top it off, he’s willing to sacrifice his honor to keep his dysfunctional family together.”

If Barbra Brown Taylor isn’t impressed with this guy, I’m wondering why so many of us are.


He almost seems irresponsible when he said, “Sure son, you want your inheritance, I’ll give it to you now.” In first century Palestine, a person didn't just stroll to the bank and make a withdrawal and put the money in trust.

Land was the currency of their day. This wealthy landowner would have been forced to sell a portion of his property. Fields, vineyards, or perhaps olive groves hundreds of years old… gone.

However, this is where the plot thickens even more. There was a provision in the Jewish culture that stated, “A dishonorable son should be paid the portion of his future inheritance, but then he is to be cut off from the family.” When this happened many families would make graves for their sons – they were, for all intents and purposes, dead.

Of course, we know the story, the young man went to the Las Vegas of his day, and gambled and partied his family’s wealth away. Easy come easy go.

Eventually, he found himself hungry and broke so he decided it was time to head home. I’m sure he rehearsed his speech as he journeyed the dusty road towards his father. He would shamelessly throw himself on what mercy his father had left. Yes, he would at least allow him to be a servant.

In the Jewish culture of the day, an undignified man of the peasant class would run but never a noble, wealthy patriarch. However, this father figure ran to meet his son. It was instant acceptance. No repercussions, no rebuke, and no recompense required. Welcome home.


No wonder the elder brother was quite taken aback by the party that resembled a wedding feast. “I thought he was dead, and now here he is having another party.

After all, the elder son was the child who did everything right. He never left. He never demanded his portion of his father's estate. He was loyal. He watched his father's heartaches after his younger brother’s departure.

He worked, as an honorable son in an honorable society would. He did not choose a lifestyle that squandered his father's land, land that was probably his grand father’s, even his great great great grandfather’s before him.

“And now here he is again, back to leech off my father, yet again.”

If we are honest, do we blame him for being upset? His kid brother chose death over his family name, now here he is, and it’s as if he never even left.

We thought our families were dysfunctional. We have here a tapestry of arrogance, naiveté, jealousy, lack of control, and the unwillingness to even talk about the issues.


In 1986 Henri Nouwen, a Dutch theologian, priest, and writer toured St. Petersburg, Russia, the former Leningrad. While there, he visited the famous Hermitage where he saw, among other things, Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son.

The painting was in a hallway and received the natural light of a nearby window. Nouwen stood for two hours, mesmerized by this remarkable painting. As he stood there, the sun changed, and at every change of the light's angle, he saw a different aspect of the painting revealed.

He later reflected on that moment and said: “There were as many paintings in the Prodigal Son as there were changes in the day.”

Let’s change the light: All my life I’ve heard this narrative called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Perhaps that is true, maybe that is the narrative we like to insert ourselves into hoping God will forgive us. That's the narrative certainly resonates. We are accustomed to the parable in that light.

It’s easy to see the human condition in the younger son. Most of us understand how humbling life can be. Sometimes the light shifts, and we can see ourselves in the elder son too… when our sense of justice overrides our compassion and forgiveness.

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