Summary: When we hear this passage, we usually picture ourselves as the son who transgressed our loving Father through our sinful lives. Whatever our own particular sins may be, we relate to, we long for, we even expect, a loving God who’ll throw his arms out wide
Additional Text: 2 Corinthians 5:17-21
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen. (Psalm 19:14)
(The Slave – Captured)
A 16-year-old boy was captured by slave traders and brought to another country to work in the fields taking care of the livestock belonging to his new owners. He himself wasn’t considered much more than livestock, just a slave to be overworked and mistreated.
Even though his dad was a deacon and his grandfather had been a priest, the boy knew very little about his Christian faith. When he was about 21, he escaped by traveling about 200 miles to get on a ship that took him back to his home country, where his family welcomed him back.
The boy, now a young man, began to study more about his Christian faith and took holy orders as a priest, and later became a bishop. This amazing conversion experience was just the beginning. I’ll tell you the rest of the story at the end of my sermon.
Today’s Gospel passage is often called the story of “The Prodigal Son.” But the word “prodigal” just means “wastefully, or recklessly extravagant.” We don’t have to do all the things the younger son in this story did to be wasteful. But we often try anyway. The passage, however, is not about being wasteful; it’s about repentance and forgiveness, so I think we’d be better off thinking of the passage as the story of “The Forgiving Father.”
When we hear this passage, we usually picture ourselves as the son who transgressed our loving Father through our sinful lives. Whatever our own particular sins may be, we relate to, we long for, we even expect, a loving God who’ll throw his arms out wide and come running to greet us. Our awesome loving God would do no less, and Jesus confirms it for us in the parable.
But as Americans living more than 20 centuries after Luke wrote this Gospel, we overlook a few things that would have been readily apparent to the average listener in 1st-century Israel.
Life was different then, although much of that culture still remains in the Middle East today. The behavior that Jesus mentions would have been shocking — if not downright unbelievable — to his listeners. Not the son’s behavior so much — rude children have been the bane of every parent’s existence since time began. Rather, it’s the father’s behavior that would have shocked them right out of their sandals.
For a son to ask for his inheritance from his father who is still alive is the same as saying “You’re worthless to me as a father! If you were dead I’d at least get some money out of this relationship! Why don’t you just pretend you’re dead and give me my money now? That way I don’t have to pretend to mourn at your funeral.”
Not the kind of sentiment we’re likely to see on any Hallmark Father’s Day cards anytime soon.
Dishonoring the family is a serious thing. In many cultures — including the one Jesus was addressing — disrespect at that level was punishable by death at the hands of the father. Leviticus 20:9 states: “If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head.”
Some of you may have wished — even if just for a brief moment when your own children were teenagers — that a similar law was in effect here. Regardless of whether we agree with the Mosaic penalty or not, this was the law of the culture at the time Jesus told this parable.
By verse 15, Jesus’ Jewish listeners were no doubt ready for the story to end. In fact, there’s a 2nd-century Jewish story that ends similarly: the son gets what he deserves — he is reduced to the low, horrible level of feeding the most unclean animals in Jewish culture. At this point the son is cut off from the Jewish community and from any financial charity it would have otherwise offered him.
In that culture, fathers are revered and adult men of any social standing walk with regal stature – they don’t run. Children and servants may run, but not an adult male, and not a father who has children to run for him. Thus, a returning son would be brought to the father, not the other way around. And in no instance would a grown Middle Eastern man take off running with his arms out to greet someone — especially a son who had shamed him and his family as disgracefully and publicly as this one had.