A few years ago, I preached a sermon on this text, and after the service a couple told me they didn’t enjoy the message. When I asked why, they replied, “The story is just not fair.”
That little incident reminds me once again how peculiar Jesus’ teachings must have been perceived at times. Some of these stories are so familiar to us that we lose the sense of newness and oddness it elicits.
A well-known preacher, at a workshop I was attending, once told how he prepared his sermons. He said, “When I am studying a text, I always look for what is odd and weird. When I see it, I figure it is something people need to hear.” The story in today’s text has an element of that in it.
What is the peculiar part of the story of the prodigal son? I don’t feel that the sons’ behaviors are so unusual, for children all through the generations have been rebellious and thus have gotten themselves into trouble as they get out on their own. Humanity has disappointed and demeaned its fathers all through the generations just as both these sons did in this story.
The surprising part of this story is the father’s behavior. Any middle-eastern father would have punished his son severely and disowned him for asking for his share of the inheritance. The request was in effect saying, “I want your money, but I don’t want you. I wish you were dead.” But instead of disinheriting his son, this father sells part of his property (which provides his family their living) and then gives the proceeds to the son. This could well have put his own income at risk as well as his standing in the commu-nity. This boy’s request is terrible, and yet this father gives him what he asks and lets him go.
And then, the story suggests that the father missed his son dearly. Picture the father, looking out over the horizon every day, searching for a sign that his son is returning home. Then one day the father sees a familiar figure out in the distance. And as it gets closer to the village, he sees that it is indeed his son! So, with tears in his eyes, the father runs to his son and embraces him.
It must have been quite a sight to see the middle-eastern patriarch of a family run. He would have had to lift his robe and expose his legs, perhaps even his under garments. However, the father did not care.
Then the son, in an effort to make things right, tries to use his practiced speech. “I’ll work as one of your hired hands. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father cuts him off and says, “No question about it Ð you are my son.” And he had his slaves get the best robe of the house Ð the father’s robe Ð to put on the son. They put shoes on his feet, and give him the signet ring, a sign of the father’s power and authority. They then kill the fatted calf to celebrate the son’s return. It is unexpected behavior for a father in this situation.
The older son also acts badly toward his father. He insults and humiliates his father in front of the village by refusing to go to the celebration. So the father does the unthinkable by getting up from his position of honor at the party to plead with his son to join them. But the son spouts off at him,”Look, at you! All these years I have slaved for you. I’ve always done what you asked me to do. Never once have you given even a goat for me and my friends. And yet this reprobate son of yours, who goes off and blows everything, comes back and you kill the fatted calf for him.”
The father had every right to disown him right there. Instead he continues to plead. “Son,” he says. “Everything I have is yours. You’ve always been with me. But this brother of yours has come home. Once he was dead, and now he’s alive. We had to celebrate.”
Two lost sons in this story Ð the son who went away and the son who stayed home and slaved for his father, waiting for the day when he would receive all that was his. Who is the prodigal in this story?
The word prodigal means reckless, lavish, extravagant. The real prodigal is the father, for he was lavish and extravagant with his forgiveness toward his sons.
When Jesus told this story, his listeners must have scratched their heads thinking that no father acts like that. But this story is a picture of God our Heavenly Father. He shocks our sensibilities and our common sense as humans. His wisdom and his ways are far above ours. Our sinfulness is finite; his grace is infinite. Although both boys are wrong in this story, they both are also loved.
See the Heavenly Father’s love in this story as he pleads with you to come home. Whether you ran away and were given up on, or you stayed at home and need to swallow your pride Ð no matter what you have done with your life, he wants you to come home. Come to your senses. The Father wants you with him in joy.
This invitation to come home is not meant to trivialize our sinfulness, for coming home isn’t cheap. A huge cost was paid for that possibility. The cost was, God gave his one and only begotten Son to die upon the cross as a payment for our sinfulness so that we might have a restored relationship by trusting in that Son, Jesus Christ. A great sacrifice was made to get you back home again.
Two lost sons, one prodigal father, one message Ð come home. Come home, lost sons and daughters, for the Father loves you.