Jesus tells one story. That story takes many forms, as parables and sayings, but there’s really only one story. All you need is one good story when it’s the most important story in human history. What we read today is the best version of Jesus’ story. I like the version, where instead of a father and two sons; it was a man going to Jericho, robbed by thieves. Later on, a Samaritan and two priests came to him on that road. Jesus asked the crowd, “Who was the prodigal neighbor?” Let me put it another way, “Who is the good Samaritan?” They are the same question. Yes, they are both excellent stories, but this one is the best. The Parable of the Prodigal Son, Brother, Father, and community is Jesus’ masterpiece.
You may have noticed I called this story the parable of the “prodigal son, brother, father, and community.” Isn’t it just the prodigal son? No, it is not. There is the first place we get it, the story, and Jesus, the storyteller wrong. This story is solely not about one young man who wasted his money, time and life on booze and women. The parable of the prodigal son is about Richard. This story is about each one of us. If you learn nothing else this morning know this: we are all prodigals. No one is innocent, no one did everything right, and no one is holier than thou. We are all prodigal sons and daughters, especially those of us who believe ourselves anything but prodigal.
We were taught to believe the term prodigal applied to one person in the parable: the easy living son who left home. It’s not true. If we jump from our high horses and read the text without the baggage, we were taught to carry you’ll see it clearly. The ill-mannered other son is as prodigal as his brother and the no questions asked father is incredibly lavish with his love. Who’s that gracious with love and forgiveness? What’s going on?
The parable of the prodigal son doesn’t make sense to anyone who doesn’t get Jesus’ story. Even to those of us who do, it still seems like “Junior” got off light, considering the severity of his actions. Why does the parable of the prodigal son rub people (even good, God-fearing Christians) the wrong way? I mean it’s difficult to find people cheering for the little brother and not rooting for the hardworking brother. I actually find Christians arguing against Grace. Again, why do this?
First, it’s counterintuitive. The ideas in the parable work run contrary to our fundamental notions of fair play and justice. For instance, if you were presented these facts outside the Bible or religious text, what would you say? Hell no! You’d be all over booze breath pig boy in a heartbeat. He’d have to work his broke but back to the farm. That’s the American way. It’s how we think. Once it’s coming from the New Testament, things change, don’t they?
Secondly, the parable seems to reward the wrong person for doing the wrong things. The person who did the responsible actions received the status quo. People get ahead of at work or in life. We’re unable to see the blessings around us. Working hard is only keeping our heads above water. People who cheat never get caught and ultimately get ahead. You want God to be more like God in the Old Testament: punish the evildoers. It doesn’t happen. We live in the real world.
Exactly! The third idea is this: the parable doesn’t feel like the real world. No one would ever do something so outlandish. Imagine the discord in a family or community at rewarding an individual for wasting everything.
Fourth, there seems to be no upside or reward. There are zero benefits from welcoming the younger son back. Even the proposed beneficiary learns the wrong lesson. What’s that? Gaming the system is OK. No one wants to encourage their children, either grown or adult, to cheat at life.
Those are four basic ideas that give non-Christians and a few Christians trouble accepting the underlying premise of Jesus’ masterpiece.
But I haven’t said it yet. What is it? What is the underlying premise of this parable, the one we all know, and the others scattered throughout the gospels? Every story Jesus tells is about one idea: you should love your neighbor as you love yourself. Each parable, in one form or another, is a retelling of what we call the “Greatest Commandment’. The story of the prodigal son is no exception. Love and grace do not come with caveats and exceptions. That’s the message: Junior doesn’t believe, Older Brother needs to get over himself and see the bigger picture, and Dad is trying to show God’s love. Everyone is everyone else’s neighbor. That’s how the kingdom of God works, one family at a time. You want a grand cosmic end of time battles, it’s not here. You want dysfunctional families like those on our own island, searching for grace and love, look no further than Luke 15. This is where the rubber meets the road.
Loving our neighbors is the idea Jesus keeps pushing us towards. Anytime we meet Jesus, we are hearing these words, in one form or another. Jesus keeps sharing and insisting upon neighbors loving neighbors and grace being given to booze breath pig boys like the one in the story until it got him killed. They killed him for being what we are not. The cross is the ultimate exposition of everything we wouldn’t do (hear a whole sermon, welcome back our family members from hell and gone, go to a celebration party, and embrace the counterintuitive at the heart of the kingdom of God) but Jesus did.
As I mentioned a moment ago, when these words come from the Bible, it changes how we respond to the counterintuitive nature of what Jesus asks. We hear these ideas coming from anywhere else; we feel angry, defensive, and self-righteous. When we realize Jesus is the one who does what the father did, forgives without question each and every day, do we start to understand how wrong we’ve been for judging the younger son or seeing the other son’s point of view?
The irony is, if you asked most people, and didn’t tell them where the story came from, “What’s the Christian thing to do in the story?” They’d probably tell you it’s to cut the kid off and send him to rehab. They’d also tell you the son that stayed at home was a model, church-going citizen. What would Jesus say to that answer? Have you listened to nothing I’ve said? That’s the least Christian response. It’s a way of responding and living which ignores the reality of the cross and the importance of the resurrection.
What most people think of as “THE” Christian way to respond to the parable of the prodigals is the inverse of Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God isn’t every person for themselves. It is to love your neighbor as you love yourself in every context and situation. That is how Jesus lived.
When it comes to Good Friday, we’re all waiting by the same cross. Maybe we’ve crossed our Christian wires. There is still time. Between now and Easter, let’s start pulling them apart.
Somewhere in Centerfield,
Richard Lowell Bryant