The reading from the Gospel this morning in the lectionary was the famous parable about the Prodigal Son from Luke.
Here are some points I made in my sermon about it.
Did you know that the word "Prodigal" does not mean "lost" at all? Most people think that it does, probably because they've heard, literally, numerous sermons and allusions over the years to the Prodigal Son. But the word does not mean Lost. The word is from a root where we also get the modern word "prodigious." Prodigal actually means excessively wasteful or extravagant.
In the context of what is going on here in the text, Jesus is getting into an argument with some Pharisees and scribes (the church going, religious folk of the day) about whom Jesus is fraternizing with. They don't much care for the idea that Jesus is hanging out with Tax Collectors and Sinners (the non-religious crowd you might say).
To answer this charge of not playing with the right crowd, Jesus tells three stories in succession. Each of the stories involve recovery or reclamation followed by celebration. The first two (15:4-10) are pretty direct allegories that declare that finding a lost thing legitimately results in rejoicing. They also equate finding and recovery with the good Lenten theme of repentance, an idea that was central in last Sunday's Gospel reading.
The story Jesus tells is about the shepherd that leaves the 99 sheep to go find the 1 that is lost. When the shepherd finds it, he puts it on his shoulder and rejoices. That story, the allegory is pretty clear that the shepherd is Jesus, and the lost sheep is a lost soul, as it were. The second story is a little less obvious, but still pretty easy to figure out. Jesus tells the story of the woman who loses 10 silver coins and tears up the house until she finds them, and then rejoices. You can interpret who the woman is in a few different ways. The woman is not necessarily God himself. It could be an allusion to the angels or the saints who rejoice over the return of a lost soul. But this is still a story that is a fairly direct allegory.
If you look closely at the text itself, you will notice a word that is notoriously absent. Jesus never uses the word repent, repentance, or any any word like that. The Younger Son when he's hit rock bottom is described as "coming to himself." That could mean he repented of his Prodigal ways, but it could also mean he went back to his original method of operation of being a manipulative younger son.
If you've every had to deal with a manipulative family member who is brilliant at pushing buttons, the son's speech to his father can almost sound like something rehearsed, something so over the top that it almost smacks of insincerity, almost like a teenager's cooked up scheme to tug at a gullible parent's heartstrings.
"I'm not worthy to be called your son!"
Notice the Prodigal son never actually says he's sorry or, more importantly, that he's going to change his ways and repent and try to be a better son and make it up to the family.
Now we come to the 2nd son, who for some reason always comes off like the bad guy in a lot of sermons. Preachers love to paint him as a direct allegory of self-righteous, religious folk who think they are somehow entitled to a bigger piece of God's pie because they go to church every Sunday and tithe money and follow all the Commandments and all that. And that is one piece of what Jesus is trying to get at in this parable. But the beauty of this story is that the Son does have a legitimate gripe. He's been slaving away all these years, and Dear Old Dad never threw him a party. If the Son had asked for his inheritance after the first son at the beginning, Dear Old Dad would have been out on the street begging.
And perhaps most insulting of all, no one even bothers to come and tell the Son that his long lost brother has showed up.
Dear Old Dad doesn't bother to come and break the news to him personally; the long lost brother certainly didn't come to running with a peace offering. The second son comes in from another thankless day of working for his father, and he has to hear the news from one of the slaves. I don't know about you, but I'd be mad too if my family treated me like that!
And unlike the first two parables Jesus tells prior to this about the shepherd leaving the 99 to find the lost 1, or the woman who loses the 10 pieces of silver, this parable does not necessary end with a happy ending. Most people assume that everybody in the story is reconciled in the end, and they all live happily ever after. But the parable does not say that.
The parable does not say that the two brothers are ever reconciled.
The parable does not say that the older brother and the father patch things up.
The parable does not ever say the 2nd son goes into the house after arguing with his father to enjoy the party.
The father and 2nd son have it out, and the Father says his piece, and the story very abruptly ends. We assume there's a happy ending, but unlike the first two parables that clearly end with rejoicing over the lost item that was found by everyone involved. This story does not say whether it ends with rejoicing by everybody. It could just as easily have ended with more alienation.
The story is open-ended if you look closely at it.
In fact, I would argue this is not a story solely about one lost, Prodigal Son, but is, as is too often the case in too many dysfunctional families, the story about 2 Lost Sons. All we ever hear about is the first son who has apparently always known how to make a splash, as it were, by manipulation.
But the 2nd Son is just as much in danger of being lost from his Father as the first because he is in danger of being permanently alienated because he thinks he is right. And as far as his behavior goes in terms of the Commandment to Honor your Father and Mother, he is right. He has been treated poorly.
One takes advantage of the Father's grace while the other takes it for granted and then wants more of it when he doesn't get his way.
Which Son are you? Does it really matter?
Luckily God's Grace is big enough for all kinds.