Prodigal Father - thrive UMC Official Blog

Prodigal Father

    Usually when we talk about the parable we’re about to read again today, we call it ‘The Story of the Prodigal Son.’  And most of the time, when we tell this story, church people tend to focus on the choices the younger son makes, so we can go around telling everyone: ‘don’t be a wasteful, selfish sinner.’  And for most of my life I totally bought into that reading of the story too.  But when you stop and pay attention to the story itself, I don’t think we can get around the fact that this description is not only misleading, but it’s offensive.  This is not a story about a prodigal son.  This is a story of a Prodigal Father.  To see what I mean, when we read the story, keep your focus on the father and the kind of character he is this time around. 

            Our reading for today comes from Luke, chapter 15.  We’re reading a little further this week, but still not completing the story.   Please follow along with me.

          11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.

14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.


            Before we go any further: perhaps some of you out there are like me and have been talking about ‘The story of the Prodigal Son’ for decades without ever having any idea about what the word ‘prodigal’ means.  I’ll spare you the stuff I found about its Latin origins; but the crux of it is that ‘prodigal’ can mean either ‘wasteful’ or ‘lavish.’  It refers to extravagance –but there’s a tension built into the word that calls to question whether the extravagance is for good or for ill.  So, last week, when we saw how the younger son lost his portion of his father’s inheritance through extravagant, ‘wasteful’ living, we can say that there was a certain prodigal quality about him indeed.

            But as we keep reading, I don’t think we can avoid the discovery that the prodigal apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

            Last week we stopped reading after the younger, starving son comes to himself and decides he’d be better off going back home.  And as he travels that way, Jesus tells us that dear-old-dad sees his son, while he’s still a long way off. And when he sees him, the father is “moved with compassion” –his insides, his heart was literally churned up –and the father runs to his son.  Now, this is a really remarkable detail in this story, because if you were a man who was in charge of an established household and had hired servants and grown sons, you did not run.  Remember, back then, pretty much everyone wore a kind of robe that was open at the bottom.  And a dignified Jewish man would have worn a robe that went down to his ankles.  So if you’re going to run, you’ve only got two choices: you either gird your loins –which was a kind of elaborate process to tie your skirt around your, um, loins, or you just hike those skirts up and take off. Just try and picture that.  And by the way, they did not have boxers or tighty-whities like we do today, so if you’re hitching your robe up high enough to free your legs to really move, then you’re going to risk showing everyone the parts that made you a father in the first place –which was a big, big taboo in Jewish culture.  So, stately gentlemen absolutely did not run.  But if that’s not enough of an uncomfortable characterization of a dad, the next part is even more startling.  In our English translation, it says he hugs and kisses his son; but in the original Greek, it communicates that by saying the father ‘falls upon’ his son.  In other words, the father condescends himself  -he goes from an elevated position to a lower position- in order to embrace his son.

              Now that detail might not sound too significant at first: but think of the last time you got into an actual argument with someone, and it turned out that one person was clearly wrong. What does the other person practically always do?  What four, irresistible words make up the most vindicating declaration in the whole of English language? 

  1. Told. You. So.

But the father in this story doesn’t say ‘I told you so.’ He doesn’t stand in the portico of his house with arms folded and a look of disapproval in his eyes  for the whole time it takes for his son to come crawling back.  He doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to go on a long moral diatribe about hard work and making sacrifices for your family.  Instead –and this is the shock of the story- instead, he hitches up his robes takes off to meet him.  He cannot wait for the son to come to him, he runs to the son who squandered his gift, and he collapses into his arms.  He leaves all of his dignity behind just to be with him. 

But that’s not all: remember the son has come up with this story that’s supposed to convince his father to let him come back and live on the estate. And his story –his argument- is that he lost the right to be treated like a son; but now he’s returning as just a laborer looking for work. So he blurts out the first part: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But before he can get to the part about being a hired-hand, the father is already giving orders to the servants: ‘Quickly!  Bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it.  We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life!  He was lost and is found!”

Let me point out a quick but very important detail that often gets overlooked in this story: when the father tells the servants to get the best robe, a ring, and sandals, he is actively and fully restoring his son’s place in the household.  Calling for the best robe is a callback to the story in Genesis 37, where Israel –the Patriarch formerly known as Jacob-  gives an extravagant cloak to his youngest son Joseph as a sign of his favored status.  Then, on top of that, property-owning families usually had a family ring –which was kind of like the ancient equivalent of a family credit card: if you had the family ring, you could use it to seal contracts and receive loans on behalf of your household.  And finally, sandals were also a sign of status.  Servants generally did not wear sandals, because they were considered something of a luxury. 

So, when the father calls for the servants, he is effectively dismissing the story the son has told about himself.  He will not be a hired worker.  He is a son –with all of the rights and privileges that go with it.  And let’s not miss what looks like some wild irony here: we remember this story as being about a wasteful son who squandered his inheritance on wasteful living. He partied too much!  He spent to freely!  He had too much fun!  That was his problem, right? 

            But then what’s the almost-first thing the father does upon his return?  He throws a party!

            Parents out there, imagine this: you take money out of your pension to send your kid to college and end up investing $100 grand in their education.  They make it through two and a half years at U of I before the school kicks them out, and then they disappear. Their cell phone is cancelled –they drop off the map. The only thing you know about what had happened to them is that they had used the emergency credit card you gave them to rack up big bills at Hy-Vee spirits, and  that they had a campus-wide reputation for throwing the most epic parties.  Here’s my question for you parents: when they eventually come loping back to your door all shoeless and haggard, begging for an entry-level job at your company, is your first response to invest more of your hard-earned money to throw another party for them?

            This, I think, is why we don’t want to name the story after the father.  We want to keep the attention on the son, because we can understand the son.  We get his motives, and we have no problem going ahead and moralizing his experience. But the father?  The father in this story –let’s admit it: he doesn’t make any sense to us!  If this father were a friend of ours, we’d probably want to pull him aside and say: ‘hey Joe, let’s face the hard facts buddy: your free-range approach to parenting with that boy was a disaster all along! Maybe it’s time you gave that kid of yours a lesson in hard love. Stop letting him run all over you, otherwise he’s going to ruin you!’  And then we’d want to shake him by the collar.  This father, when it comes to this youngest son of his, does not appear to present any of the virtues we like to see in a good parent, does he? He does not appear wise.  He does not appear prudent.  And he does not appear strong. 

            First he gives in to his son and ends up funding his safari into debauchery, and now he’s going to just welcome him back and throw another party for him?

You weak and foolish old man!  That son is going to be the end of you!

            What you need to do is teach him a lesson!  Show him who’s boss!  At the very least, put him straight to work so he cans start to earn back some small piece of what he’s cost you! 

            What are you thinking? What kind of dad are you?

             This is the question at the heart of the parable.  And it’s a question we would happily avoid, or easily dismiss if it weren’t for the fact that it’s Jesus telling it.  Because there’s no way around the truth that we would not do what this father does, if we were in his place.  Because our hearts are not in the same place as this father’s heart.  And neither are our minds.

            And that’s precisely the point.  That’s the whole reason Jesus is telling this story in the first place: it is about a father who is so extravagant, and lavish that he offends our sensibilities.  He is a Prodigal Father. We’ll talk more about that next week when we get to the part where the whole parable completely turns on us.

            But for now, I don’t want you to miss the strange and unsettling justification the prodigal father gives for his seemingly absurd behavior toward his younger son.  He says to his servants “We must celebrate with feasting because “ –now listen to this: because “this son of mine was dead and has come back to life!  He was lost and is found!”

            This pitch of this parable somehow changes when we read it after Easter, doesn’t it?

            When we go back and look again at this story after Jesus has died and risen, we can suddenly catch a glimpse that his younger son in the story has also somehow been a participant in the Easter miracle.  He, like Jesus, is a son who died and returned.  And that’s the reason the father gives to celebrate: they must feast because an Easter miracle has happened with this son. And that’s what you do when an Easter miracle occurs: you celebrate with feasting!

            This is our invitation for this week: let us look for the Easter miracle in this story, so that we might also start to discover them in our own lives. Where and how did the boy’s death happen?  In what way did he come back to life?   Within the parable, the father was the only one to recognize a dying and rising in the return of his son, so we pray that our eyes might become like those of that father. May we too become living witnesses to the miracle of resurrection.  So that we might discover opportunities to feast and celebrate that we’ve long overlooked.