The Gracious Father
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s hear our Gospel today from the Gospel according to St Luke the 15th chapter with explanations and it is the well known account of – well, that’s interesting – who is this parable really about?
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, sanctify us in the truth, your Word is truth.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus had gotten himself a bit of a reputation for associating with sinners. The Pharisees were shocked that Jesus didn’t first ask them to change their behaviours before he visited them and ate with them – had fellowship with them. Jesus broke the normal order of things by accepting obvious sinners on the same level as he accepted the respectable people who tried to do the right thing. Religious people can easily believe or genuinely slip into thinking that how God treats them depends on how they live their lives. The Pharisees were upset with Jesus because, as a teacher of God, he was seen to be muddying God’s name and cheapening God by his behaviour towards sinners.
So Jesus told them a story:
And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them.
Now this is a charming story. A father has two sons and the youngest one wants him dead. Rather than disciplining the son, beating him for this most severe insult, the father quietly divides the property between the two boys. Any father would be hurt deeply to be wished dead. The older brother receives his share of the inheritance ‘early’ – perhaps, he, too, didn’t care too much for the father either.
So what happens?
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.
The younger son continues on his unthinkable shocking journey. He actually sells his land. He wanted his land, his birthright, and he obviously can’t live now as a neighbour to his father and brother so he sells his most precious possession. Other Jews would have been very unlikely to have bought the land under such circumstances – so he’s probably sold it to a Gentile. He has created a huge scandal in the village and among any who hear of it – he wanted the land! – he sold the land! He is a disgrace and he won’t be accepted by the community for this sort of behaviour. But he isn’t a disgrace in his new land – for a while at least.
So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father.
The younger son wastes his money – we are not told how. But in a foreign country he has lost everything to Gentiles – and he is low. But his pride is still intact and he is scheming again while he works as a pig herder in a job that he was expected to refuse (why offer a once rich Jew such a job unless you really want to be rid of him?). He wanted to be free – from his father, his brother, his family, his community – and he has become a slave.
But he schemes. Go back to his father – he can’t be a son anymore – he knows he’s regarded as dead and that his brother controls what’s left even though his father still has ultimate control. But the main reason he doesn’t want to be a son anymore is because then he would have to live on the charity of his father and brother for the rest of his life. No, he can have his self respect – some of it anyway – and be a hired servant. This isn’t repentance – this is scheming to live on his terms in the face of harsh situation. And so he heads back steeling himself for the treatment he will get from the village – at worst they could stone him. His father could also do the same but he is hoping that an old man who broke tradition to give him money in the first place might also take him back as a hired servant.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion,
This is a strange father. He is waiting for the day his son to come home. He is watching, waiting. And when he sees him he doesn’t get out the old rifle or say out loud the biggest “I told you so” speech he has been rehearsing since the boy left. No, this father’s heart is filled with compassion.
and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
He ran to his son. Did you hear that? He didn’t wait for the son to come to him – begging, grovelling. No, the father ran to his boy. Hear this mystery – oriental fathers do not run – they never run – it is shameful, a disgrace, very humiliating if an older man runs – you never know what you’ll expose under your robe. And we can imagine the servants shocked, running after the old man – embarrassed for him and for themselves – maybe angry at the no hoper who returned. Hasn’t he done enough damage? Well at least the father will now punish him for such humiliation. And we can imagine how the son felt seeing the father running towards him – with servants in train – oh no, this was not a good idea – he is so angry, he’s coming to kill me himself.
But actions speak louder than words. This action speaks volumes of this father’s heart. The father – no questions asked, no stern lecture first, no waiting for even an apology – embraces and kisses his son. Grace and mercy and forgiveness are in this kiss and embrace; there is also protection because now no one will dare touch the son because the father is holding him.
And now the words come …
And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
No hired servant line this time from the son – its still the easier option. But the father’s actions have actually reached the son. My father loves me – he still does – he always has. And the father reinstates the son not for his sake but so that community will know that this boy is his son – the best robe (the father’s own), the ring (the father trusts him again), the shoes (he is not a servant), and the feast (the community is to recognise and accept the son again). Reconciliation is sweet feasting.
But this father had two sons …
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him,
The older son is furious when he finds out. He sets about publicly humiliating the father by staying away from the festivities. The older son is not close to his father (he never argued against getting his share of the inheritance) because the father might say that he has to support his brother.
So again this father does the unthinkable – he goes out to his son – in the middle of the festivities – publicly. Again a normal father would have gone out in such anger that the older son might have feared disinheritance. And they talk – one calm, one hot … but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
The older brother wants the younger brother gone – he doesn’t want to have to do anything with his property and so he tries to discredit the prodigal. He shows more interest in the property than anything else.
This father had two sons. The younger one goes away and is dead towards his father; the older one stays at home and is dead towards his father. However the father loves both his boys and demonstrates grace and mercy towards them. He isn’t angry at his humiliation – he will bear anything for his boys. The land is safe – if that is important – but what is more important is the older son’s heart – will he become a son again? And so the story ends with the father waiting.
And that’s how Jesus ended the story about not one son – or two sons – but about a father who loved his sons no matter what they did.
What about us? Do you see yourself as the younger son or the older son? It actually doesn’t matter as you look to the cross. Because there you find God coming to you, reaching out to you, declaring his grace and mercy to you first. God’s humiliation and death seem to be the only thing can break our scheming selfish hearts and give us the strength to live on charity. To live on God’s charity is the only way to live as a child of God.
Major reference: K E Bailey (1983) Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes
- Luke 15:1
- Luke 15:3
- Luke 15:11 - 32