Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Jesus tells a graphic, gripping tale of a father and two sons. Each defies our expectations. It is more stark considering the Middle Eastern cultural context.[i]
The younger son says: “Father, give me my inheritance,” and the father gives him property. Asking for an inheritance is saying: I wish you were dead. It’s total rejection points out scholar Kenneth Bailey. A father would deny such a request and likely expel one for being so offensive. Instead, he lets the son break his heart, his family, and reputation by giving him the property.[ii]
Just a few days later, the son packs up to leave. Bailey notes property usually takes months to sell. To do it so quickly and walk off with cash is significant. The son humiliated his father by asking for the inheritance. The neighboring community quickly does the transaction to kick him out; they expel him.[iii]
The son slowly squanders all his wealth in a distant country, and he eventually runs out. So broke, this Jewish boy ends up feeding pigs and finds himself starving. There at the bottom, he wakes up a little by hunger: “My father’s hired hands have plenty to eat.” He forms a plan to save himself.[iv]“I’ll return and say I’m not worthy to be your son. Treat me as a hired hand.”
The son returns. While still far off, the father saw him approaching. The father had kept hoping, was waiting and looking. What would happen when the son came close, when people saw him, the one who rejected his father, whom they kicked out? The father runs to his son, humiliating himself—for men did not run. Bailey says the father ran in order to save his son from the neighbors who with good reason might gather as mob to taunt or abuse him.[v]
The father hugs and kisses his son and has him given the best robe and ring and sandals. The father doesn’t speak to his son, yet his actions are louder than words.[vi]The message is clear: Son, though you totally rejected me, I fully accept you. Clothing him with honor sends a clear message to the community: you all accept him too.[vii]Kill the fatted calf, the father says. This is not the choice meat for a family dinner, for a calf would feed 200 people. This is a celebration for everyone in which the father restores his son to the entire community.[viii]
The older son hears his brother has returned, gets angry and refuses to enter the party. Bailey says older sons are co-hosts with their fathers. On hearing of the party, he should not only rush to be there but stand the door on behalf of his father, directly giving honor to the appointed person. Any concern or disagreement he would share only later in private.[ix]By refusing to enter the party, he humiliates his father in front of everyone, an act more unthinkable and egregious than asking for one’s inheritance.[x]
One expects the father be angry, even violent at such utter disdain.[xi]Instead he comes out, pleading, reassuring, and inviting. The older son spouts off grievance with no hint of self-awareness or remorse, adamant in his self-righteousness: “Listen! I’ve worked very hard, kept all the rules, and you never gave me a party.”
“Son,” says the father, “Let me reassure you all that is mine is yours. This brother of yours was dead and has come to life. So we had to celebrate.”
This is grace. The father again communicates full acceptance in the face of total rejection. This time there is no admission of guilt: “Father, I am unworthy to be your son.” Before any confession, pardon is given. To both sons who rejected him, the father comes out in public humiliation with compassionate love, offering each the amazing grace of welcome.[xii]
The story stops unfinished, so we wonder how the older son responds. Will he acknowledge being lost and accept being found? Will he go in to eat with his father, brother, and community? Will he? Will we?
In the Middle East, who you eat with defines identity. Jesus told this graphic and gripping tale to religious leaders who were grumbling because he was welcoming sinners and eating with them. This story is for self-righteous religious folk like us and for outcast tax collectors and sinners like us. All of us get lost. We reject, wander, squander, and try to save or ourselves, or we’re blind assuming all is well. Does either son’s story ring true, prick your conscience, or awaken your soul?
Jesus called God his Father. In this parable, Jesus shows a father opposing norms.[xiii]This father accepts rejection. This father chooses further self-humiliation in order to save and show compassion. This father offers full pardon before hearing confession of wrongs, and facilitates restoration with the whole community. Many of us have troubles with calling God our “Father.” What may be helpful or hopeful for you in this portrait from Jesus? How does this story help you see God?
Jesus told this story to religious leaders who worked very hard and kept all the rules, a story of a lost son who breaks rules and a lost son who keeps rules, a story of both being found by their father, who invites everyone to eat together.[xiv]
Come, celebrate, for though lost, we are being found.
[i]Kenneth E. Bailey (1930-2016), on whom I draw throughout this sermon, taught the New Testament for forty years in the Middle East, as well as at Princeton and other seminaries in the United States, focusing on the cultural context for understanding Jesus’ parables. Bailey’s life work helps bridge the distance of which he wrote:
“… it is my perception that for us as Westerners the cultural distance ‘over’ to the Middle East is greater than the distance ‘back’ to the first century. The cultural gulf between the West and the East is deeper and wider than the gulf between the first century (in the Middle East) and the contemporary conservative Middle Eastern village.”
Kenneth E. Bailey (1992) Finding the Lost: Cultural keys to Luke 15. Concordia scholarship today. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, pp. 28-29. In Robert C. Dykstra (2018) Finding Ourselves Lost: Ministry in the age of overwhelm. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, p. 129.
[ii]Kenneth E. Bailey (1983) Poet & Peasant: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, pp. 161-162.
[iii]Ibid, pp. 168-169.
[iv]Ibid, p. 178.
[v]Ibid, p. 181.
[vi]Ibid, p. 182.
[vii]Ibid, p. 185.
[viii]Ibid, p. 186-187.
[ix]Ibid, pp. 194-195.
[x]Bailey (1992), p. 155. In Dykstra, p. 135.
[xi]Ibid, p. 183. In Dykstra, p. 135.
[xii]Bailey (1983), p. 200.
[xiii]Bailey (1992), p. 114. In Dykstra, p. 132.
[xiv]Dykstra, p. 135.
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