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]
Wasteful, extravagant, profligate, spendthrift. These are all words that are synonymous with the first definition in the dictionary of the word prodigal. I have to admit that it was only recently that I learned that word’s true meaning. I grew up in the Baptist church and all my life have been steeped in scripture. I have heard this parable from Luke’s gospel thousands of times in my lifetime, but I never knew the true meaning of the word prodigal. I had always assumed it either meant ‘lost,’ as in the parable of the lost son. Or perhaps ‘repentant,’ as in the parable of the repentant son. These certainly could fit. But after finally looking up the word, it all makes sense. Prodigal: spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant. So as we read the parable and follow the son’s journey from his restlessness at home to eating pig slop as a result of his reckless and wasteful spending, we see how it is that the young son earns the name: prodigal.
Generous, lavish, liberal, bounteous. These are all words synonymous with the second definition of the word prodigal which reads: having or giving something on a lavish scale. Jesus says when the young son returns, hoping that his father will hire him as a servant, the father does the unthinkable. He orders his slaves to bring out the finest robe for his son and to put sandals on his feet and a ring on his finger. To be given a robe to wear was to be honored and only members of the family wore sandals. Slaves and hired servants were required to be barefoot. And probably the most shocking of the father’s prodigality was the giving of the ring. In that culture if a man gave a ring to another man it was the same as giving him power of attorney; an act so generous it defies common sense even in our day.[i] How many of us would hand over everything we owned to someone who could not exhibit proper stewardship of just a fraction of that. But this is what the father does and orders his slaves to kill the fatted calf and to throw a huge party to celebrate his son’s return.
This evening is the second in our series of sermons on the theme of ‘Salvation Revisited.’ We are exploring the theme of salvation, which is central to the faith of the Church, and to the season of Advent, when we are promised a ‘Savior.’
Next week the theme will be ‘The sacred and Imperishable Proclamation’ and the final week’s theme will be ‘Salvation – from What, to What?’
My theme today is ‘Coming Home.’
When I was a teenager I rarely went to church. I was confirmed at 12, at school. Almost everyone in my class was confirmed – mainly so as not to let the house down! But for me, it was a kind of ‘passing out parade.’ No more church. I was interested in religious ideas, but thought Christianity rather facile. I preferred the more exotic Eastern forms of religious expression – far more interesting ways of trying to make contact with the divine. But one day, in my late teens, on one of my rare visits to church, I heard a Gospel which kind of stopped me in my tracks. It was the Gospel we heard read today: the parable of the Prodigal Son. What really moved me, was this image of the Father. Day after day, his father had been longing for his son – missing him, longing for him to come home. Scanning the horizon. Please, my son, come home. And then, one day, he sees him, way in the distance. He is so overjoyed that he runs – runs out to meet him, and welcome him home.