With this parable I’m thinking about when I graduated college. I was on the five and a half year plan. It was those independent study classes, I just couldn’t finish. I need guidance, but when I graduated I was able to walk with my class, you know? The graduation happened and all of my aunts and uncles and everybody came from different parts of the country. I have a lot of aunts and uncles. They gave me a bunch of cards and there was money in there. At the end of it I had about $2,000. Yeah, I was like, “Yes!”
So what does any self respecting 22 year old person do with their friends who are leaving to go to different parts of the country? We have parties. We go out to eat a lot and I remember I spent about two weeks spending every bit of that money on my friends. We would go out and there would be ten of us, and I’d be like, “This is on me tonight!” Take out this giant stack of money. I did one thing that I have always wanted to do, and I have never done it since, but I went into a bar and I said, “The next round is on me.” Yeah I’m getting like, Terry is looking at me like, “Uh-uh.” Yes, and Terry you are right, I did have a hard time getting my rent paid in June of that year. Man it was fun just spending indiscriminately, being as generous as I wanted to be.
Maybe you’ve done something like that, maybe not so foolish. Maybe you’ve been generous with somebody or maybe someone has been generous with you. I’m thinking about the people that give of their, perhaps their treasure. Help us out when we need it the most or it might be a mentor, let’s say, somebody who gives you time and you know it’s very, very valuable time, but they’re giving it to you. Have you noticed that when that happens you sort of feel ennobled, like they think I’m worthy of this time. I think that’s an interesting phenomenon where people spend on us and we might spend on them. I’m thinking of all this obviously because of this parable, the Prodigal Son.
It’s so funny, this week I went into the staff meeting and we were talking about the Prodigal Son, and I said, “I’ve heard this called the parable of the Prodigal Son. The catechesis of the Good Shepherd, in the next building over there for the little ones they call it the parable of the forgiving father.” And I said, “Whatever it is, it will just never be called, “the parable of the prodigal father.” Put my foot down. You know what? I’m rethinking that. I think this is the parable of the prodigal father. I’m going to hopefully convince you of why that is. I want you to have in mind those stories of wasteful spending, okay? Prodigal actually means being wasteful. The way that we name these parables is important because it automatically begins the interpretation of it, doesn’t it? So if we say it’s called the parable of the Prodigal Son, so I will now focus on the wastefulness of this son.
So we’re going to get into this today. You’re going to need your bulletin or it’s in chapter 15 in your pew Bibles. What you need to know first of all is that Luke, in chapter 15 here, you notice it says verses one through three, and then it says 11b through 32. So something was cut out, and what was cut out was two other parables of lost things, of the lost coin and the lost sheep. So it was long enough for Deacon Jane to read that. We’re not going to, I mean if we had read all 32 verses, we’d still be here listening to it. Obviously it switches around year after year, but He gives these three parables.
First of all the parable of the lost coin, there’s somebody who’s lost a coin and somebody upends their entire house in order to find a lost coin. This inordinate amount of effort to the thing that is actually being sought. What do they do after that? They threw a party, which probably cost more than the coin itself. He’s setting up this idea of what God is like. Then there’s the 99, the lost sheep right? One is gone, who would not leave, this is what Jesus says, “Who would not leave the 99 and go find the one?” The answer is: everyone. A 1% loss is totally acceptable. Those other 99, they’re going to keep having babies and we’ll more than make up for that loss. I mean if a grocery store only had 1% loss, I think they’d be doing pretty well.
So Jesus is setting up this kind of ridiculous stuff about what God is like, and it starts here with verse one through three. These tax collectors and sinners are coming to Jesus to listen to Him and the Pharisees and Scribes, these professional religious types, they say this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. Then Jesus tells these three parables. He’s basically saying “if you think this is bad, get a load of this!”
So a man has two sons. Automatically every hearer is thinking, “Two sons, I know about two sons. There’s a whole bunch of two sons in the scriptures.” Isaac and Ishmael and Esau and all that stuff. There’s this rivalry between these two sons throughout scriptures. Cain and Abel, you name it. The younger one comes and says, “Hey dad, I want my share of the property that will belong to me.” What does this mean? It means when you die, I want that inheritance now. It’s kind of like in The Three Amigos, my favorite movie, when the little boy walks up to the Chevy Chase character, says, “Hey, when you are dead can I have your watch?” He’s expecting him to die. So basically the son is saying I wish you were dead and I want my inheritance now. The father gives it to him. Right now the hearers of this story, they weren’t raised on this like we were. They’re thinking this father has a screw loose. He is way too permissive.
One thing I found was really interesting, “Father give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” The property. That word in Greek is ousia, and the cool thing about ousia is that yes it means property, but it also is used in the conversations and theological conversations in the early centuries around the essence of God. The Holy Spirit and the Son and the Father all share in the same essence, the same ousia. So it means essence. It means life. Later they’ll use the word for property, bios, life. So there’s this connection in this New Testament literature between property and something that you have to show for your life, but also it’s your essence. I think it’s interesting to say in a eucharistic community, “Hey Dad, give me your essence so I can consume it.”
So he goes off, the younger son goes off, spends it all, then the famine happens. He’s going out and he’s trying to work and he’s feeding the hogs and he thinks maybe I could eat like them. This would’ve been extraordinarily offensive to the Jewish listeners. Do you see the hyperbole that Jesus is trying to frame this in? This is really, really down and dirty, and this father is this forgiving father type that is a little too permissive. So then he wakes up, it says he comes to himself and he gets up. He gets up and he starts going to daddy, and he starts rehearsing, rehearsing what he’s going to say. “Okay, I’m sorry, but just let me live as a slave and I’ll be fine. I won’t bother you. At least I can get three squares.” Then it says a long way off the father sees him. Does the father hear the story? Does he hear the apology? No. He runs out and in that seeing, the recognition and that running out, he’s already forgiven him.
This is where it gets really offensive to the listeners of Jesus, he treats him like the head of the household. He puts on the robe, he gives him the signet ring, like you’re in charge. We’re going to kill the fatted calf. It’s not like I’m welcoming my addict brother in and let’s sit down and have a conversation about boundaries. It’s not like that. This is totally, totally extravagant, gratuitous. Welcomes him in, and then of course we have the other brother who sees all this and gets upset. I’m going to actually leave the other brother over here for another sermon at another time. But you know about this other brother, the one who is doing everything right. Both of the brothers have a problem and that is that they think that they must earn their father’s love. That’s their chief sin, is that they think that they each must earn it, but the story clearly says that’s not the case.
I want us to feel that this father is embarrassingly permissive. This father is breaking all the rules of good boundaries and good parenting. Normally, if I were advising you, if you were the father and this was your son, I would say, “Okay let’s all have a meeting and talk about what behaviors are allowable and what are not, and we’re going to stick to that.” But something, Jesus is up to something differently here. I think it’s really interesting if you read this parable and you look at the role of the house in this parable, the father is always out of the house, drawing the sons back in. He draws the younger son who has been out, draws him into the house and they have a party. He notices his older son is not in the house at the party, so he goes out after him. You hear that? Jesus is describing a God who has a house, but is drawing people into it and is not bound by the house.
Isn’t it interesting that the word house in Greek is oikas, like the yogurt. Oikas, and the word for law or rules is nomos, so you put those two, the rules of the house are oikanomos and its where we get the word economy. It’s the economy, the household of God looks like this. It looks like there is a father who leaves the house and goes out and searches after those who have left and are bringing them back in. So now we have a better sense of what Jesus is doing in this parable.
I used to think that we had to be the father. I used to think of it analogically, like okay so most days I’m like this younger son. On my good days I’m like this older son, but I know that God is really calling me to be this father. That’s probably true. Perhaps over a lifetime of the Holy Spirit we might be transformed enough to behave like this father, but I think that is a really tall and almost impossible order for the day. So what I’m going to invite you to is not to try to be the father, but to have your image of God be that father. That image of a God who is moving outside of this house and is seeking those and bringing them back in, and who is so extravagantly loving and forgiving that it’s kind of embarrassing.
I think that we’re all going to be very, very offended at who God has led into the house. I want you to think now of your enemy, the one who troubles you, alive or dead, public or private. God loves this person so deeply that He’s willing to break the rules for. We have lots of rules for those who we’ve decided to love. As long as you treat me this way, I’m going to treat you this way. But God doesn’t play fair. God is saying I’m coming after you, whether you like it or not, and as you are out there rehearsing yourself, getting yourself ready to receive Me, I’m already after you and I have already forgiven you before you could even say it.
St. Paul says that while we were sinners, Christ died for the unrighteous. Isn’t that such great news? You don’t have to do anything to get ready to receive God. Here’s the thing though, it’s not anything goes, by the way. This is not some sort of libertine community. We do know that God meets us where we are out on that road and then brings us into the house. So God meets us where we are, but does not let us stay there. This is the image of God I want to give you, someone who is so very offensively loving. When that happens, when we start to see God like that, we might begin to see ourselves A) as sinners, which is a good thing. To see yourself as a sinner that has been redeemed and that you did nothing to redeem yourself. That helps you kind of loosen the grasp on your pride. What comes with that pride is your judgment of others. So you can start to loosen up and look at your brothers and sisters more as fellow children of God who are being welcomed into the house by our God.
So that’s the image, and just the question of what would each of your relationships look like if we had that image of God and we were included in it? Where we would see ourselves as being brought into the household of God even in our sinful state, having done nothing to prepare ourselves. It’s a good image. Its a good image to have of God as we continue on this Lenten journey, and as we have this God who goes out way before us, way before us and acts way before anything that we do, in our creation, in our redemption, in the giving of the Holy Spirit. This is all God acting first, like this father running out in joy to greet his son. Amen.