For the Fourth Sunday in Lent (31 March 2019), Rev. Geoff McKee’s text is Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke’s gospel. It is an unsettling story with an apparently shifting focus: is it the younger or older son? – or their father? Geoff explains how it can be as dangerous for Christians to follow the path of the older son as that of the younger son, though it is the younger son who appears at first sight to have gone more astray. We need to be learning from both brothers in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Luke 15:1-3; 11-32 (New International Version)
15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable …
The Parable of the Lost Son
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The Property Laws of a Toddler are as follows:
1. If I like it, it’s mine.
2. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
3. If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
4. If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
5. If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
6. If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
7. If it looks just like mine, it’s mine.
8. If I saw it first, it’s mine.
9. If you are playing with something and you put it down, it automatically becomes mine.
10. If it’s broken, it’s yours.
Such is the power of me, me, me!
One of the amazing features of the Parable of the Prodigal Son is its perfect framing:
- It begins with the story of the youngest son who is only interested in himself, and
- It ends with the story of the eldest son who is only interested in himself, and
- In the middle, is the story of the abused Father who behaves scandalously!
What a story it is…
The story has a shifting focus which can throw us.
Who is the principal character? –
- Is it the younger son whom the parable is most commonly named after: the prodigal?
- Or is it the Father who dominated the middle part and who is the fixer of the problem?
- Or is it the older son who annoys us most because we’re most like him?
It’s distinctly unsettling, isn’t it?
There are two broad beliefs about baptism in the Protestant branch of Christianity.
There are those who believe that the most important element in baptism is the love and action of God and so where that is recognised by the believing community baptism is celebrated.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that the most important element in baptism is the believing faith of the recipient and without it baptism is denied.
I can’t help see a parallel in this wonderful parable between these contrasting views of baptism.
Is the story about the love and action of Father God or is it about the contrite repentance and faith in the father by the younger son?
It’s interesting that there’s no right or wrong answer here. There are just different readings of the story that are apparent to the fair minded reader.
We can all relate to the younger son.
A decision – that made all the sense in the world at the time – turned sour and bad fortune upon bad fortune were returned in abundance, to the point where he was sent to tend pigs.
There is probably no animal as disgusting to Jewish sensitivities as the pig.
It’s not just because it may not be eaten (there are plenty of other animals that aren’t kosher either but none of them arouse as much disgust as the pig).
Colloquially, the pig is the ultimate symbol of loathing; when you say that someone “acted like a pig”, it suggests that he or she did something unusually abominable. But why? – because the Law gave two physical signs that mark kosher land animals: they ruminate (chew their cud) and have fully split hooves. It then goes on to list several creatures that have just one or the other of these, and are therefore unkosher. One of these is the pig, since it has hooves which are split, and it does not chew its cud.
It’s not the only animal on the unkosher list, but it gets the worst treatment of any of them.
Some examples of the bad things associated with pigs –
Avoiding its name: many call the animal davar acher, “another thing,” rather than by its proper name.
Prohibition against raising pigs: “The sages forbade raising pigs anywhere [whether in the Land of Israel or elsewhere] . . . The sages pronounced a curse on one who raises dogs or pigs, because they cause frequent and serious damage.”
The Talmud traces this ruling to the civil war between the Hasmonean brothers, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, around 67 BC. Aristobulus and his forces had barricaded themselves in. Each day Aristobulus’s men would send down a basketful of coins, and receive in return lambs for the daily Temple offerings. Until one day the besiegers sent up a pig instead: When it was halfway up, it stuck its hooves into the wall, and the entire Land of Israel, about 1000 square miles, trembled. And so at that time it was declared: Cursed be one who raises pigs . . . !
The Syrian-Greek emperor, Antiochus IV, as part of his campaign to outlaw Judaism, sent his soldiers to the Land of Israel with orders to force the Jews to offer pigs as sacrifices to the Hellenistic gods and consume the meat. A Jew, 90 years old, named Elazar, defied the order and endured a savage beating—even when he was offered the chance to just pretend to eat it while really he would be given kosher meat. Eventually, the Greek soldiers met their match in the town of Modiin, where Matityahu the Hasmonean began the revolt that eventually saw the country freed from Hellenistic rule.
So that’s the broad context to the Jewish loathing of the pig and yet where did the younger son find himself?
– in the fields feeding the pigs…
This son had not only lost his fortune and his dignity and his self-respect.
He had also lost his identity, his roots, his religion.
There was absolutely no hope for him whatsoever until he remembered a name: his Father…
With his Father’s name came mercy, love, celebration and all of it in abundance.
The older son watched it all unfold.
He had been unstinting in his loyalty to the Father.
He had given so much, time after time, waiting for the time when his Father would die and he would inherit his reward.
And would you believe it that – through the poisoning of his attitudes – he too had lost his fortune, his dignity and his self-respect. He had also lost his identity, his roots, his religion. For without the scandalous, extravagant, mercy of the Father none of them had any hope whatsoever.
It is said that pride is the dandelion of the soul.
Its root goes deep; only a little left behind sprouts again. Its seeds lodge in the tiniest encouraging cracks. And it flourishes in good soil. The danger of pride is that it feeds on goodness.
Ronald Reagan, the former President of the United States of America, recalled an occasion when he was governor of California and made a speech in Mexico City. He said: ”After I had finished speaking, I sat down to rather unenthusiastic applause, and I was a little embarrassed. The speaker who followed me spoke in Spanish — which I didn’t understand — and he was being applauded about every paragraph. To hide my embarrassment, I started clapping before everyone else and longer than anyone else until our ambassador leaned over and said, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you. He’s interpreting your speech!’”
We are in more danger, in the church, of becoming like the elder son.
We have been with the Father always.
We think we have his ear; we think we know him and so, when it becomes apparent that isn’t the case, we respond with pride, jealousy, anger and self-righteousness. ‘How dare the Father get it so wrong. He’s treating me like a mere slave.’
Do you know the hymn: ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’?
I’m sure you do but, as with many old hymns, modern hymnaries tend to truncate them: to cut off some verses that maybe haven’t aged very well in the editor’s view.
Two such verses that don’t appear in every hymnary are as follows:
‘But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify his strictness
With a zeal He will not own.
Was there ever kinder shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Saviour who would have us
Come and gather at his feet?’
May God forgive us for following the older son, as he forgives us for following the younger.