We hear this familiar reading and think, “Yep, prodigal son gets forgiven… we know this one.” But this is a parable. If you think you’ve figured it out, you just might be underestimating Jesus. So, let’s back up and figure out what’s going on.
Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and scribes, the holiest folks around and he has really been pushing their buttons. He seems to go out of his way to annoy them: eating with sinners and tax collectors, flaunting religious law right and left. The more annoyed they get, the more outrageous his behavior and his stories get. They’re grumbling today about him, so he tells them 3 lost and found stories.
In the first story, a shepherd has 100 sheep and loses one of them. He leaves the 99 sheep to go off after the one lost sheep and when he finds it, he’s overjoyed and throws a big party. Jesus says, “Count on it - there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over 99 good people in no need of rescue.”
The Pharisees think Jesus is nuts – God surely cares more about 99 good people than one sinner!
Then Jesus asks them to imagine a woman who has 10 coins and loses 1 of them. She goes wild - turning her house inside out and upside down, looking for that 1 coin. When she finds it, she is so thrilled that she also throws a big party. Jesus says, “Count on it - that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.”
“Hmmm,” think the Pharisees - “that doesn’t make sense - all that effort for 1 coin? This fellow is trying to tell us that God loves lost souls and sorry sinners more than he loves people like us who follow all the rules! No way!”
Jesus has one more story with this lost and found theme and this time, I guarantee you, he will get those Pharisees spitting mad!
A man has two sons. One son is proud, arrogant and full of himself. He knows that he will be on easy street someday and he decides that he doesn’t want to wait for his share of the estate. Dad complies and gives the money to his young son. The young son goes off with his heavy bag of money and parties like a wild man. He completely wastes all the money on prostitutes and drinking until he doesn’t have two coins to rub together. He is so desperate, he gets a job feeding pigs, a Jewish boy feeding pigs! Can he get any lower? Yes. He’s so hungry he’s ready to eat the corncobs in the pig’s slop.
This brings him to his senses. He’s just going to have to go home with his tail between his legs and beg his father’s forgiveness. Ouch.
I wonder if the father was watching for him, peering down the dusty, bright road, hoping for any sign of his lost son. He stares, sees his boy in the distance and his heart gives a leap. This proud, wealthy man takes off running. He doesn’t care who sees him. He doesn’t care how silly he looks, sweaty and dusty, pounding down the road on his old legs. HIS SON IS HOME! He wraps his arms around him and kisses and kisses him.
The tired young boy is trying to get an apology out, but his dad doesn’t even hear him. He’s shouting to the servants, “The best robe! Rings! The good sandals! Quick!” “Let’s have a feast! Prepare the calf we’ve been fattening and invite everyone to a party! My son is home. He was dead and now he is alive. He was lost and he now he is found!” Let’s get this party started!
Let’s just end this story right here OK? Such a happy ending, nice and clean. It’s in keeping with the other lost and found stories Jesus told. All’s well that ends well.
But no. Oh, No! This time Jesus continues with this story and invites those petty, judgmental Pharisees and US into the story.
Most people relate to the ‘good son’ in the story. Do you? This obedient son is livid when he sees the party going on and can you blame him? He has been the good child who stayed behind and did the work. He has probably been mad at his reckless brother for years. Perhaps, like the Pharisees, he has relished passing judgement on his sinning sibling. Well, he lights into his tired, happy father. “What are you doing old man? I’m NOT going to this party!”
Listen to the father’s response: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
We are left there. A riotous party going on, the young son happily celebrating being home again, the older son and his exhausted dad standing outside at an impasse. The older son doesn’t want to forgive his brother, after all, he is right, and his brother is wrong. The father forgives both of his sons because he loves them.
That angry, judgmental son is sinning just as much as his dissolute brother. His father stands by him, loving and forgiving. When we are angry and judgmental, our father stands by us, loving and forgiving us as we try to change.
We are approaching Good Friday, a day of great sorrow when we remember Jesus dying on the cross. He is brought back to life on Easter Sunday by the power of his father’s love. Twice in our story the father says that his son was dead and is now alive. All the terrible sins committed by this bad son are washed clean by the love of his father. But what about the good son? Will he find it in his heart to forgive his brother? It doesn’t sound like it; he’s pretty mad. He seems entrenched in his anger and seems unwilling to make any effort toward reconciliation.
Jesus stands there, telling these lost and found stories to the Pharisees, who, like the good son, follow all the rules and harshly judge those who don’t. Jesus tells them that God cares more about that lost sheep, that lost coin, that lost son than self-righteous people who don’t understand that they also are sinning and they also are lost.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this story: “Any way you look at it, this is an alarming story. It is about hanging out with the wrong people. It is about throwing parties for losers and asking winners to foot the bill. It is about giving up the idea that we can love God and despise each other. We simply cannot, no matter how wrong any of us has been. The only way to work out our relationship with God is to work out our relationship with each other.”
We, sitting here in church today, could very well be like the Pharisees: following the rules, doing the right thing and perhaps, passing a teensy bit of judgement on others. Jesus makes it as clear as he can, over and over, that God cherishes those sinners that we may judge. Just as the father in this story poured a prodigal amount of forgiveness on his sinning son, let us also be inspired to view everyone, sinner and saved alike, with love and compassion. When we find our way to compassion, God will throw a great party for us!