The Prodigal Son -- and so much more
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Lent 4C 2004 Luke 15: 11-32
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At this weeks Thursday morning Lectionary Study Group, Jim Godwin told us this modern parable:
There was a young man born into a modest family. His parents lived beside a railroad. In his early teens, the young
man succumbed to peer pressure and fell in with a bad crowd. Whenever his parents tried to pull him away from his so-called
friends he rebuffed them. And finally he ran away, not telling them where he had gone.
Ten years went by and his parents didnt know where he was or even whether he was dead or alive, in prison or what. Then
one day they received a letter from him. He told them that he had gotten his life straightened out, was clean of drugs, and
had a steady job. And he wanted to come home.
He wrote: I dont know whether you will want to see me or not. But Ill be coming in on the morning train. If you are
willing to let me in the house, please hang a sheet on the clothesline in the back yard next to the railroad tracks. If I
see it Ill know Im welcome. And if its not there, Ill understand.
Morning came. As the train came by the young man was standing on the platform between the cars looking out. He saw
his parents house. And everywhere all over the back yard there were sheets. (1)
Last week I talked a little bit about the nature of parables. Parables were one of Jesus favorite ways of teaching.
They were not just stories they were stories with a point, often a point that required some thinking effort on the part of
the listener before it could be completely -- or even imperfectly -- understood. Because of the nature of parables, especially
those told by Jesus, parables unfold ever deeper and more complex layers of meaning the more they are contemplated. Jesus
used parables to teach his followers and also to confuse and confound his enemies and critics. One commentator has defined
parables this way: At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or from common life, arresting
the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease
it into active thought. (2)
It is in the very nature of parables that they cannot be taken literally; they must be interpreted. The listeners become
active participants in the communication of the message carried by the parable and begin to offer interpretations according
to the way the parable speaks to each of them uniquely at any given time the parable is contemplated. Parables are not used
by speakers and certainly not by Jesus to control the listeners by telling them exactly what to think and to do about the
message of the parable. That is also why parables are often not well received by those who wish to tell or be told what to
do, to think, and to believe. Control is lost but participation, active teasing of the mind, is gained in the use of parables
because parables must be interpreted if the message is to be received, even though that message might change from listener
to listener and from day to day.
We are all, I think, very familiar with the beloved parable of the Prodigal Son, as it is traditionally so called. Unfortunately
our lectionary presents it to us in isolation from its context. And context is always important for understanding these stories
that Jesus tells.
15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling
and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
This sort of remark always set Jesus off. The scribes and Pharisees never seemed to get what he was saying to them.
Or maybe they did get it and didnt like it. And so Jesus launched into a series of parables.
Here is his introduction to the parable of the Prodigal Son. He uses two parables: The parable of the shepherd and
the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin:
4"Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness
and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And
when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep
that was lost.' 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous
persons who need no repentance.
8 "Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and
search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice
with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of
God over one sinner who repents."
And then Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son. Think about the themes of the three parables you have heard read:
the shepherd and the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the Prodigal Son. The usual way to treat this parable is by allegory:
to assign and meaning or identity to every character or action. And certainly we can identify with at least one, perhaps
more, of the characters in the story.
I rather suspect that each one of us has been a prodigal child at one time or another. I know that for many years I was
the Prodigal Son in my own family, even to the point of being disinherited. Which is, of course, a whole other set of stories
for another time. Suffice it to say that it began when I became a soldier and stayed one. My parents were not slow to realize
that it meant that I was NOT going to come back to Greer, South Carolina, and build a house next door to them. And as it
was a very dysfunctional family, they felt rejected and they never forgave me. There was no fatted calf in that story.
But back to the parables. A major theme is rejoicing. Rejoicing over finding the coin. Rejoicing over finding the sheep.
Rejoicing over the return of the prodigal. Rejoicing over the repentance of a sinner.
Too often we take repentance to mean penitence, as groveling before judgement and accepting a punishment. Thats not what
it means at all. It comes from Greek words that mean to direct ones mind to a subject noeo, noew and the noun form, metanoia,
metanoia,,. In terms of Biblical theology, the terms mean directing ones mind to God, turning toward God, God as beyond ones
self, from whom all blessings flow, whose mercy, love, and grace are without limit or condition.
Jesus used these parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep and the prodigal son to establish this point: the rejoicing
on heaven over that which was lost but now is found. The housewife seeks the lost coin and finds it -- and there is rejoicing.
The shepherd seeks the lost sheep and finds it and there is rejoicing. The father sees the prodigal son returning and runs
out to seek him on his way and there is rejoicing.
Each of these parables illustrates how Gods grace, love, and mercy abound at all times and in all places and in all circumstances.
In the back yard of heaven, it is always full of sheets.
1. As told by Jim Godwin who heard it from Charles Rice, Professor of Homiletics, Drew University.
2. C.H. Dodd, as quoted in Fred B. Craddock, Luke, John Knox Press, 1990, p.108. The discussion of parables is taken
from pp. 109 110.