Scripture - Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (New Revised Standard Version)
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’”
“Cultivating wholeness...letting go of scarcity.”
We know the story of the first passage of scripture by the title “The Prodigal Son”, and in many ways, that is exactly what the parable is about - a son who demands half of the inheritance, which is more than his fair share. He goes off and squanders it and returns home to his Father’s embrace while his older brother sulks in the background. The story comes after two other parables that Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees in response to their grumbling about the tax collectors and sinners drawing near to listen to him. Those two stories are that of the lost sheep and the lost coin - where the shepherd goes after the one lost sheep in their flock of one hundred and where the woman sweeps her whole house to find one coin that she had lost. In each case, the finders rejoice and throw a celebration with their friends over the restoration of their collections to wholeness.
In this light, taken as a set of parables, our “Prodigal Son” may better be titled “The Lost Son” - though in typical fashion with Jesus’ stories, which son was “lost” to the father may not be the one that is obvious. Much of what I’m sharing can be found in Amy-Jill Levine’s book “Short Stories by Jesus.”
To Jesus’s first century Jewish hearers, when Jesus sets up the scene between these two brothers, they are already predisposed to root for the younger son. Throughout Israel’s history, God always has this preference for the underdog. Clever Jacob gets the blessing instead of his older brother Esau. David, the youngest of the sons of Jesse, gets to be king. Joseph is preferred and elevated ahead of all his older brothers. Identifying with son #2 was what you were supposed to do as a Jewish listener - but when Jesus identifies the self-indulgent, irresponsible behavior of the youngerest...it probably threw his listeners for a loop.
Things go awry for the younger son when a famine comes over the land and he realizes that he’d be better off back on his father’s property - even being treated as a hired hand - than he would be in this foreign land feeding pigs. He rehearses a speech as he’s making his way to his father’s estate - and before he even has a chance to utter a word, his father, moved with compassion, runs to meet him and kisses him. The younger son is welcomed back with the best food and the best clothes and a big party. It seems like a happy ending.
But there’s this other son - that by this point we’ve most likely forgotten about. The father certainly has, because he doesn’t think to invite him to the celebration. The older son is out in the field when he hears the sounds of the party - and coming near the house has to ask a slave what’s been going on. He gets filled in - but this older son has clearly been forgotten by his father...by those at the party...and it’s only when the eldest refuses to go in that the father comes out to talk. The older brother distances himself from his younger brother (he refers to the brother in conversation with his father by saying “your son” instead of “my brother) and tries to remind him of his own faithfulness while highlighting the other brother’s reckless squandering. The father assures his older son that he’s always had his love and affection. Even more, though, the father attempts to restore the relationship between the two brothers by reminding his oldest son of the “resurrection” of his brother. Both brothers are home - wholeness has been restored.
The younger son - he comes back to his father believing that all he would be afforded would be the equivalent of a hired hand...that there wouldn’t be room enough for him, abundance enough for him, to be restored to his former place in the family. There’s a scarcity mentality that makes him think he has to give up his role as his father’s son in order to find a place - whether that decision comes out of remorse or not, we don’t know. But he’s come to the place where he has nothing and he’s worried about scraping enough together just to survive - and instead of finding the barest scraps of sustenance in his father’s house, he finds warm welcome...restoration...wholeness.
The older brother has to let go of scarcity in the sense that he thinks he’ll only get to enjoy the abundance of his father through restrained responsibility. He has operated under the assumption that he doesn’t deserve the joy of feasting with his friends, of enjoying what he has, thinking it belongs only to his father. He’s never asked anything of him, never trusted in the abundance and love his father has for him. When his brother returns, there’s the sense that maybe there’s not room at the table for him, that he’s been overlooked and forgotten, that there simply isn’t enough space for both brothers within his father’s love. What he finds instead with his father is affirmation and enduring love...an invitation to the feast...and a family made whole again.
Even so, the story is left unresolved. We don’t know if the older brother joins the party. We don’t know if the younger brother is truly repentant and understands his reliance upon his family, or even how he feels about this lavish treatment upon coming home. What we do know is that in this story, no one has really expressed regret about hurting one another - and no one has offered forgiveness. Instead, we have a father rejoicing over what was lost being found...a celebration over a restoration to wholeness...and the hope for reconciliation. What also seems to be true as we see the seed of reconciliation planted - both for the prodigal son and for the faithful one - is that they also have to let go of their notions of scarcity in order to discover their place in the family again.
Levine writes, “If we hold in abeyance, at least for the moment, the rush to read repenting and forgiving into the parable, then it does something more profound than repeat well-known messages. It provokes us with simple exhortations. Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past. Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you still will have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness. Take advantage of resurrection—it is unlikely to happen twice.”
Despite this very practical, on-the-ground advice as we look to embody this parable in our own lives - and look to cultivate wholeness in our relationships, as we look to let go of mindsets that convey scarcity - I mean, have you ever not reached out for help to a friend or family member because you didn’t want to be a burden? There’s a scarcity mindset right there.
So we have this practical advice that Levine offers us, but we play this game with God too. It doesn’t matter which brother we identify with - truthfully, both live inside of us - but God yearns for wholeness - for us, for all of humankind - for all of creation. God comes forward to meet us - grace showering over us before we ever utter a single word. God reminds us of the love and compassion and abundance that are always ours, even when we gripe and complain and point fingers. We are a people who are lost - even when we don’t think we are - and God finds us and welcomes us home.
So let us cultivate wholeness -- remember that in Christ, we are new creations….in Christ, we have been reconciled to God...in Christ….we are made whole….let us let go of scarcity, of feeling like we aren’t enough or aren’t deserving of love and grace - because we are always freely offered life and resurrection from the God who rushes to meet us wherever we are….on the road...in the field...wherever we are on the journey - God finds and embraces us and makes us whole. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and almost 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.