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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

November 19, 2017

 The Parable of the Prodigal God

Genesis 25:19-26; Luke 15:11-32

            It might be Jesus’ most unique contribution to the way we engage in theology in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Theology, according to Saint Anselm, is “Faith seeking understanding,” and Jesus taught us to call God “Father.”  Remember the only story we have of Jesus in His childhood, when Mary thinks Jesus is with Joseph, and Joseph thinks Jesus is with Mary, and the boy is missing?  They head back to Jerusalem, a two-day’s journey, and they find Jesus in the Temple.  They are probably ready to pinch the boy’s head off, and Jesus looks at them quizzically and says, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”  Remember when the disciples ask Jesus, “Teach us how to pray”?  Jesus said, “When you pray, pray like this: Our Father....”  Remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane?  Luke tells us Jesus sweat drops of blood; Jesus is all alone, and He prays, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from my lips.”  From the cross, Jesus says, with His arms extended, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  And before Jesus dies, He says, “Father, into Thy hands do I commit my Spirit.”  Do you think the idea of God as Father was important to Jesus?!

            Today we turn to the story that has been called by the Church, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  The word “prodigal” comes from a Latin word prodigus,” a word which means “lavish.”  I want to suggest that the parable is poorly named by the Church, because the truly prodigal, the real lavish one in the parable is not the younger brother who wastes the third of his inheritance that comes to him on “riotous” or “dissolute” living.  No, the truly prodigal one in this story, the lavish one, is the father; the father, who first of all loves his son enough to give him the freedom that he wants.  That is what love does.  Love is not about control, it is not about coercion.  “Love,” Plato said, “is only love if it is freely given.”  This father loves his youngest son enough to give him a freedom that boggles my mind. 

            When the son misuses his freedom and “comes to himself,” he returns to the same word that the parable starts with.  He says at the start of Jesus’ parable, “Father, give me my share of the inheritance.”  And when he practices his speech in “coming to himself,” the first word of the speech again is “Father.”  “Father, I am no longer fit to be called your son.”  This is not the parable about a prodigal son.  It is a parable about foolish son, who one day comes to himself, the way most of us come to ourselves.  We gain wisdom through mistakes, and through confronting honestly and taking responsibility for the foolish actions in which we have engaged.  It is the only way most of us ever manage to grow up and to mature.

            To call this parable “The Prodigal Son” is like calling the television series, Seinfeld, “Costanza.”  I love George Costanza, but the story line is all about Jerry Seinfeld, and doing nothing!  Or it would be like calling the Andy Griffith Show the “Barney Fife Show.”  We love Barney, but the show is driven by the Jesus figure at the center of it (which is why I love the show so much), Andy Taylor, Sheriff of Mayberry.  This is a parable about how prodigal, how utterly lavish in his love, the father is.  This father waits, looking out over the horizon, waiting, yearning for the younger son, finally, somehow, by God’s grace, to “come to himself” and to return home. 

            When the son comes home, he gets the word “Father” out, and the first line of his speech he has been rehearsing the whole way, but the father cuts him off mid-sentence, and says, “Put the finest robe that we have on him, place a ring on his finger, and kill the fatted calf, and let us make merry.”  The father goes to incredible lengths to give the son what theologian and missionary Ken Bailey calls, “literally, the royal treatment.”  He treats this foolish, wayward son in coming home, like a prince, like a beloved part of the family. 

            If the story ended there, it would be a great story, matching the two parables that come before it; the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, that when they are found, create “rejoicing in heaven.”  But what makes it the greatest story ever told by the greatest storyteller, is what follows.  Remember, “a certain man had two sons,” and the older son in this story is completely different from the younger son.  The older son says, “I have served you like a slave; I have done everything that you have ever asked me to do.”  It is not hard to imagine how much resentment has built up over years in the older brother by the chaos, the heartache and the havoc that has probably been wrought all his life by this younger brother.  The resentment simply pours out of the older brother towards the father.  This parable is not primarily about the older brother either; it is about how prodigal God is!  The father has thrown a feast for the youngest son who has returned, and now this same father notices that not everybody is at the feast.  He notices not just the presence of those who are there, but the absence of those who are not there.  He leaves his own party to search for his older son, whom he loves so much, that the thought of him missing out on this feast is unbearably heartbreaking.  He is missing the presence of the older son, who has always done what is expected of him. 

            And yet, the older son points out, he is one who has never had a feast thrown for him!  The older brother has missed out, maybe on the most important insight of all.  The hymn puts it like this: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”  In his resentment he has been blind to how much his own father has given to him.  Remember the first line that the father says to the older brother?  “All that I have that is mine is yours.”  The older brother is blinded by his resentment, blinded by his hurt, to how gracious, how lavish, how prodigal, the father’s love has always been.  And not just for the younger brother who left, but every bit as much for the older brother who is outside the party, unwilling to come inside and join in this family feast.

            I think that the most ingenious thing about Jesus’ greatest parable, is that we do not know how it ends!  We do not know if the younger son was actually changed by the father’s love and by the father’s welcoming him home.  I want to believe that he is totally transformed by that, because nothing changes us like the love of God found in Christ Jesus our Lord.  But we are left hanging on that question; and even more so, we do not know how the older brother responds to the father’s plea that he come inside and join the party.  The father in Jesus’ parable clearly wants this to be a reunion for the whole family.  He wants the family to be reunited, to be one.  Jesus prayed in John’s Gospel for the Church, for us.  And the most profound part of Jesus’ prayer was that we, His people, “would be one,” just as Jesus the Son is one with God the Father.  The table is set.  This is the feast of God, and you are invited by a loving, patient, prodigal, lavish Father!


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