Last night we began our summer Bible study series by exploring the Parable of the Loving Father, perhaps better known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You can read the story in Luke 15:11-32 We had 10 participants of different ages and life experiences, and it was a spirited conversation. You can join us on Mondays from 6-7pm each week of the summer!
The larger context of Jesus telling this parable is important. Jesus was teaching a large group of people, including some Pharisees and scribes who were complaining that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus responded to those complaints by telling 3 parables. These are called Parables of Joy, and include the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and then the parable of the loving father. Each is about something or someone being lost and then found. In the first parable, a sheep is lost. The shepherd leaves the 99 in the wilderness, and searches for the 1 lost. When it is found, the shepherd rejoices. In the second, a woman has 10 coins, but loses one. She searches the whole house until she finds the one – and then has a party to celebrate finding the coin. In both parables, the person searching refuses to give up the search until the object is found.
The Pharisees and scribes can appreciate searching for something of value. The first two parables would make pretty good sense to them. But then we come to the 3rd parable – a story about a man with two sons. In those days, Roman law said that the oldest son inherited 2/3 of the property of the father. The younger sons split the remaining third. And it was very unusual for any of the sons to ask for their part of the inheritance before the father died. This was very disrespectful and was like saying – you, my father, are already dead to me.
But in this story, the younger son does ask for his part of the inheritance, and the father gives it. The younger son moves away to a distant land, squanders the money, hard economic times fall on the land, and the son finds a job feeding the pigs – and was so hungry that he longed for the corn cobs he fed the pigs, but no one gave him anything. Last night we wondered why the son would want to leave home? Was he a rebellious spirit? Did he not want to go into the family business? Did he feel he couldn’t be himself or live his life at home? What do you think? Have you ever chosen to go to a “distant land” in your own life experience?
Then, I love this next line, the younger son came to his senses! He realized he needed help. He realized that his father was kind and generous, and that all the servants and hired hands of his father’s had plenty to eat. So he decided to go home, to say – I am not worthy to be your son – but will you take me on as a hired hand. When have you “come to your senses” and asked for help?
The story continues with the father seeing his son off in the distance and running out to greet him. Before the son can say his rehearsed speech, the father says – bring out a robe, kill the fatted calf, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet – for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, was lost but now is found. In one swoop the father takes the son in, restores him to full status as a son, and throws a party. Why would the father do this? Why not let the son come home (as both Jewish and Christian tradition allows for) but let him eat regular food, let him think about what he has done and why? Why a party?
Which brings us to the older son. He hears the music and comes to the house. He asks what is going on, and is angry when he learns that the younger son is back, and that his father has thrown a party for him. He refuses to go in the house. But the father comes to him, greets him just as he greeted the younger son. But the older son blames his father for never throwing a party for him – and he had been faithful and good. We can understand the son’s frustration and anger, can’t we? It doesn’t seem fair. And thus we must face the fact that grace is not about fairness, or even justice. Grace is a gift we are given and don’t deserve.
Now, remember that Jesus is telling this parable to help the Pharisees and scribes to know why he eats with tax collectors and sinners. This story would offend the Pharisees and scribes. The actions of the younger son – feeding pigs – was unclean. And while the sheep and the coin had value, the younger son – who was a sinner – had no value at all until he repented. In this story it seems that the one who has done wrong is rewarded.
In the commentaries I read on this, it was said that the father’s value system was different from the usual criteria of fairness and justice. his values rejoice in the presence and health of both his sons. The older son’s faithfulness over the years was a great gift that the father treasured. And now, the younger son was home and safe, the one who had been lost has been found, and what could make a father more joyful? We often thing in terms of dualisms, of either / or. But here we have an example of a father loving both sons.
And so we might realize that grace offends a sense of fairness, and forgiveness can come across as condoning. And as one commentator put it – “we get a glimpse of divine sadness at human resentment of divine compassion.” And is it true that we resent such compassion, especially if we have been the good and faithful child serving every day, giving up other things we might have liked to do?
So I hope you will share your thoughts on this. What do you connect with in the story? What is your impression of each of the characters? Are you offended by such grace that isn’t fair?
(Next week our story will be from Genesis 12, the story of Abram and Sarai being called.)
Rev. Joe Hoffman