“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: . . . “ (Luke 15:1 – 3)
Actually Jesus told two other parables, the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, before this one. In a way those two parables the stage for this longer parable.
“There was a man who had two sons. 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. 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.” (Verses 11b – 13)
I remember as a young child (at least I think this actually happened) seeing this parable acted out during a worship service. It was part of those times, the 1960’s and 70’s, when churches really made an effort to reach out to the very young and engage adults in worship services and evening services that appealed to all age groups and understandings. This type of presentation made the bible come alive and really set the stage for my later interest in ministry and making scripture accessible and understandable.
“When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 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.” (Verses 14 – 15)
As I read further in this story I do remember seeing this parable performed – maybe not as a child but certainly at an age in my life that it had impact.
“He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 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! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ (Verses 16 – 19)
It is at this point in the story that the value of seeing the parable performed becomes apparent – especially if the roles are well cast. If you can, beloved reader, image it in your mind an older man slightly bent from age seeing his young son come towards him – not arrogant as he was when he left, but thinner, and perhaps limping himself, with head bowed & tears in his eyes.
“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. 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.’ “ (Verses 20 – 21)
The young man is not deterred or mollified by his father’s affection. He wants to make clear to his father that he was in the wrong and does not expect the special attention and affection that he once had. This is important in this story. The young man knows his sin and confesses it freely to his father.
Henry Nouwen, a great writer and an even greater man, wrote about this parable and a picture that he saw that depicts this moment, Nouwen said he could see himself in all the roles that this parable has – the father who has lost someone dear to him, the young son who has made so many mistakes, and the older son who comes later in the story.
“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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.” (Verses 22 – 24)
Do you see, beloved reader, the importance of the proceeding parables? The emphasis on celebrating the finding of what was thought to be lost? But this parable takes another turn.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ “ (Verses 25 – 27)
I will confess, beloved reader, that sometimes I come before the Lord with the confess of my sinning because I want to feel the welcome that this prodigal son had. I do not sin because I wish to experience the forgiveness and welcome; I confess with out fear, however, because I know I will be welcomed back by the Lord God the Divine.
“Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ “ (Verses 27 – 30)
In the presentation of the parable that I watched as a mini play this part of the story was acted also. And again, if the roles were cast well you could well understand the anger of the older son. And his feeling that he never had is father’s affection as his younger brother did. As I think about it this section, it reminds me of that the other side of the story of Joseph might have been like, and where the anger that Joseph’s eleven older brothers might have had. One more thing – I always felt like my role would have been more of that of the older son/brother. Having never strayed as far as the younger did, I was more likely to have been the one who stayed around and acted the part of the loyal son.
“Then the father said to him, ‘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.'” (Verses 31 – 32)
Which part do you identify with the most beloved reader? The younger prodigal son who ventured out having cashed in on his father’s good will? The older son who was faithful but never felt appreciated or rewarded? Or the father who worried and wept over his sons, never sure if they understood his love and care for them?
It is interesting to note that none of these roles seemed to fit the Pharisees and scribes. Not the young son, for they would never have confessed doing any wrong. Not the older son because he never availed himself special treatment. And certainly not the loving father who welcomed the sinning son back as a favored son. No, the Pharisees and scribes were only bystanders and probably learned nothing from the story. But we, beloved reader, we can see ourselves in any of these roles; and each role has a lesson for us. May you, in the time that remains in the season of Lent, think upon this story and the lessons it has. Selah!