Four mini-sermons on the parable of the prodigal son: This first one, The Prodigal Son in the Key of F is not original to me, although I have done some editing. The original version and idea came from Timothy Fulop who at the time was on administrative staff at Columbia Theological Seminary. #1 The Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Key of FFeeling footloose and frisky, a feather-brained fellow forced his fond father to fork over the family finances. He flew far to foreign fields and frittered his fortune, feasting fabulously with faithless friends.
Fleeced by his fellows in folly, and finally facing famine, he found himself a feed-flinger in a filthy farmyard. Feeling frail and fairly famished he fain would have filled his frame with the foraged foods of the fodder fragments left by the filthy farmyard creatures.
‘Fooey’, he figured, ‘My father’s flunkies fare far fancier.’ The frazzled fugitive fumed feverishly, frankly facing the facts. Frustrated by failure and filled with foreboding, he forthwith fled the foreign farmyard, back to his family. From faraway, the father focused on the fretful familiar form on the horizon and flew to him and fondly flung his forearms around the fatigued fugitive.
Falling at his father’s feet, he floundered forlornly. ‘Father, I have flunked and fruitlessly forfeited family favour.’ But the faithful father, forestalling further flinching frantically flagged a field hand. ‘Fetch forth the finest fatling and fix a feast.’
Faithfully, the father’s first-born was in a fertile field fixing fences while father and fugitive were feeling festive. The foreman felt fantastic as he flashed the fortunate news of a familiar family face that had forsaken fatal foolishness. But this fault-finding first born frowned on the favor shown the fugitive and such fickle forgiveness from father. His fury flashed. He’d never faultered, he’d never fled the family farm. He was forever faithful. But fussing was futile. The far-sighted father confirmed, such filial fidelity is fine, and the first born would be furnished with the remaining family fortune, but what forbids fervent festivity?
The fugitive is found! “Unfurl the flags, with fanfares flaring! Let fun and frolic freely flow!” “Former failure is forgotten, folly is forsaken! And forgiveness forms the foundation for future fortitude.”
#2 The Prodigal
Jesus spins out this story in a way that emphasizes just how far the younger son falls away and disrespects his family. Being a patriarchal culture, it was typical for property to be passed down to sons, but this usually happened upon the father’s death. Asking his father for his portion of the property while the father is still alive is essentially making the statement that the son wishes the father dead. The next verse mentions in the same breath the son gathering together his possessions from home, and quickly scattering them in a distant land
He is left with no assets expect his own labor. For a Jewish audience, hearing that he ended up working in a field of pigs would have signaled that he had sunk to a lowly, desperate state. To want to eat what the pigs eat only emphasizes this all the more. In the jargon of Alcoholics Anonymous, he hit bottom, and recognized that he was either going to die or have to start a new life. He shamefully makes a start for home.
The Father that he had wished dead now rushes out to him, embraces him, and says “This son of mine was dead and is alive again.” There are echoes of Easter and resurrection here. There are no questions asked. The son can’t even finish saying the long explanation he had been rehearsing on his way home. He is welcomed with open arms and treated better than if he had never left at all. A miracle of resurrection – life from death.
We may by now be used to this gracious story. Songwriter Michelle Shocked puts it in new light. Prodigal sons are often welcomed home with more open arms than prodigal daughters. In her song, “Prodigal Daughter” she sings:
When a girl goes home with the oats she’s sownIt’s draw your shades and your shuttersShe’s bringing such shame to the family name
The return of the prodigal daughter
This reflects what is still a male bias in our culture. We expect boys to be boys and the thought of welcoming them back home after some wild oat sewing may not be all that radical an idea, but daughters are often held to a different standard of behavior for family honor. Is the prodigal daughter just as welcome? Will there be someone there to run and greet and kiss her before she even gets through the door?
In the spirit of this parable, our God is one who welcomes home all prodigals, no questions asked. The welcoming arms in this parable speak the message, “No matter where you’ve been, no matter what you’ve done, daughter, son, you are always welcome home.”
But going beyond this parable, when the prodigal daughter or son do return home the story is far from finished. The difficult process of healing is only beginning. It will take the long, extended embrace of the whole family over a period of years to bring about the healing needed. It may also take a long, extended embrace of a church family for people to experience true welcome and reconciliation, the miracle of the dead being raised to new life, the resurrection of body and spirit.
3. The Elder Son
I was once a part of a group where we were sharing our faith stories with each other. We called them testimonies. Our leader encouraged us to shape our stories around three points. We were to tell about what we were like before we got saved and how bad we were, what our salvation experience was like, and how our lives have changed since we’ve been saved. When it came around to a seventh grade boy I wondered what he was going to say. He had been in church his whole life and didn’t seem like much of a rebel. Being faithful to the three point outline, he said, “Well, when I was in elementary school I cussed a few times, but then I found Jesus and I don’t cuss anymore.”
This boy’s attempt to fit his life story into that one format is a nice illustration that the story of the prodigal son is not a universal template. Salvation can, but doesn’t always involve being rescued from a life of wallowing with the pigs.
There is another son in the story that may closer resemble some people’s lives. The elder son never left home, never asked for his inheritance early, never wasted a penny, and served his father every day. I would imagine that when the elder son was in church every Sunday he never did get much out of singing Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. The words don’t really seem to apply. If he was never really lost, it follows that there is no need for him to be found.
But as the parable unfolds, it becomes clear that there are two prodigal sons, with the elder son being lost and wretched in a different sort of way. He had been a part of the safety and nurture of his father’s household his whole life, but had failed to develop a grateful, joyful spirit. And he is lost.
There’s a party going on and he won’t participate. There’s a party going on and he remains on the outside judging and calculating whether this is fair or just or deserved for someone far less faithful than him to be celebrated like this.
When his father comes out to talk to him, this son distances himself from his brother, instead calling him “This son of yours.” He can’t even accept that such a person is his brother.
The parable ends unresolved. Both the father and the elder son are standing outside the party with the father pleading with the older son to understand.
These two sons have some things to teach each other. It’s been said that “If the younger son is going to survive, he badly needs some of his older brother’s discipline and devotion. If the older son is going to survive, he badly needs some of his younger brother’s brokenness and humility,” and gratitude and joy.
Will the elder son ever realize that he too is lost? What will it take to cause a breaking in of gratefulness and joy in his life? When will the elder son come in and join the party? If he ever does choose to walk into the party and embrace his brother, what kind of testimony will he have? What will be the shape of his story to share with others?
4. The Father
It’s unfortunate that this story has come to be called the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is not the way Jesus sets us up to hear it. He begins by saying, “There was a man who had two sons.” The character who gets first mention, the man, the father, turns out to be the one who gets the spotlight in the end. Some have suggested calling this “The Father and the two lost sons.” Another title that came to mind for me this week was “God’s dysfunctional family.” For as loving and compassionate as this father is, he still has some troubled and struggling kids.
Jesus’ audience for this parable, as it says back at the beginning chapter 15, is composed of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and scribes. Rather than separating out which ones were in and which ones were out, Jesus tells a parable where they are all in the same family, albeit somewhat dysfunctional. This family is held together by the loving Father.
And this father is one who shows the qualities more fitting a mother at that time. In an honor/shame culture, in which all of the family honor rested on the shoulders of the father, this father has been dishonored through and through. His son has asked for his inheritance early, wishing his father dead, and then brought further shame through destructive living. A law in Deuteronomy 21 stated that a rebellious son was to be stoned to death, thus restoring some of the family honor. This father does not play out that role. His other son will not join the family celebration. This father just doesn’t seem to have much control at all over these sons of his.
His response is motherly. For a first century Palestinian Jew, public display of emotion and affection was not something a father did. Running toward someone was especially not something a father did – and not especially easy in a robe, requiring that the father pull his robe up to his knees, bringing further shame. This simply isn’t what a father did. But this father/mother figure is a runner, a hugger, a kisser, and a partier.
As a God figure, this father surpasses any kind of gender metaphors we can assign. What is God like? God is like a parent who allows us to make our own decisions in life, even if they are harmful to us. God is like one who runs toward us, even when we are far away. God rushes toward us, embraces us and kisses us. Before we can start listing our faults or excusing our past actions, we are already in God’s embrace. God is the Spirit that celebrates our life and throws a party for us. If we are one who refuses to go in to the party, God is like one who comes out to us and hands us a personal invitation to join. We are invited, always invited into the party. Always being lured out of our sullenness and joylessness into the party with sinners and saints.
As the apostle Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 5, God’s work is that of reconciliation. Reconciliation within God’s dysfunctional family, calling together daughters, sons, religious, unreligious, poor, wealthy, haters, lovers, and everyone in between. “Forgiveness forms the foundation for future fortitude.” Come join this good work of reconciliation. Come join the party.