Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Prodigal Father: A Tale of Two Brothers


“The Prodigal Father: A Tale of Two Brothers"
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 10, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 15: 11-32
 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
Amen. 

This morning the  Gospel reading is from Luke 15:11-32, the famous parable of Jesus, commonly known as "The Prodigal Son." I want to include the first three verses of Chapter 15, because it provides the audience for Jesus telling this story, which has some import in its interpretation, especially because it seems that who the audience is will help us see the issue that Jesus is trying to address. So verse 1-3, then 11-32. 

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:  

And Jesus tells three parables, one about a Lost Sheep, one about a lost Coin, and then this one:


11 Then Jesus said, “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.’ ” [1]

This morning for me is one of those great times in the lectionary, where you get one of your favorite passages to preach on. I use Spotify alot, which is this music app that allows you to make playlists of pretty much any song ever recorded, and then listen to them for free as long as you are on your computer. It's amazing, so I make these long play lists of days and days of songs, then put it on random play, every once in a while you get one of those songs, where your like yeah, that's the stuff. You wouldn't have chosen to listen to it, or if you had it wouldn't be the same as it just happening outside of your control. It's so much better that way, it's like you get extra permission to enjoy it. This morning is kinda like that for me. I've thought often about this passage. I've taught Bible Studies on it. I've written two poems based on it, and one more that is loosely connected. I've used it to augment a sermon before, but I've never flat out preached on it, so I'm excited, and with an intro like that you have to deliver, so here goes.
I decided to title this sermon a little differently than you'd expect, giving the father the "prodigal" label, and including both sons, because this story is not just a story about one who has gone astray and has been redeemed, forgiven, and accepted, but much wider. It includes the effects such love, mercy, and forgiveness, the collateral damage, if you will. . . and the sadness of finding yourself seemingly on the outside of such love and forgiveness. There is much to this parable, and so instead of just, The Prodigal Son, I wish to rename the parable, "The Prodigal Father: A Tale of Two Brothers," and have done so as far as this sermon is concerned.
So why, the prodigal father? Doesn't prodigal mean reckless, lawless, without morals, without regard for others, wanton, etc. No, prodigal simply means "excess" or "excessive." You could say that the father in this story is certainly that. He doesn't just welcome his wayward son back into the fold, he doesn't just give him back his place at the table, he throws a huge party for him, and sacrifices, giving him the fatted calf, the prize piece of livestock, which would have had great value, it was a precious and limited commodity. This father does this, he also, seeing the son returning from far away, goes running, filled with compassion, out to him and he kisses him repeatedly. He loses all sense of propriety and control, overcome by joy and emotion and embarrassingly so. So that's the "prodigal" father.
Now let's take a look at the first son, the one who has typically been given the label prodigal throughout the history of the study of this parable. Now look at what this son does. The first thing that he does is asks for his inheritance early, which I've been told in the culture is like saying to your father, hey, I wish you were dead. Pretty bad, but the father does it. It says he divides up the inheritance between the them. So this begs the question. Is the inheritance all? Does this leave this father destitute and dependent on the other brother? Good question, and one we'll look at later. But so now this son, goes off with his share of the fortune, the passage says to a distant land and according to the NRSV "squanders his property through dissolute living." It's this word "dissolute" that I'd like to take a look at.
The reason is I think it is important to get at what really went down with this money, especially since the other brother puts his two cents in about it later on, he says to the father, that the brother "devoured his money with prostitutes." That is a high charge, but is that what happened? It all comes down to that word "dissolute." If you look at how other translations look at this, you see a pattern. The NIV says "wild living," the RSV says, "loose living," the Good News Bible says, "reckless" living, and the King James says, "riotous living," and as I've said already the NRSV says dissolute living, which I think gets closer to the point, but it's an interesting word study, and one that shows very truly the difficulty of translating the Bible from an Ancient Language to a Modern one.
Here is what I mean. The original Greek Word is "asotos" which if you look up it says sometimes, riotous, sometimes dissolute. Now if we look at the Greek word outside of this easy translation, and look at its parts  you see the "A" prefix, which means without, like in English Asymmetrical or Atheist, without symmetry, without God. So this is without, and then sotos, means wholeness. So literally this word means, living without wholeness. So dissolute makes sense, right, dissolute if you look at the parts would mean, not solvent, dis- the latin prefix for without, and then solute, like solvent, so living without solvency, outside of your means, etc. But if you look up dissolute in the dictionary you get: indifferent to moral restraints; given to immoral or improper conduct; licentious; dissipated. Why? Because English truly takes its meaning from two sources, Shakespeare and the King James Bible. It is hard to get at a true translation because our language is shaped by tradition, now the tradition in this story is to say that the younger brother squandered all his money by living this licentious, riotous, corrupt life, but what is the source for that? The Elder Brother, and 1. does he know? and 2. is that a detail that Jesus chose to mention in that way? It fits the narrative that the church wanted to present so it went, and frankly this narrative is very much in line with the Elder brother's perspective and not the younger ones, but what is Jesus' perspective. It is hard for us to get at it today what the real true aspect of the narrative is. I think you could easily translate asotos as without wholeness, or outside of his means, running up debt, etc., not necessarily filled with the immorality he is accused of by his brother. The next sentence could back that up: "When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need." So you are living outside your means and hard times hit and you need money. So he hires himself out, but to strangers, and thinks back to how his father had treated his men, so he decides to take a chance and try to work for his father not as a son, but as a hired hand. So he does, and we know the rest of that story.
So now to the other brother, the elder brother, the elder son, "presbuteros uios," do you hear Presbyterian in that? So he's out working and hears the commotion and asks a slave of the house, what is going on? The slave says, "your brother has come home and  your father has killed the fatted calf, and we are all celebrating because he is home safe". Let's return to the text to see the elder son's reaction. . .

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!’  

Do you hear that anger and bitterness there? He will not come inside to the celebration, he says that he has been working like a slave, never has the father thrown him even a lesser party, then he doesn't say my brother, he says, this son of yours, ouch, it's like a Cosby Show I remember when Theo got an earring and his mother was going to have Cliff, the father kill him, so when he gets home from work, she says, do you know what your son did? It's funny how when the child does something bad they always belong to the other. When Tulane, our dog wasn't housebroken yet, she was always my dog when she peed on the floor. So here this son is disowning his brother, and then accuses him of all wasting his money on prostitutes, which we've already questioned, especially how does he know, and can we trust his word on this, although it certainly fits that pharisaical moralistic narrative the church has been so fond of.
So here three characters: a prodigal and excessive father, a son who was lost and is now found, and then a son who has been there all the time, who now will not come in, is now on the outside. Ignoring any aspect of this story is missing much, so let's look at the audience now. The verses at the beginning of this chapter outline who is listening, and what the situation is:

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 it is, so he is speaking to the grumbling Pharisees and Scribes, who are complaining about, how "all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to him to listen." And he gives three parables, all showing how exciting it is for God when the lost become found, but it is this third one where he pushes the story further, and he includes his audience's point of view in the story. He is speaking to the Pharisees and the scribes, and they seem to best embody this elder son. So I ask you, who are you in the story? Which character are you closest to? The giving loving excessive father of forgiveness, the lost squandering soul, or the elder son, angry, bitter, and removed out in the cold?
Here is a telling aspect. . . How do you view the formerly known as prodigal, lost/now found son?  Do you judge him? Do you think to yourself, wow, he wasted his money spending it on prostitutes, what a weak soul? I would never. . . or can you begin to understand where he is coming from. . . living a little outside of his means, and has now caught up to him.
Here is another telling aspect. . . Do you see your life as fulfilling? Do you look to others who are living without your sense of duty and responsibility, and look at them with longing? Do you see everything  you do as being a slave, earning, grinding, dutifully fulfilling your sense of requirement, while others are being rewarded for nothing? How does such injustice make you feel? Do you want to live in a world with a Prodigal Father. . . a Prodigal God?
Here is the rub, Jesus is here saying that we do live in such a world with such a God. You don't get a vote. This is how God is. Loving, forgiving, excessively so, so overcome with emotion at the thought of your redemption that he will come running and meet you at the gate, bestowing you with gifts. Two questions loom in this parable, and it is precisely these questions that Jesus is asking those grumbling scribes and pharisees, and they both deal with humility. 1. Can you humble yourself enough to return to a father who has given you all, and ask for more? And 2. Can you handle it when he treats others that way, too? I hope so because that is the way it is. . .
I said that I wrote two poems that are based directly on this parable, you can find those two in the insert in your bulletin. I'd like to close with the third, which loosely deals with the same topic. It's called Mercy: 

Fairness does not survive in a world of grace
For it would be fair and just to punish us
For we fall far short of the standard. 

It makes us question the divine wisdom of one,
Who creates a world that makes no sense
To us for we cannot fathom mercy. 

Mercy takes away the limits that comfort us,
Finding peace in control, in order, in symmetry,
Blind to invisible order outside of our plans. 

We need limits because we are created finite.
At some point, though we push, there is the end.
It takes mercy and love and faith and 

God out of our plausible categories. To truly
Understand God, our must be put aside
Leaving only the eternal mercy of the infinite

Another word for infinite is excessive, prodigal, eternal mercy of a prodigal God is the way of the universe. May we be at peace in such a world. Amen.



[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 15:11-32). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.