A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Lent 4

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The introduction of our gospel picks up on a favourite theme in Luke’s Gospel—Jesus, friend of sinners and outcasts, and here he is associating with “…all the tax collectors and sinners [who] were coming near to listen to him.” This whole chapter is devoted to parables of the lost and found. According to Luke, Jesus in this chapter is criticized by a group of Pharisees and scribes for offering hospitality to and eating with sinners. In the ancient Eastern world, hospitality and eating together were signs of friendship and love of neighbour. Today too, they have the potential of—and sometimes succeed in—breaking down categories of various kinds that serve to divide people.

Our parable, verses 11b-32, in my Bible is titled: “The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother.” Over the centuries the parable has been given a variety of names, and often the titles reveal what preachers focus on in the parable, for example: The Parable of the Prodigal Son, The Parable of the Prodigal Father, The Parable of the Loving Father, The Parable of the Waiting Father, and so on. Indeed, in my preaching over the years I’ve employed such titles. However, as I read and reflect on the parable now, I would title it “The Parable of Prodigals,” since I believe that both sons and their father were prodigals in one way or another. Speaking of titles, recently I read an article by Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, who had an insight that I never thought of before. She believes the father is a negligent one in that he failed to consult with the elder brother concerning how to handle the younger son. The elder son was left out of the decision-making process regarding the party that was thrown to celebrate the younger son’s return home.

On occasion—likely because I’m the eldest son in my family—I’ve sermonized in an empathic way concerning the eldest son. For example, if we take seriously the detail of verse 12, that the father “…divided his property between them,” then I believe the case can be made for the eldest son’s complaint at the end of the parable about the party—after all, the property, the food, and perhaps even the musicians and dancers were paid for from what rightfully belonged to the eldest son, since the father inherited everything to the sons. I realise this reasoning isn’t concretely substantiated in the parable; and that traditionally the eldest son often received more of the inheritance than other siblings—yet, there is something about this parable that doesn’t sit quite right with yours truly. After all, we’re told that the eldest son has been responsible all along—in fact, puts forth this complaint, the foundation of which seems to be one of a fair playing field and justice: “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command.” He has been a model son, working hard, accepting responsibilities, doing the right thing—albeit he seems to see it as slavery rather than being motivated by compassion. Hence, in this sense he too is prodigal, if his primary motivation is not based on love for his father. Prodigal too in that he seems to want to remain—reading between the lines—angry with and alienated from his younger brother, whom we note, he doesn’t call him by name, keeping his distance from him by saying: “this son of yours,” in verse 30. Indeed, after the eldest brother’s complaint, the parable leaves it open-ended as to whether or not the eldest brother listens to his father’s plea for compassion and forgiveness and joins in the celebration.

Coming back to the other two main characters, the youngest son and the father—I think we can identify with both of them as well. The youngest son has experienced “the university of hard knocks” so-to-speak in that he was humiliated in the far country by, out of desperation, having to accept a job of feeding the pigs; and if one can take him at his word, he was “dying of hunger.” If he was Jewish, having to accept a job feeding pigs would definitely not be kosher. “Dying of hunger” would certainly be no picnic either! So he hits bottom so-to-speak and plans his repentance speech and heads back home—hoping that his father will at least take him back as one of his slaves, since even they were better off than he was now. Notice however in his repentance speech that there is no mention of his elder brother. One question that we might ask is: Did the youngest son leave home in the first place because there had been a falling out with his elder brother? The parable doesn’t tell us, but perhaps that was a possibility. Another question we may ask is: Since the eldest brother is not mentioned in the repentance speech, is the silence an indication of a broken relationship between the brothers? Such questions, I realise are not answerable with any degree of certainty.

All those of us who are fathers or mothers I think can identify with the father in the parable. Sometimes children can “push the envelope” to the limits and then some. They can leave home and go off into “the far country.” Sometimes, tragically, children never come home again. There are countless stories of “waiting fathers and mothers,” and “loving fathers and mothers,” who agonize over broken relationships with their children. Sometimes those broken relationships fail to end with compassion and reconciliation, and that is truly tragic. Sometimes however parties are thrown and parents become prodigal in going all out with their celebrations—showing generosity and compassion beyond everyone’s expectations. That indeed is a fine picture of who our God is in his relationship with each one of us! For that, thanks be to God!

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Sermon for 4 Lent Yr C

Read my sermon for March 6, 2016 here: 4 Lent Yr C