Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32: 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:
Then Jesus said, “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. 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. 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.”’ 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.’ 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.
“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.’ 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!’ 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.’” (NRSV)
Greetings to you and peace from God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Abiding Holy Spirit.
My heart breaks when I read the words of the older son as he starts to lay in on his Father: “You have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.”
Oof, can you hear it? The crushing weight of years in that accusation. My heart breaks because I can relate. I am an oldest child, oldest of all my cousins too. I had to grow up quickly and take on more responsibility than many of my peers. I was expected to be helpful, work hard, and figure out where to be of use. Definitely not cause problems, because I understood that I was appreciated because I made life smoother for others. I wasn’t an imposition. Since I wasn’t an imposition, I can relate to the feeling of wanting a reward or some special attention for being a good child. I can relate to the feeling that it seemed other people were rewarded for making, not bad, but maybe thoughtless, reckless, or selfish decisions. That my excellence was commonplace, their bungles were excellent.
And it breaks my heart what the father says in reply: “Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
I don’t hear anger or defensiveness, but sadness in his voice. A sadness that both aches and stings, like a fresh cut on an old wound. Like he is pleading with his son, “Don’t you see, all of this is already yours and I am still with you. Don’t you see, you have all this and you have me.”
Do you know what the word prodigal means? It’s okay if you don’t because I didn’t. I thought it meant something like wayward. The wayward son. But it actually means, or one of its meanings is “having or giving on a lavish scale.” It is fascinating to me that it can mean both giving and getting, both bestowing and bearing. That embedded in the word is a sense of motion, a flow, a connectedness, a release and caught, a pouring out and filled, a letting go and embraced. It is this flow, this affinity that the Father is trying to teach to his older son.
The Father’s words break my heart because I don’t think he is scolding his older son, but instead trying to be seen for the type of father he is. The type of father that he is committed to being. And he is the type of father who knows who he is and what he wants so clearly that when his younger son asks for his inheritance early, shaming and insulting him in the process, he says “yes.” Even though all his neighbors think he is stupid and weak-willed for going through with it. He doesn’t care. What is the point of having such a household, having all these resources, if not to release them once more? To pour them out? Release them so that he can delight in his son before he dies. Delight in the change that will be required in his son when he meets the vast, beautiful, ferocious, complex, and wonderful world. Delight in a son who boldly leaps into the world to go find joy, passion, love, a sanctuary, a struggle, a heartbreak, wonders, big or small. Delight in the changes he must undergo to stay connected to a son that is changing and growing and learning.
This is a prodigal father who wants his sons to be prodigal with life lived. To raise sons who know they have a father who desires to say “yes” to their dreams and hopes and passions. So that he can delight in parenting the fullness of his sons. He wants this not because it is right or necessary or fair or sensible but because it is possible.
Here is a father yearning for the day when his older son will make a move toward something. Will see that he is not unappreciated, not trapped, but actually has a father ready to look like a fool, bear disrepute, for the sake of his desires, and then endeavor toward something.
Heartbreaking because just earlier that very day this father had a lost son return to him thinking that his waste, his mistakes, meant that he could only return as a hired hand. That he could only participate in the life of the estate, the household, on a short-term, periodic basis. That he could only belong as needed.
Now his older son is telling him that he feels he only belongs to the household as a slave. A member of the household to be sure, but the lowest one. One who does not get to exercise determination but labors under others’ decisions and commitments.
Just as this prodigal father would not even let the words “hired hand” make their way past his younger son’s lips, but instead lavished on him a robe, a ring, sandals, a feast, and a party, now the father stands before his elder son and lavishes upon him everything. His whole estate, his constant, loving attention, a redeemed brother, a feast, and a party. Just as the younger son had to realize that life in the father’s house was better than his current circumstances, now the older son does too. That his current circumstances are meager while life with his father is prodigal.
Here the story ends, before the elder son has made his decision to change, to head in to participate in the loud, disruptive, beauty that is a lively, unexpected party.
I love this example sentence that I came across for prodigal: “The dessert was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream.” I love the image of some delectable baked thing buried under, blanketed by, mounds of airy whipped cream. How delightful to imagine that we are similarly buried by bountiful grace heaped onto us by God who is ready to say, “Maybe just a bit more.” Our God who doesn’t much care whether They appear foolish or weak so long as They can delight in us. Delight in the sparkle of our eyes when we receive a “yes!” to our hopes and dreams, big and small. Cherish the feel of our solidity wrapped in Their arms when we are brave enough or tired enough to turn back. Savor the anticipation while waiting for us to release the latch of our self-sprung traps. Delight in the parties along the way, prodigal and disruptive and full.