New Revised Standard Version
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.’”
There is a professor of homelitics at the Vancouver School of Theology, a man named Jason Byasee, who told me recently that if you’re reading the Bible and you don’t feel convicted, you’re not reading it right. If you aren’t reading the Bible against yourself and your own self-interests and the interests of your own community, then you aren’t reading it right. But if you read the Bible in a way that makes you repent – which is to say – if you read the Bible in a way that transforms you and the way you think and the way you love and the way you act, then you are probably reading it right. To this I would add the following: if you read the Bible and the Good News seems straightforward and easy, then you are probably not reading it right. But if you read the Bible and the Good News and it seems nonesensical and wild, if the Good News bucks any standard of wordly common sense, then you are probably reading it right. And finally if the Bible causes in you feelings of astonishment and joy, then you are probably reading it right.
The parable of The Prodigal Son begins with that son asking his father for his inheritance. The great theologian N. T. Wright explains that in Jesus’ culture, for the son to ask for his share of the inheritance before his father’s death was the equivalent of saying ‘I wish you were dead.’ This was a disrespectful and dishonouring and insulting act, one that would have earned this younger son disrespect and dishonour and insult. After all, children owe everything to their parents – not the other way around. Contrary to all expectations, the loving father agrees to divide the property between his two sons. And as if to underline the point of the younger son’s disrespect, Jesus tells us that the younger son then abandons his father, abandons all responsibility and cuts all familial ties with his father and family, and his community, and his culture, and God’s chosen people, to travel to a foreign country. And there, he wastes his inheritance having sex with prostitutes and living wild. For the community around Jesus that, everyday, traded in the currencies of respect and honour and shame and religiosity, this story must have been truly shocking. It would be shocking in our day too.
Imagine giving your son all that you have saved and earned for him, to find out he has used it to take advantage of desperate and vulernable women on the downtown eastside, using them as sex objects. Can you imagine what you’d feel and what you’d do? What kind of a person would take their inheritance, a gift from a parent to a child that expresses love in such material ways, what kind of a person would take their inheritance and use it in such terrible ways?.....................
You are. You are that kind of person. I am. I am that kind of person. All of us. We are all that kind of person. Without exception.
Our inheritance was the Earth. Our inheitance was creation – a beautiful gift from the Creator. A gift that expresses the Creator’s love for us in such a material way. It couldn’t be more precious and more wonderful. Who hasn’t marvelled at the wonder of Creation? At the smell of briney sea water? The rustling of long grass in a warm breeze? The crabs that hide under rocks, and the birds that dance erotic dances for each other and sing love songs to one another, and the apes who speak intelligently to us with a simple look in their eyes or a gesture of their hands? Who hasn’t marvelled at a waterfall in a forest? Or a penguin on sea ice? Or a seal slipping through a waving kelp forest?
It’s simply breathtaking. This gift of Creation. A gift handed down to us from our human ancestors, generation upon generation, passed on through our ancestor species evolving from species before, inherited from the earliest life forms, back through the cosmic forces that created suns and their planets, back through the weft and warp of time and space, to the very beginning of Creation. To God. A gift given to us by the Maker and Sustainer of the Universe.
And we took that inheritance and we desecrated it. We have consumed this wonderful gift with an insatiable hunger. With our vacations and our renovations and our tear downs and our trinkets and our gadgets and our Christmas gifts and pastic Easter baskets and our internal combustion engines, we have singlehandedly caused one of the greatest extinction events in all of geological history. At no point in human history has the average human being caused more damage to the planet than you and I have over our lifetimes. And we keep at it. Using the Earth as though it were a prostitute. Treating Creation as an object for our own gratitification – with no thought to the harm we are doing.
The word ‘prodigal’ means extravagantly wasteful. Which we have been. This parable about the prodigal son is about us, prodigal sons and daughters and children. If you don’t feel convicted, you aren’t reading it right.
And the parable story continues exactly where our story is about to go. The son finds himself with nothing to eat. Alone in a famine of his own making.
We face a coming famine. The dread of what’s to come in our ecological crisis is terrifying. But what makes it so much worse, unbearably worse, is knowing that it’s all our fault. We did this. You and me. We all could have stopped it. We still can. But we haven’t and we won’t. That is the terrifying truth: it is the scalet letter we cannot hide, and the burden too heavy to carry. That is our terrible guilt, which compounds on top of our terrible fear of the famine. That we and our children somehow deserve what is to come. We are as low as a starving Jewish man fighting swine for filthy food in a pig pen.
So far the Pharisees and the people around Jesus have heard the Parable of the Prodigal Son and hear a story about the consequences of sin. And the only way the story can turn right, they think, is if the son repents. Which is to say, only if the son feels the full shame of his actions and decides to correct them, only then will order be restored.
And sure enough, Jesus tells us that the younger son has come to himself, which means he comes to his senses. He suddenly realizes who he is, and what he’s done, and what he’s lost. And in guilt decides to return to his father confessing his sin, knowing he will no longer be loved, but adopting a sorrowful and pitiful stature in life that reflects his wasteful ways.
And so it must be that we must also repent. We also have to admit that we have been terrible stewards of a precious and fragile gift. The Pharisees and all those with common sense know that this is the only way to save ourselves and the world. All is right again. Once we humbly confess our sins and wickedness, then we will be saved.
Thus ends the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
But, my dear friends. Jesus wasn’t telling the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He was telling the Parable of the Prodigal Father.
If it was the Parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus was telling, then the son would return to the father and say “I have sinned against you and against heaven. I deserve nothing more than to be your lowly servant.” And then God would look on him with kindness and welcome him back, glad that his son corrected his ways. The son having learned his lesson.
But this isn’t what happens at all in the Parable of the Prodigal Father. Jesus tells us that “while the son was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” Now senior figures demanding respect do not run like school children, they do not fling themselves on people that have hurt them and kiss them as if nothing has happened. This is ridiculous behaviour. Really, Jesus meant the father’s actions to sound ridiculous. And he gets even more ridiculous. The loving father orders his servants to clothe his son with the best robe (which the master father should wear), and to put a ring on the son’s finger (we’re talking here about that master’s signet ring – something you would use to stamp your debts with, to buy things with. The father is giving the son a no limits credit card that could buy him anything). Given the son’s previous predalections, this is shocking. And then he puts sandals on the son’s feet. Which is what a slave does for a master. This is ridiculous behaviour. This son’s crimes are huge, the dishonour as total as any imaginable in the ancient world, and yet he is clothed by his father with all the symbols of honour and respect. And the father doesn’t even wait for the son’s apology. Doesn’t even acknowledge the apology when it is made – not once does he refer to his son’s repentance in the rest of the Parable – not once does he say that the son has repented and therefore he is family again. Instead he does something still more totally ridiculous. The father orders his servants to prepare a fatted calf to celebrate his son – an enormous expense in the ancient world. And then he throws an extravagant party. The ridiculousness of this father knows no limits! Seriously, what else could Jesus come up with to make this any more ridiculous??? And why has this father showered his son with love and honour and respect? He says only this: he “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
To be prodigal means to be extravagantly wasteful. This is the story of a Prodigal Father, who’s Prodigal love is extravagantly wasteful. The wasteful love that the elder son objects to. If we are the Prodigal Sons and Daughters who have defiled creation, who have taken our inheritance and desecrated it, then what does the Parable of the Prodigal Father have to tell us?
It tells us that God is not interested in tallying our sins. Not even the tiniest little bit. The story where we are dragged into court and made to account for all we have done – where we get what we deserve, that’s a different parable. That’s the Parable of the Prodigal Son that we all thought we were hearing today.
The parable of the Prodigal Father tells us that we are loved. To no end. No matter what. Even with what we have done to the planet. If you’re like me, you are probably chaffing at this a little bit. We can’t get away with our pollution. It’s not okay. We can’t get away with our sin and our destruction without consequence. Even now, as I am preaching, I am thinking, surely I haven gotten this story wrong. It’s the repetance that really counts. It’s the repentance and the guilt and the self-flagellation of the son that results in him being celebrated. It’s our promise to do better, to drive less, to consume less, that will make things right and will save us. But it’s not. I have read this parable over and over. That’s not the story of the Prodigal Father.
What does it mean that God is so wasteful with his love that he would celebrate us and honour us and love us, even though we’ve been so disrespectful? What does that mean to you? If this parable isn’t about your guilt and shame and your need to repent, then what is it about? Isn’t it about how important you are? How cherished you are? How sacred you are?
Isn’t that what the Gospel is about? That you are so loved that God would run through a field and throw God’s arms around you and God would kiss you. That God would always put God’s self aside for you. For the person that you actually are. Not the person you’d hope to be or the person you think you should be. But for the person that you are. Do you hear, do you see, that God’s love is prodigal – extravagant, wasteful, abundant beyond all reason?
What if that was the Good News? Then what?