Who is the Prodigal?

Scripture:  Luke 15:11-32

I do not want to be presumptuous, but one of the things you may have figured out about me over is that I really like Star Wars.  Growing up we had the original Star Wars on VHS and I watched it so much that I wore the tape out.  So that tape got replaced and I wore the second copy out.  It got replaced by the Special Edition VHS and I probably would have worn that one out too if it did not get replaced by the DVD a few years later.  All that is to say that I have watched the original Star Wars a lot.  However, several years ago I read an article that was about some of the extras from the movie who were in the background and what they did post- Star Wars.  One of the people profiled was the storm trooper who hit his head.  I had no idea what this was referring to at first, so I had to look it up.  Sure enough there is a blooper that did not get removed from the movie, and a storm trooper does not duck and walks right into a door frame.  If you listen for it under the music, you can even hear the “bonk” as his helmeted head smacks against the frame.  I had watched this movie, who knows how many scores of times, yet I never noticed this little detail that was there the whole time.  I have the same feeling about this morning’s scripture.  This morning’s scripture is a well-known one.  Arguably it is right up there with the parable of the Good Samaritan as the most well-known story that Jesus told.   However, it was not until reading a devotional book last year that there are a couple of elements of this morning’s scripture was pointed out that I have never realized before.

This morning’s scripture is one that I have used dozens of times over the years.  I have used it for youth group lessons, children’s church, bible studies, and Sunday morning messages.   In doing so the emphasis tends to be on our identifying ourselves with the prodigal son, and casting God in the role of the father.    The story is emphasized as a story of redemption and grace.  If talking with a group of long time church people then perhaps there is an emphasis on the trying to identify with the older son to, as a way of expressing we should be open to celebrating the forgiveness of others.   One of the reasons why this parable is so well known is that it is one with layers and depth.   For that reason, this understanding of the parable is perfectly valid and has generations of Christian tradition behind understanding it in that way.  The detail that the devotion book pointed out was, that the original audience of the parable would have been far more likely to identify with the father than either of the sons.  In the typical understanding of the story we identify with the prodigal son to illustrate the goodness of grace and forgiveness or we asked to identify with the older son as a way to examine how our heart has been hardened.  However, we tend to ignore the idea of identifying with the father.  The story has enough wisdom and depth that we can cast ourselves in the perspective of all three individuals and gain a deeper understanding of God’s love and grace.  There is a good argument to be made that the original hearers of the story would have first identified with the father of the story, and when we consider the story from that angle we gain a deeper understanding of how we can be gracious people and how we can properly rejoice when the lost are found.

The first element of this morning’s scripture that was staring at me the whole time that I never realized it where the emphasis is.  This morning’s scripture is actually the third parable in a sequence.  Writing and communication experts to this day will talk about the importance of the rule of threes.  In order to really drive home a point and make it memorable then a point should be emphasized in three different ways.  This is exactly what Jesus is doing here.  He first tells a story about a shepherd who loses one sheep and leaves the 99 behind to find the one.  In the second story he tells about a woman who lost a coin, and turns her whole house upside down to find it.   This morning’s scripture the parable of the prodigal son, is the third story in the series.  It is also by far the most complex and in fact it is one of the most complex and developed stories that Jesus tells in all of the gospels.   All three of the stories deal with lost things being found.  One of the elements that is worth noting is that in the first two stories, the emphasis is less on the finding and more on the celebrating and rejoicing that the loss has been found.   Jesus does not always directly explain the greater point of his parables, but he does for the first two in this series.  At the end of both he directly states the point, for instance in Luke 15:10 Jesus states, “In the same way, I tell you there is rejoicing in the presence of the angles of God over one sinner who repents.”  It could easily be argued that even in the more developed story of the prodigal son, the emphasis is on rejoicing and celebrating the finding of the lost than it is the actual lost being found.   While grace and redemption can be found in all three stories, the emphasis of the story is on the rejoicing and celebrating.

The second element of this morning’s scripture that I regularly missed even though it was there the whole time is who these parables were directed towards.  To find this answer we have to look back to Luke chapter 15:1 which reads, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘ This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’   Then Jesus told them this parable:”

In all three of these parables Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and the teachers of the laws.   He even starts the parable of the sheep by stating “suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.”  Jesus intentionally put his audience in the role of the people who have lost something.   So it makes sense that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law would identify with the father in the story.  In part because that is the expectation that Jesus set up, and also because the Pharisees and the teachers of the law they were the patriarchs of the Jewish faith so it makes sense they would see themselves as the patriarch of the story.   It also makes sense that Jesus would want these individuals to identify with the father in the story, because it drives home the greater point he is making and would have been deeply convicting to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.

In the first century Jewish culture, the Pharisees and the teachers of the laws are the ones who had lost something.   There were the ones entrusted by the culture to teach and encourage others to stay faithful to God, so the sinners and tax collectors that they mutter about are the very people that they collectively lost along the way.   Jesus starts by telling the Pharisees to think of themselves as a shepherd who lost a sheep, and then tells them they should leave the majority of the flock who are already where they are supposed to be behind so that they can pursue the one who is lost.  By extension, the Pharisees should then identify with the woman who does not settle with still having 90% of what she started with but goes to great lengths to find what she thought she lost.  Finally, this means they would identify with a father who lost a son but did not give up that even the most hopeless lost cause could still be found.   Not only did the father in the story keep watch for the lost son, but when the son finally returns the father lavishes extravagant honor upon him.

This goes against how we see the Pharisees and the teachers of the law normally act in the gospels.  They focus inwardly on their faithful followers, not the one who is lost.  They are satisfied with still having 90% and figure the missing 10% is not worth the effort.  They would have been more likely to consider the son dead and beyond forgiveness instead of rejoicing that the prodigal had returned.   Jesus tells the story in this morning’s scripture as a way to answer the question as to why he welcomes sinners and eats with them.   He tells three stories about this, but he directly answers the question at the end of this morning’s scripture in verse 32: “But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brothers of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

This morning’s scripture and its two partner parables would have convicting to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.   It would have revealed that they have shirked their responsibility of looking for the lost, and they have failed to rejoice at the grace of God.  When we read this story from the perspective the Pharisees would have heard it, by identifying with the father of the story, I think we also can find it convicting.  Just like the Pharisees had lost a lot of people on their watch, as Christians today we have lost a lot on our watch.  The evidence is all around us or rather not around us since less and less people are involved in a church or Christian community.   I remember 15 years ago when I was in my mid 20’s and my wife and I were the anomaly.  I helped lead a small group of other young adults in the church at that time, and I remember reading the church growth experts then predict that in a few years people my age would start returning to church once they had kids and settled down.  This is what had happened with the baby boomer generation.  To a slightly lesser degree that is what happened with Generation X, but it has been 15 years ago now, and that never really happened with my generation.  The reality is that I have worked in a church for 19 years now and that entire time I have been among the youngest adults in that church.     The reality is that today, there are a lot of lost that need to be found.  The reality is we live in a culture full of prodigal sons and daughters.

This scripture challenges us to ask what we are going to do about that?  In this morning’s story the father never stopped looking out beyond the walls of his house to see if the son would return.   When the father saw the son, he did not wait for him to come to him but he ran to meet him where he was at.  The father did not make the son start over and earn his place, but he lavished special honors upon him.   In this morning’s scripture Jesus challenged the Pharisees about their attitude to the sinners, the lost they had written off and muttered about.  Jesus challenged them to be more like the father in seeking the lost and celebrating that they are found.   We are challenged by this scripture in the same way.  Today there are a lot of people who have wandered away from God or never known God.  Are we going to write them off, circle the wagons, and take care of the righteous left behind or are we going to look beyond our walls for the lost?   Are we willing to go and find them in messy and uncomfortable places like the shepherd in the first story?  Are we willing to turn upside down our house, the way we normally do thing at church, like the woman in the second story?   Are we willing to be like the father in the third story and meet people where they are at?  Instead of meeting them with judgement are we willing to radically forgive everything, look past their imperfections, and rejoice that they have returned?   Who are the prodigals that we should be welcoming?

These are the questions that this morning’s scripture ask of us.  Like the storm trooper that bonks his head, these questions have always been in this story I had just not noticed them yet.  May the way we as a church answer those questions be yes.   May we be willing to meet people where they are at, may we be willing to do things differently if it means more are found.  May we treat those who have wandered away from the faith, who had once turned their back on God, or who have always been lost the way the father treats the son with unconditional forgiveness and joyful acceptance.   This morning’s scripture emphasizes celebration, because there is rejoicing in heaven whenever a person repents.  So may we be willing to do whatever we can to help the lost be found so that we too may celebrate and be glad because this brother or sister of ours was dead and is alive again; was lost, but now is found.

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