Parables: Lost Son
The Rev. Jenn Geddes
Most of you have seen my desk in the office. When you receive my updates entitled “A Message from the Minister’s Messy Desk” it is quite genuine. My desk looks like chaos. Real research by Arif Dalvi of Palm Beach Neuroscience Institute has discovered that a messy desk is one of the signs that you might be a genius. I’m not sure if that’s true in my case but I do know that when my desk is a mess I still know where everything is, most of the time. It is the minute I clean said desk that I am no longer capable of finding the information I need at the appointed time. And when I loose something I get so frustrated especially if I KNOW I have seen said item just moments ago but can’t quite remember where. Jesus tells three parables about loss back to back in the Gospel of Luke. First there is the lost sheep, then the lost coin and the trilogy is completed with the parable of the Lost Son- often entitled The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother.
The Parable of the Lost Son is arguably one of Jesus’ most well known parables. Even people who have never heard the story, have heard the term prodigal, usually in reference to a wayward family member. Many of you have probably heard numerous sermons interpreting this parable most often comparing the father to God, the prodigal to the outcasts or tax collectors or sinners of Jesus’ day and the eldest son being compared to the pharisees. There is nothing overtly wrong with this interpretation- it is an interpretation that has been shared for centuries. What my course attempted to do and what I am going to attempt to do today is look at some alternative ways of reading this well known parable. But really, I’m not a genius. I not only using notes from my class but for this parable I am using the book, Short Stories by Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine. Amy-Jill is really interesting because she is a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is a self-described, “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” As a result, she has a really interesting perspective on some of the parables of Jesus.
As I mentioned this is part of a trilogy of parables about loss. The first was a parable about one lost sheep among a hundred. The next was a parable about one lost coin amongst ten. The parable of the lost son is distinct not only because it references one lost son amongst two but also because in those first two parables the man and woman diligently search for the lost item. The shepherd wanders around the countryside looking for the sheep. The woman sweeps under every piece of furniture looking for the coin. However, the father in our parable does not search. We do indeed get the impression that the father is waiting for his son to return but the father never goes after him when the son first leaves. This might be the first indication that the lost son, is not the one who wanders off into a foreign land. We might be getting a head of ourselves but another distinction is that the first two parables end with a party. This parable ends with two men standing in a field. Another indication that we might need to think about a different son when looking at this parable.
But let’s start at the start. The parable begins with “There was a man who had two sons.” Now, if you know your Biblical history you know that the relationship between brothers was not always positive. There are many men who have had two sons who did not get along. Adam had two sons, Cain and Abel. Abraham had two sons Ishmael and Isaac. Isaac had two sons Esau and Jacob. Jacob had many sons, but one favourite. Joseph had two sons. And do you know what most of those two sons had in common? The eldest son, who is supposed to get the descendant blessing, is often the one who gets cheated or murdered or rejected. There is a pattern throughout the old testament that most of the people hearing this parable would have understood. That elder sons usually end up with the short end of the stick. So, as the parable unfolds the audience would not have been surprised at hearing that this younger son is doing something conniving. Nor would they have been surprised at the father’s enabling reaction of just handing over a portion of his wealth. It becomes increasingly more challenging to see God as the father in this story because the father is the one who bends and enables and acquiesces. God is not a push over, but this father is.
The prodigal then runs through his money in a foreign land and eventually he faces a big problem- starvation. I have always read that when the son comes to himself and decides to return to his father that it was out of contrition. But what if his repentance came from desperation not remorse. Levine claims that first-century listeners would not have heard contrition but more conniving as he plots a return home. Nor is this son “found” but rather that he “comes to himself.” Another key that there is more manipulation in this son’s words of “I have sinned against heaven and before you” is that they echo what Pharaoh said in Exodus 10, “I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you.” Levine says, “The lost son is no more repentant, has no more change of heart, than Egypt’s ruler.” This idea is deepened further when he recites the exact same words upon seeing his father. Interestingly the Father’s reaction of placing nice garments and a ring upon this son reminds us of the reunification of Joseph with his father in Egypt. And the father in our parable continues to enable this son by spoiling him.
Which brings us to the eldest son. The eldest son is in the field- and as he approaches the house, the party is already underway. Unlike the shepherd who searched for his sheep, unlike the woman who looked for her coin, no one runs to invite the elder son to the feast. In fact, no one noticed he was missing. His alienation is palpable. It is only after the eldest son refuses to go in that the father goes out looking for him. The elder son is the one who has been lost. The father goes out and pleads with him, other translations also say, comforted him. But years of resentment boil over for this elder son. Actually the eldest son even seems to remove himself from this familial relationship by stating, “your son”, not “my brother”. This son no longer wants to be part of this dysfunctional family. But the father pushes further and attempts to reconcile and restore. “In correcting the elder’s phrase “your son, this one” to “your brother, this one” the father reminds his child that the relationship exists between the two of them. Were either brother to be missing, the family would not be whole…when personal resentment overrides familial and cultural values, we all lose.”
As you can see there is a lot going on in this parable. But you know what doesn’t happen? Forgiveness. In fact, no one really expresses sorrow at hurting each other at all thus creating no reaction of forgiveness. Even the father doesn’t say he has forgiven the younger son, he simply says that was lost has been found. Perhaps the alternative message to this parable is- celebrate first, forgive later. Levine says that the message of this parable is, “Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past. Instead, go have lunch.” We can also read this as a cautionary tale, do not take what is right in front of you for granted. Any of us who have lost someone, whether through death or broken relationships know this lesson well.
Perhaps Jesus was indeed speaking to the Pharisees in this parable, stating that they are still part of this family of God. Perhaps this is a parable of compassion for broken families. The beauty is that there are multiple ways to read this story. I’ve been the father, enabling people, even pushing people away. I’ve been the younger son, distracting myself with partying it up rather than planning for the future, and as an actual older sibling, I’ve been the elder brother. But as I think of loss in my life, at least at this juncture, I think I will focus on how resentment hurts relationships. And as a member of the family of God- we have a lot of relationships to celebrate no matter how complicated they are!So, let’s have a party! Amen