Highlands Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2013
The parable of the return of the prodigal son. It is always a challenge when a story so familiar shows up on the lectionary because it’s so hard to find anything new to say about it. The very term “prodigal son” has become a part of conventional speech, a reference to a ne’er do well child who squanders his money on high living and wants to come home again.
So what more can you say about the story? Well…I think the best way to try is to walk through the story word by word and see whether anything new shows up.
This story begins with the Pharisees. The Pharisees begin grumbling about Jesus sharing time with tax collectors and other sinners. That raises the question, “Who were the Pharisees? We think we know…perhaps we don’t. Most Christians have heard them preached as the foil, the set up confronting Jesus with literal interpretations of scripture while Jesus tries to teach love.
Is that true? Probably not. The Pharisees were a class of scholarly Jews who were actually known for their loose construction of scripture. Jewish scholar Michael Cook who wrote Modern Jews Engage the New Testament says the Pharisees were progressives who devised oral interpretations of scripture taking it beyond the literal words.
Cook says a careful analysis of Jesus’ words make the case that he was actually a Pharisee.
So why does so much of the Gospel pit Jesus against the Jews and in this case the Pharisees. Some Biblical scholars believe that those passages of the New Testament that are seemingly most hostile to the Pharisees were written sometime after the destruction of Herod's Temple in 70 CE or four decades after the crucifixion.
Only Christianity and Phariseeism survived the destruction of the Temple, and the two competed for against one another for followers until the Pharisees emerged as the dominant form of Judaism. Once it had become clear that most Jews did not consider Jesus to be the messiah Christians sought new converts from among the gentiles.
Christians then had to explain why converts should listen to them rather than the Jews. The Gospel writings became a position paper, if you will, saying this is why we are right and they are not. And the argument the early Christians used was built around the question of whether religious law was to be interpreted literally or in a way that allowed for interpretations based not only on the word but also on human experience.
And so what you have at the end of the day is the debate that continues yet today. It’s the debate between Rev. Bob Norris and me, it’s the debate between evangelical Christians and more mainstream, progressive churches.
So during Holy Week as we talk about the debates Jesus had with the chief priests, the scribes, the Sadducees and the Pharisees…think not that this is a contest between Jews and Christians. This is a contest between competing views of Christians alone.
Hear the words a little differently…in their contemporary context. And the evangelical Christians and the strict constructionists of the scriptures were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners, and outcasts and eats with them and welcomes them into his church.” So Jesus told them this parable.
Now…when the Bible talks of “tax collectors” it is not talking about IRS agents. The tax collectors of the first century were more like gangsters, they were men who made their money by collecting that which belonged to Rome. The Romans didn’t care how they did it or how much was collected. The tax collector didn’t make a dime until he collected more than was owed.
Most anyone would have been outraged to see this Rabbi eating dinner and having conversation with one of them who made their life all the more difficult. Nobody liked these people and it was hard to understand anybody who did.
Nor would they be pleased to see Jesus hanging out with the outcasts, those they had been taught all their life were unclean and unacceptable. Who is that today? Probably tax collectors would not raise the same ire it did 2000 years ago…but in their churches, they have always been taught that certain people in the community are unacceptable to God and when you and I invite them to dinner, the grumbling begins.
Jesus hears them grumbling. Jesus understands their confusion and gives us this parable as a way of understanding the difference between harsh scriptural interpretation and the love of God.
Keep in mind what Jesus is doing here. Before the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus explains God is like the shepherd with 99 sheep who loses one, leaves the 99 and goes off looking for the one. The shepherds who heard that story would have been dumbfounded. Who does that? And then he tells of with 10 coins. She loses one and when she finds that one coin invites the neighbors to a celebration. What would those neighbors have thought.
“And then,” Jesus said, there was a man who had two sons.” Two sons…a signal that Jesus was about to compare the way his listeners would be inclined to behave with how God would hope they would behave.
The younger of the two sons goes to his father and asks for his share of his inheritance. I think most of us can understand the implications of such a request. Unless you are quite wealthy, dividing what you have now and giving half of it to one of your children would put your own future at risk.
That property doesn’t belong to your children until you die because you may need it during your lifetime. So…when this young son goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance he would receive if his father had died, he is saying, “I don’t have any regard for your needs. It would be better for me if you were dead.”
Those who hear this story can imagine how they would have reacted. There was not a one among them who would have done what the father in the story Jesus told did. They’d have reacted harshly, maybe violently against the brash young man. He might have gotten something BUT it would not have been that for which he asked.
But the father Jesus was telling them about divided his property with no debate, no recriminations, no judgment…and gave a share to the youngest son who then became the prodigal. That word means someone who spends recklessly, with no thought for the future, a wasteful spendthrift.
He took his father’s money and squandered it. It’s a hard thing for parents when their child prodigy becomes their prodigal child.
Moving out of the county and going to a distant country, he squandered his inheritance in what the Bible calls “dissolute living.” We all know what that is, right?
When he ran out of money, his life was made worse by a severe famine. So he went and hired himself out a local farmer to feed the pigs. It didn’t take too much of that before the boy decided it was time to repent. “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.
Now you can bet the Biblical thumpers among the listeners knew how this story would end. They knew how they’d treat a son who did these things. They’d be waiting for the opportunity to tell him something like, “You made your bed, now lie in it.”
And what’s more, they could do some Bible thumping because they had read the word and they could quote it. They are good at quoting it…and I can hear them now.
Deuteronomy 21:18-21 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
Proverbs 13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son.
Leviticus 20:9 For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.
Above the sounds of the Bible thumping, Jesus speaks. Jesus says there is another way to think about these things, about wayward children and others we believe to be sinners. It has to do with being slower to judge, loathe to use God’s word to condemn. The father about whom Jesus didn’t resort to scripture but to love.
While the boy 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 ignored the confession…didn’t lecture a word about making better choices next time. He 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…both the elder son and the fatted calf have far different reactions to this whole idea…but we’ll save that for another sermon.
Today we will join the Father and the Son is celebrating …celebrating the fact that we have been taught of all those 613 commandments in the Bible…Jesus, the one we claim to follow…said the greatest is to love God and to love one another…and no interpretation of any of those rules can stand if it does not first pass that test. Amen to that!