Meeting Jesus: The Prodigal Son’s Father


Meeting Jesus: The Prodigal Son’s Father
A Message on Luke 15:11-32
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
June 16, 2019
By Doug Wintermute

Luke 15:11-32 (NRSV)

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 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. 13 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. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 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. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 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. 21 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.’ 22 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’”

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Today we continue our sermon series “Meeting Jesus” while also celebrating Father’s Day by looking at Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Well, to be more specific, the Prodigal Son’s father.

Now I know this scripture is stretching it as far a fitting into the sermon series about people whose lives were changed by meeting Jesus Christ. The father in this scripture, which is what we are going to focus on today, is a fictional character in a parable told by Jesus. He wasn’t an actual, real, live, breathing person. However, I think there are still some great lessons we can learn from him so we are including him in this series.

So, the parable of the prodigal son. I think an important first step is to look at the context of this scripture. It occurs only in the Gospel of Luke and happens in the 15th chapter.. If we back up to the beginning of the 15th chapter we discover the audience to whom Jesus was telling this parable. Luke 15 begins with “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.’”

Now this is significant. The Pharisees were the top religious leaders of the day, along with the Sadducees and the scribes. The Pharisees were the experts in living out the Jewish laws. Everything one did should be a reflection of living out the 600 to 700-something laws. They were all about the law and were quick to criticize and condemn those who didn’t live out the law in the way they (the Pharisees) saw it.

The scribes, as the name implies, copied documents and wrote letters. But they were also legal scholars, kind of like lawyers are today. They wrote out legal documents and contracts and things like that.

As far as their social standings in the community the Pharisees and scribes were up at the top. Many of them developed a sense of superiority over the other people in society. They wore the fanciest clothes, lived in the nicest houses, ate the best food, and expected people to move to the side as they walked down the street. They were the social elite of the time.

So, this is the audience that Jesus is speaking to. These are the ones griping and complaining about who Jesus is hanging out with. These are the people who Jesus is addressing, although I think other people were present as well. (Luke had to be present, for example, because he ended up writing it down in his gospel!)

Jesus, in response to the Pharisees and scribes grumbling and griping, tells a series of parables. Now a parable is a fictional story that, through symbolism and metaphorical use, it told to teach religious or moral lessons.

A good example that most of us are familiar with are Aesop’s Fables. For example, there is the tale of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf.” As you remember the boy, watching sheep, kept crying out that wolves were attacking the sheep when, in fact, they were not. The people got tired of hearing it so that when a wolf actually did attack the sheep, they didn’t respond. This gives us the moral lesson of not calling everything an emergency when it is not.

So parables are ways of teaching moral and religious truths without just hitting the audience over the head with them. In terms of communication parables are also much easier to remember.

So Jesus is telling parables. He starts with the parable of the lost sheep, followed by the parable of the lost coin, and then the parable of the prodigal son.

So just exactly what is a “prodigal,” anyway? Well in this sense it means “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.”

The “prodigal” son does like that old Steve Miller song: “Take the money and run.” He blew it all until he was so poor that pigs–which remember are unclean animals according to the Jewish laws–were eating better than he was.

Now it’s important to note that this is the younger son, not the oldest. In those days it was really a big deal. The oldest son got most of the inheritance. The younger siblings (well, sons, pretty much) still got some property or wealth, but not as much as the oldest son. The right of primogeniture, which is what it is called, greatly favored the oldest male child.

This could create a situation in which the younger brother (or sister) might have hard feelings toward the oldest brother. We don’t know if this is the case with the prodigal son but it could be. What we do know is that for whatever reason the son gets his inheritance and leaves. I think it’s safe to say that emotions were running high and that it wasn’t an amicable departure.

But let’s focus on the father. He has two sons. He loves them both. One is dutiful and stays home and works hard and gives his dad honor and respect. The younger son, the prodigal son, leaves and moves far away. He lives the wild life and blows all of his inheritance. Then, when he becomes impoverished, he brings dishonor to the family name. His father’s name. He brings public humiliation and embarrassment to his father.

Now for us being humans viewing this situation from a distance, it’s easy to be angry at the prodigal son. How could he do this to his father? He had to be crushed. You can almost overhear people talking about it behind his back, can’t you?

“Did you hear about that prodigal boy? Yep, talked his poor dad into giving him his inheritance–even though he is in great health and Lord knows it will be decades before he dies–but then he moved off. Just left. I heard he blew all his money on booze and women. He never was responsible, you know, not like his older brother. Why, if he were my boy he would never get away with that. I would give him a piece of my mind… and a knock up the side of his head! Uh uh, he wouldn’t pull that on me.”

It’s easy to fall into that kind of thinking, isn’t it. The prodigal son is disrespectful, thinking only of himself, taking the scripture in Ecclesiastes to “eat, drink, and be merry” way beyond its original intent.

And it’s easy for us to think that when he falls into poverty that he is getting what he deserves. He’s reaping what he sowed. And if we are honest, we kind of want the father to reject him because of what he has done. We want to see him punished for being so reckless and disrespectful. Let him suffer. He deserves it.

And yet in the parable Jesus throws us a curveball. The father isn’t that way. He doesn’t condemn. He doesn’t say “I told you so.” He doesn’t shun the prodigal son. He doesn’t tell him, “You’re dead to me.” Instead, he welcomes the prodigal son joyfully, ignoring social standards by running to him, which was a social faux-pas, embracing him, and throwing a huge party.

Ok, now tell the truth and shame the devil: how many of you would react like the older son? After all, he worked hard, did what was right, didn’t embarrass this father or drag the family name through the mud. And then all of a sudden dad throws a gigantic party for his good-for-nothing son. It’s not fair, right?

I think that’s a normal reaction.

But the father’s response to the older son is beautiful. Here’s The Message paraphrase of it: “Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!”

Now remember, this parable of the prodigal son is part of a series of parables Jesus was telling, and they all had to do with things of value that were lost but now are found.

And all of this is just fine and dandy until we realize the symbolism in these parables. Then the truth of them can drive us to our knees.

The father represents God.

The sons are humans, people on earth, me and you. The older son, the one that stays home and works and doesn’t cause any trouble, are those of us who attend church regularly, who read our Bibles, who try to live moral and ethical lives, who try to live our lives the way the Bible tells us to.

The prodigal son represents those who don’t. They are the ones in our community–and in the world–who don’t go to church, who don’t pray, who don’t read the Bible, who drink, who cuss, who party, who are selfish, self-centered, and care only about themselves. To them Sunday is just another day in the week, a day off, a day to have fun and do what they want. They are the people that maybe even do drugs or have addictions, who steal from others, maybe even are in jail or prison.

Yet those are the people God celebrates when they “come home” and find the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. The angels celebrate mightily when one of the “lost” becomes “found.”

One of the things we as humans do is to think that there is a finite amount of love. In the case of the prodigal son, the older son thought that by his father expressing love for the younger son it would take away and diminish the love his father had for him.

We forget that love is infinite. There is not a limit. The father loved his sons equally. Expressing extravagant love for one son does not take away love from the other son. Love is not like a well with a limited amount of water in it. Ironically, the more you love the more love you have to give.

I want us to do a little thought exercise now. How would you react if one of those “prodigal people” walked into our sanctuary right now and and sat down right next to you, one of those “lost” people the father, the Heavenly Father, loves? What if it was a homeless person who hadn’t bathed in a while. What if they reeked with alcohol on their breath? What if they were another skin color or spoke a different language? What if they were a prostitute? Would you welcome them, REALLY welcome them, and celebrate their presence in the Lord’s house?

It’s not easy. But then God doesn’t call us to do the easy things or go to the easy places.

It’s like the story of an old farmer that wanders into a church service at a small country church. He is dressed in overalls and work boots. The overalls have stains on them, and the boots have dried mud on them.

He sits through the service with people giving him glances of disgust. At the end of the service as he’s leaving a congregation member pulls him aside and says, “You know this is the Lord’s house, and he expects us to dress properly when we come to worship. Why don’t you pray this week to God and see if he doesn’t give you insight into how to dress to come to this church.”

The farmer says he will do so and leaves. The next week he shows up again in the stained overalls and work boots. After the service the same congregation member pulls him aside and says, “I thought I told you to pray about how God wants you to dress for worship services here.”

“I did,” said the farmer.

“So didn’t he answer you?”

“Oh no, he answered me, all right. He said he really didn’t know because he had never been here.”

The parable of the prodigal son teaches us to not only be mindful of the “lost sheep,” but to celebrate when one of them comes home.

It’s easy to judge. It’s harder to love, especially love like our Heavenly Father.

So my challenge for you, on this Father’s Day, is to remember the love the Heavenly Father has for all his children. Not just the nice, clean, well behaved children, but ALL of his children, even those who might be rejecting him now, that are squandering their lives, that are incarcerated. His love for them is as great as his love for us.

Love others completely and genuinely, like God our Father loves us. And let’s throw a party to celebrate when they come home.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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