Luke 15.11-32 (The Voice)
Once there was this man who had two sons. One day the younger son came to his father and said, “Father, eventually I’m going to inherit my share of your estate. Rather than waiting until you die, I want you to give me my share now.”
And so the father liquidated assets and divided them. A few days passed and this younger son gathered all his wealth and set off on a journey to a distant land. Once there he wasted everything he owned on wild living.
He was broke.
A terrible famine struck that land, and he felt desperately hungry and in need. He got a job with one of the locals, who sent him into the fields to feed the pigs. The young man felt so miserably hungry that he wished he could eat the slop the pigs were eating. Nobody gave him anything.
So he had this moment of self-reflection: “What am I doing here? Back home, my father’s hired servants have plenty of food. Why am I here starving to death? I’ll get up and return to my father, and I’ll say, ‘Father, I have done wrong—wrong against God and against you. I have forfeited any right to be treated like your son, but I’m wondering if you’d treat me as one of your hired servants?’”
So he got up and returned to his father. The father looked off in the distance and saw the young man returning. He felt compassion for his son and ran out to him, enfolded him in an embrace, and kissed him.
The son said, “Father, I have done a terrible wrong in God’s sight and in your sight too. I have forfeited any right to be treated as your son.”
But the father turned to his servants and said, “Quick! Bring the best robe we have and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Go get the fattest calf and butcher it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate because my son was dead and is alive again. He was lost and has been found.”
So they had this huge party.
Now the man’s older son was still out in the fields working. He came home at the end of the day and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant said, “Your brother has returned, and your father has butchered the fattest calf to celebrate his safe return.” The older brother got really angry and refused to come inside, so his father came out and pleaded with him to join the celebration.
But he argued back, “Listen, all these years I’ve worked hard for you. I’ve never disobeyed one of your orders. But how many times have you even given me a little goat to roast for a party with my friends? Not once! This is not fair! So this son of yours comes, this wasteful delinquent who has spent your hard-earned wealth on loose women, and what do you do? You butcher the fattest calf from our herd!”
The father replied, “My son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours. Isn’t it right to join in the celebration and be happy? This is your brother we’re talking about. He was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found again!”
A prodigal is recklessly wasteful.This parable is the story of the prodigal son, and the prodigal dad. Any community could call the dad a fool. He is recklessly wasteful at the beginning and the end. He lets his kid walk with the money and welcomes the kid home with a party after he messed up big time.
I say ‘recklessly,’ because he had a hunch his kid was going to mess up and he didn’t really care about what the older brother thought. When he says to the resentful older son as he tries to convince him to come to the feast “All that I have is yours” it’s not true. Half of the estate already had been liquidated. And now he is spending some of the older brother's inheritance on a party for the kid who came back.
We take this story of Jesus at face value: in God’s economy there is no maximum price to pay, if anyone in creation comes to their senses and is welcomed home. Anyone.
This is a story about a God who risks big and risks loving big, knowing what it already costs. And what it will cost this time. And what it might cost again. Jesus opens up the possibility that God is a God of love and not of judgement.
Wonderful isn’t it? You might hear it differently if you’re a parent. We might feel embarrassed by our own foolish generousity for our children. We might have a child others talk about, a kid they would just write off. The story might make you feel guilty for not being able to love like that. Yet you don’t care about someone else’s opinion as much as you do your kid.
We guess and second guess and third guess ourselves about our choices, and understand the father in the story. Have we done enough? Too much?
The old man, in the words of Fred Buechner, doesn’t do what any other father under heaven would have been inclined to do. He doesn’t say he hopes he has learned his lesson or “I told you so.” He doesn’t say he hopes he is finally ready to settle down for a while and will find some way to make it up to his mother. He just says, “Bring him something to eat. Bring him some warm clothes to put on,” and when the boy finally manages to slip his prepared remarks in edgewise, the old man doesn’t even hear them he’s in such a state. All he can say is the boy was dead and is alive again.
We take this story at face value, and marvel at Jesus’ description of a vulnerable deity.
And as parents or siblings think the family dynamic completely unrealistic. We know once a disruptive influence in the family leaves we hope that person won’t return.
Before you read any further, check the video at the end of this posting.
Were you able to identify the cats in the video at the beginning of this post? The cat in the parable left home in sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt and returned with bloodshot eyes, hungover, without a penny to his name. They’re not all like that.
There are strays who settle in and never leave—they don’t like to roam. There are underfoot trip-hazard cats who create mishaps. There are the chewed-eared blind-in-one-eye scimitar-clawed cats who create wars. There are cats who, left to their own devices, blow up our lives, or at least rip the furniture and curtains to shreds. All of them are needy or contrite or untrustworthy or all those and they sap our energy and through our love for them crush our souls.
Dealing with these cats, these prodigals, we have to choose how we are going to respond. They can’t set the agenda, especially when our first priority is self-care. The father in the parable had to be remarkably strong to be able to suffer his sons’ foolishness and the consequences and love them all the same.
The first cat doesn’t ever leave home, he sits in his room playing Fortnite, only coming out to eat and tell you he’s going to start looking for a job soon. The second one is underfoot, makes us walk on eggshells, second-guessing everything we say and do because it might set them off or drag us into yet another discussion of our poor parenting. The third is less subtle. They come and go as they want, proudly displaying their wounds and scars for us to feel and threatening to hurt us too, should we dare criticise them or tell them to get their lives together. The fourth is the one all the neighbours know about because they don’t care who knows how angry they are over all the injustices in their life.
If you have or know a child like this you hear this parable and think the dad didn’t have it so bad. What they all have in common is a gift for recklessly wasting their God-given lives. We love them and hate what they are doing to themselves.
We can’t write them off, and occasionally feel helpless to know what to do about them. No matter what we do there is no guarantee of their future.
We don’t know if the young son changed his life. There’s no indication he is repentant: just hungry. We don’t know if the older brother came to the party. Luke leaves this unresolved, yet this is a pivotal point in the gospel. Jesus is criticised for the company he keeps, by implication wasting his time on people who are hopeless cases. He seems to believe that God doesn’t think a 99% retention rate is good enough, God doesn’t think it’s a stupid use of time to search the house for one measly coin. God believes that indomitable love is our best hope to re-create this world. Without knowing the outcome.
What instinct has God built into us? Love first. Knowing the cost.