Luke 15:1-3, 11-24
Jesus upset the Pharisees, the good religious folk of his day. What sort of God did he represent? He mixed with the wrong people, enjoyed life and parties, and worse openly welcomed people that were considered sinners and beyond the pail. When the Pharisees grumbled he simply told some stories. There was the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the story we read this morning.
It begins with a simple little opening. A man had two sons and the younger comes and asks for his inheritance – half the farm. “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” And so the father divides the property and gives him his share. We read these words with ease but I invite you to stop and reflect what you might do if one of your children came and said, “I would like my inheritance now.” I can almost guarantee you’ll react inside at least with some anger and hurt. In Middle Eastern culture the father reigned supreme. No true son would dream of asking this question, and if he did, he could expect a very clear message. Asking for your inheritance now is rude, inappropriate, and unacceptable. Further, this father knew the character of the son. He was the wild impulsive one and the father would know that there was every chance that the land would be cashed up and the proceeds wasted and lost to the family forever. Everyone listening would simply expect the father to say ‘no’ and to tell the disrespectful son to go jump!
But this father is screw loose, crazy, different. He simply let’s the son have his way. He simply lets the son make his wild choices and instead of putting him in his place lets him freely choose his path.
It didn’t take long for the worst fears of everyone to be realized as the younger son cashed in the assets and head off to another country turning his back on his dad, his family, and his religion. You can just imagine what the village gossips were saying about the crazy father, and maybe you can just imagine how the father felt as his younger son left possibly without even a word of farewell. In the background the older son was absolutely fuming and would have gladly wrung his brother’s neck. He could see his dad hurting. The family had not only lost half their farm but were now deeply troubled and divided.
The younger son meanwhile was having a great time. My Bible says he “squandered the money in dissolute living.” That’s living without moral constraint, or as we might say loose living – parties, wild living, women, fast cars, and booze.
It didn’t last, and just as the money ran out a severe famine hit the far off land and the son disassociated from any of the normal support networks finds himself at rock bottom. A Jewish boy ends up feeding pigs wishing he could eat what the pigs were eating. You can’t get much more desperate as a Jew. He is in a distant country isolated and lonely. There is it seems no-one who would know or care what was going on inside him. He is lost. He is far away from his father’s home. Both literally and figuratively there is a deep void and emptiness within. The story simply says he came to his senses. It is often the way that it takes a deep crises to face up to things in our lives. For the son it was time to swallow whatever little pride he had left and realize there was a better life back home. This wasn’t going to be easy – he had no idea how he might be received. There would be anger no doubt and judgment, and things could never be as they were. But maybe there would also be some mercy , just a little mercy and he could serve as a labourer on the farm. And so he prepares his little speech that comes from deep within. Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me like one of your hired hands. It’s his only hope of life, so this bedraggled, skin and bone lump of flesh sets off with his last play of the dice.
Word travels and while he was still far off the scriptures tell us the father saw him and was “filled with compassion.” Full up with Compassion. The father ran to meet him….. no father in these times ran it simply wasn’t the done thing. The queen would never run in public. He immediately throws his arms around him and kisses him a sign of welcome and acceptance that even in our culture we understand well. I might add that this welcome I believe would have saved the son from a stoning at the hands of the locals who would not want this boy back in their midst. They remembered well how he had shamed his family and turned his back on them all and in typical middle eastern fashion they would ensure he didn’t come back into their midst.
The boy however is oblivious. He knows he’s really gone off the rails so even after the welcome from his Dad he splutters out his little speech. Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me like one of your hired hands. But the father simply doesn’t hear him. He’s busy ordering his servants to bring a robe – the family robe- to put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. These are all the signs that this boy is not a servant but is one of the family, and not only one of the family but an important respected key member of the family- a son. The father orders the fatted calf to be killed, – my Bible has a little note: meat was not often eaten so killing the fatted calf was a sign of a very special celebration, and of course this little episode has lived on in our language where still we use the metaphor of killing the fatted calf to signify a special celebration.
The father blesses him with the gift of amazing acceptance. Despite the hurt, the disaster of his life, there is grace and acceptance. You are mine. My son was dead but now he is alive, and they began to celebrate….well all but the faithful older son who was fuming…..judging…..and unbeknown to him as lost as the younger son was. He has never left home. He has always done the right thing. He was a good boy and a model son. He has never rebelled or turned his back on his dad or family, but sadly he has also never really got to know his father and the compassion that was key to his character. There’s no way he’s going to accept this younger son – not after what he did and the hurt he’s caused. There is no compassion, just judgment.
So why does Jesus tell this story and what do you make of the story? Who do you think you resonate with in terms of your life? The younger son, the older son, the father? Maybe a bit of all of them.
I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found- in the search for success, in the making of money, in seeking the praise of others. I know in my heart the far off place – the distant country. I know the fathers love, but I forget. My rebellion is Adam’s rebellion: the rejection of God in whose love we are created and by whose love we are sustained. It is the rebellion of the world around me, where overflowing compassion is irrational and crazy. It’s simply not how the world works…. But it is how God works.
I am also the older son, the good boy who tries to please the father in the hope that this will earn my salvation. I keep busy doing good things hoping this will please God and obtain the eternal stamp of approval my soul longs to know.
But isn’t the story really about the father. The crazy father. I often call this story the story of the crazy father because that’s what the father was. Absolutely crazy. Irrationally compassionate. Totally at odds with the way of the world.
But I do see. I see the carving before us and am reminded that God is a crazy father who never stops believing and never stop longing, and never stops longing to bless. Every so often it rubs off and I find my true self, I come to my senses and I live the life God intended. I am no longer lost or alienated but caught up in the compassion of God I too am compassionate. Praise God!
Here in this story the spiritual mystery of my life is unveiled. I am loved so much that I am left free to leave home. But the crazy Father is always out looking for me and you with outstretched arms to welcome us back and whisper again in our ear: ‘You are my Beloved’.‘ Such is the Father that we see in Jesus Christ our Saviour. Such is the good news of Jesus who invites us to put our trust in our God of crazy compassion.