Sermon: The Parable of the Prodigal Father

2013-03-10 NBW Sermon <—-click here to listen along.

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.”

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 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. 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. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 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.He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 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! 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. 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. 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 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 his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 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.But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.’”  -Luke 15

A few years ago when our son Judah was in 4th grade, I dropped him off 15 minutes early for school. I’d never done that before but Matthew was out of town and I had to make a meeting and the school totally allowed for early drop-off.

2 hours later I was in a meeting when the school called asking why Judah was absent. My heart dropped into my stomach and my body took over in a hyper-ventilating mess of a way.  My mind raced thinking that Someone had scooped my child into a van seeing that his mother had dropped him off early.  Breathing became impossible and I started to shake.  My child was gone.

Fortunately Judah was both not abducted and was totally fine.  It was just the day of the Scholastic book fair and he had lost track of time looking at books and had not been around when they took attendance.  He was not in danger.  He was in a book fair.

I have no idea what kind of soul-crushing pain one must experience when a child is really gone.  But the few minutes I experienced a glimpse of it…an experience shared by many when they cannot find their child at a carnival or a shopping mall or when they don’t get off the school bus one afternoon, were some of the most heart breaking moments of my life.

Because, when it comes down to it, it’s vulnerable to have a child.  To create or adopt a child is to leave yourself vulnerable to a broken heart in the way nothing else can.  Which is why I started wondering this week about the vulnerability of God.

There is much talk out there about the strength of God and the mightiness of God and the awesomeness of God.  But what of the vulnerability of God?

That God would breath into dust and create us in God’s own image….that God would bring humanity into being as God’s own beloved children was to leave God’s self vulnerable to a broken heart in a way nothing else could have. What a risk God took creating us. Giving us enough freedom to be creators and destroyers.  Giving us enough freedom for us to make a mess of everything and act as our own Gods and to also trust in God and love each other.

I just wonder if this is what Jesus is telling us about in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

I’m now going to continue last week’s theme of preacher confessions and confess to you that until this week I totally thought the word prodigal meant returning having repented of your wrongs.  Or at least I thought prodigal meant coming home after having been independent and stupid for awhile.  I’m sure you guys already know this, and that I’m the only one to have just discovered it, but the word prodigal actually means Spending resources freely and recklessly; being wastefully extravagant.

I’ve always heard this parable, one of the most famous stories in the Gospel, titled the Parable of the Prodigal son.  But out of everything we could say this story is about – why do we say it’s about the wasteful extravagance of the younger son? Why is that the focus when it’s not even that interesting?

I mean, It’s actually common for young people to leave home, waste their lives and their money for awhile until they have no other option but to come home to the parents they didn’t treat very well when they were leaving in the first place. Maybe we make this a story about the wasteful stupidity of the younger son because it’s a story we are more familiar with than the alternative, which is this: if the word prodigal means wasteful extravagance, then isn’t it really the story of the prodigal father?

Isn’t it wastefully extravagant for the Father to give his children so much freedom?  Isn’t it wastefully extravagant for the Father to discard his dignity and run into the street toward a foolish and immature son who squandered their fortune? Isn’t it wastefully extravagant for the father to throw such a raging party for this kind of wayward son?

But, see, I love that kind of grace.

I personally love that Jesus tells this story of the prodigal father in response the to Pharisee’s indignation that Jesus would eat with tax collectors and prostitutes because, when it comes down to it, give me a church filled with awful sinners over a church filled with pious Pharisees any time.

Some of us might find the grace the father shows to the younger son to boarder on offensive, but the thing that really gets me in this story is how wastefully extravagant the Father is toward the older son.  The kid who never left him.  The one who has always done everything right.  The kid who is clean cut and went to college right out of high school and came back to work in his father’s business.  The kid who always signs up to do jobs at synagogue but resentfully notices all the slackers who show up and never help at all.  The kid who feels entitled. The kid who can’t stomach going into a party to celebrate the return of his screw-up of a brother.  I can’t stand that older brother even as I cringe at the ways I may be a little bit like him.  You know what’s wastefully extravagant in my book?: the fact that the Father says to that kid “all that is mine is yours”.

What risk God takes on us. Children who waste everything in dissolute living.  Children who begrudge grace being extended to people who so clearly don’t deserve it. But this is a risk born of love. God risks so much by loving us which is why, tonight anyway,  I prefer calling this the Parable of the Prodigal Father.

Because it is here we see that your relationship to God is simply not defined by your really bad decisions or your squandering of resources.  But also your relationship to God is not determined by your virtue.  It is not determined by being nice, or being good or even, and I struggle with this, but it’s not even determined by how much you do at church.  Your relationship to God is simply determined by the wastefully extravagant love of God.  A God who takes no account of risk but runs toward you no matter what saying all that is mine is yours. Amen.

 

About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org

  • Gary L Lake Dillensnyder

    amen

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ Tim Chastain

    Nadia, you are so insightful and creative! This is one of my favorite parables, but in all my years I was never aware that ‘prodigal’ did not mean a wayward person. I always saw this as the parable of the older brother (Pharisees or smug Christians), but it never occured to me that it was the story of the father–a prodigal father. Thanks again for leading another journey into the Bible with fresh eyes!

  • Chris Repp

    Yes, you’re exactly right about “prodigal,” and that we miss the point in calling this the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is more about both the Prodigal Father and the Reluctant Brother. Something else we noticed about this parable in text study a couple weeks ago: the word translated as “dissolute” in the NRSV (“riotous” in KJV”) simply means “wasteful” – prodigal, in other words (so NKJV!) Why do NRSV and KJV give us words tinged with moral judgement? I think it might be because they’re taking their cue from the older brother in v.30, who asserts that his brother “devoured your property with prostitutes.” Where did he get that idea? What does he know about how his brother spent the money? Nothing, at least from the information we have here in the text. I would submit that the older brother has done exactly the opposite of what Martin Luther counsels in his explanation to the 8th commandment, interpreting his brother’s actions in the worst possible light (in order to strengthen his case for being indignant.) Unfortunately, I also have had to disregard Brother Martin’s counsel in coming to this conclusion (!)

  • Kenton

    Linky-no-worky for me. I had to remove “.s3.amazonaws.com” from the URL and it worked OK.

  • Kenton

    Now that I’ve heard it, I have to say you have some awesome insights, Nadia. I’m teaching this story at a men’s breakfast at church in 2 weeks. Some of your thoughts will find their way into my lesson.

    One of the things I’ve learned already is that parables don’t just teach us one lesson, but they keep teaching us over and over as we go back to them. Part of that is discussing them with others who have different perspectives. (You mentioned that in an earlier sermon when you said “parables are not to be solved for the moral of the story” or something to that effect.) Thanks for sharing your insights with us!

  • http://gravatar.com/cwgmpls Curtis

    Yes, the father is prodigal. Also, the sons don’t understand relationship. The sons view their relationship with their dad as “what I can get from him”. The young son wants his share of stuff, and then wastes it all. Then, he comes back, not to be with his dad, but so that he might be fed as a slave. The older son beat his younger brother to the slave thing. He views all of his hard work and loyalty as a form of slavery, and then complains that he doesn’t even get a young goat in return for his work.

    The father tries to explain relationship to his sons by saying “you are always with me”. But even until the end, the sons don’t really seem to understand what it means to “be with” the father. They are just interested in getting their share of stuff. Isn’t it the same for us in relationships as well?

  • http://www.firstchurchburlington.org Lucy Samara

    Thank you – beautiful sermon – loved reading it!

  • Terry Davis

    In 40 plus years I have preached this text many times, but not sure I have ever done better than you did with this one! Thanks!

  • john

    Excellent! It is about the Father. I will remember this forever. I already knew that both sons wanted their father out of the way (ie dead). But this brings it around to the real point of the story. Thanks

  • Sandra Orrick

    A beautiful reading illustrating the generosity of the Father, which neither son appreciates to any degree.

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  • http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com Bill

    Well, shut my mouth. I didn’t know that’s what the word “prodigal” means either.
    And, as always, a very fine message.

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  • Marilyn Seven

    Amazing.

  • Jolene

    I love your take on this parable. I have always loved this father for what he doesn’t do when his son returns. The father doesn’t insist that the boy clean himself up and put on a shirt and tie, the father doesn’t insist upon a long recital of all the terrible things the son has done, he doesn’t make the son grovel…

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  • Devid Vokrachko

    I used to marvel at this as well until a recent reading of this when I realized that just as the son considered the father as being dead to him (in the act of asking for his inheritance while his father was still alive), the father considered the son as being dead to him while he was gone. The father even repeats that twice: “my son was dead but now is alive”.
    We can read into the parable that the father was sitting on the front porch, so to speak, waiting for the son to return. I don’t think that was the case.

  • James Sorrells

    That is a beautiful change of perspective. I had nearly the same thought and decided to search and see who else has thought of it as well. God bless you.

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