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The Parable of the Lost Son - Lent 4C - 3.27.22

Joshua 5:9-12

Psalm 32

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Prayer: Grant us stillness of heart, Oh God, that we might have eyes to see and ears to hear the moving of your spirit among us this day. Amen.

There are few of Jesus’ parables that are more familiar than this one. That image of the father running down the path and throwing his arms around his wayward son is one hammered home in countless sermons and hymns. We quite possibly were taught that this parable is an allegory, demonstrating the abundant love and forgiveness of God to all those who repent. We were also perhaps taught that the younger brother, with his time spent among the pigs symbolized the inclusion of the gentiles in salvation history based upon grace and love, and that the grumbling older brother represented the scribes and pharisees—or perhaps even all Jews—committed to a law of duty and obedience rather than love and grace.

While there is some good news in at least the first part of that telling, there is also an ugly shadow side—one that leads people to see a distinction between the God of the Hebrew scriptures and the God of Jesus, and that strips Jesus of his Jewishness. At its worst this kind of us and them set up has led to all sorts of antisemitism—something about which we as Christians need to be particularly aware, especially as we approach Holy Week: a time when historically Jews have been the subjects of the most violence, often at the hands of Christians.

So what if there was another way to read this parable? Remember, a parable in Jewish tradition—of which Jesus is a part—is a way of telling a story that is meant to provoke, to raise more questions than it answers, to remind people of what they know to be true in their heart of hearts, but may have forgotten or let slide along the way. We in the church have tended to read—particularly this parable—as allegories, with direct and exclusive correlations between characters—the Father in this parable and God, for instance—but that’s not exactly the way parables worked historically and literarily. They are, simply, stories, and sometimes we have to work really hard at hearing them in that way without all of the theological interpretation that has been imposed upon them along the way.

I know I’ve mentioned this book before, but I’ll give it another plug: Amy-Jill Levine’s book, “Short Stories by Jesus: the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi”[1] is an excellent place to begin to look at these stories with fresh eyes. She’s a Jewish New Testament scholar, and I am particularly indebted to her for my reflection today.

So I invite you, as best you can to hear the story anew this morning.

“There was a man who had two sons . . .” I’ve been reading a book with some other folks here in the parish looking at the stories of the brothers in the book of Genesis: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. So the first thing that came to mind with this opening line is all of these historical brothers. These are the foundational stories, and Jesus is likely alluding to them with this opening line, and so we need to hold them in the back of our minds as we hear this story if we want to try and hear it as those who were listening to Jesus all those years ago might have.

There was a man who had two sons. One day, the younger comes to the father and asks for his share of the inheritance and his father gives it to him. And so the younger son leaves and travels to a distant place and squanders all that he’s been given. Famine strikes and the son finds himself with nothing and so hires himself out, but finds that the pigs he’s feeding are eating better than he is.

He decides he should head home. His father’s servants eat better than this! He could offer to be one of those! He rehearses what he’ll say and heads back home.

And so he goes, and while he’s still far off, we’re told, the father sees him and runs out to him and embraces him. The younger son begins to relay the speech he had rehearsed but his father interrupts him: he calls to have a robe, ring and sandals brought, to have the fatted-calf prepared for a celebratory feast, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

Now this parable is the final of three parables told in a row all pertaining to lost things. The first is about a lost sheep that the shepherd goes out to search for and finds. The second is about a coin that a woman loses, searches for, and finds. Both end with celebration. And so here we have the father proclaiming that what was lost has been found and now it’s time to celebrate.

Except is it? Oftentimes we end the story here. Or if we continue we do so as a kind of afterthought or epilogue, not a continuation of the story itself. But the narrative focus shifts here. Before the story is about the younger brother. But what happened to the elder brother? Remember, “there was a man who had two sons.” We’ve forgotten about him—and so, it seems, has the father.

The elder brother, who had not been told about the party, learns of it as he approaches home after working in the fields. He is angry, and, from what he says next, clearly hurt. He refuses to join the party.

The father, finally realizing perhaps that the son which he had lost was not, in fact, the younger one, but the elder, goes to him, like the shepherd to his lost sheep and the woman to her lost coin. He pleads with the elder son—a word that in the Greek also connotes comfort (it comes from the same root as the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit Jesus promises in John’s Gospel). But the elder son is inconsolable. He feels disregarded and unseen, taken for granted by his father.

And his father keeps trying, “Child, 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.”

And here the story ends. We don’t know if the brothers reconcile, if the family is again made whole. We hope so—again holding those stories of the ancient brothers, we know that Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father, and Esau embraced and kissed Jacob when they had opportunity to reconcile. But ultimately, the story leaves us in a place of uncertainty.

And this is where we most often are in life, are we not? We don’t know how it will end. There are relationships that are strained or broken—and sometimes we’re not even aware of it until it seems too late. Were we oblivious, negligent, willfully ignorant sticking our heads in the sand . . . ? Perhaps any of these. I know many of us feel this way about our broader society, too. How did we get to this place of seemingly insurmountable conflict and what do we do about it? What can we learn from this story of an oblivious dad, a careless and wasteful younger brother, and a resentful and wounded older brother?

First, I think we are reminded that restoration and wholeness are worth fighting for. In each of these three parables of something precious that has been lost, we see the compulsion to rectify it. To reunite that lost sheep with its flock, to return that lost coin to the woman, to restore a whole family. God’s heart is for wholeness and restoration. Historically, reconciliation has been one of the focal points of Lent, both with God and the community. Pastor Rachel has talked about the availability of the sacrament of confession; what we call, “reconciliation of a penitent.” In the early church, folks who had been separated from the community were restored to right relationship within the body of the church during this time as well.

Second, it’s not easy or clear-cut, and sometimes we don’t even know if it’s possible. The parable of the Lost Son leaves us in suspense. Will this family find a way to reconcile? The ancient stories that are alluded to are a mixed bag: Jacob and Esau reconcile, but Cain and Abel certainly do not. When the younger son comes home, restoration seems simple—let’s throw a party! But with the elder son, there is deep hurt and grievance and that process will likely take a much longer time.

Third: it’s not always up to you; you can’t compel someone else to reconcile with you. The father seeks reconciliation with his eldest, but while he earnestly tries, the eldest is not yet ready.

Fourth: even if it’s hard and messy and even if we don’t know that restoration and reconciliation are possible, we still work towards it, and the work required will look different in every circumstance. The younger son returns home. The father pleads with and comforts his eldest. A party is thrown even in the midst of an unresolved conflict.

I love what Dr. Levine says: she says, “recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.

“instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you still will have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness. Take advantage of resurrection.” (p75).

Go have lunch. Go celebrate. Create openings for second chances. Whom have you lost? Who do you need to go searching for? What steps do you need to make to work towards restoration and wholeness with others? And then how can you celebrate even the smallest of reunions?

let us pray:

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, p823)

[1] Amy Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. HarperOne, 2015.

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