Luke 15 - the parable of the prodigal son
Do you ever find the Bible confusing? Or hard to understand? Scripture can seem so far from daily life. I often hear, from people of all ages, that sometimes it’s difficult to connect with something written 2,000 years ago. And yet the Bible is the best-selling book worldwide every year, indicating that it must still have applications, insights, and meaning that are valuable to us in 2016.
The Bible has plenty to say to us and we aren’t as far away from the story as we might think. As one pastor I know recently put it, “These are biblical times” -- meaning that our present time has resonances with contexts, situations, and lessons experienced by those we hear about in Scripture.
Today, I invite you to see yourself in the story of the prodigal son, which is likely a familiar story to you. When we do more than just gloss over familiar Bible stories, they can help us to see ourselves in the story and gain new insights. We’ll do this by exploring different perspectives in this parable and finding where we might fit in. You’ll hear a lot of different messages today, but keep in mind that you don’t need to remember all of them. I want you to focus on what perspectives you feel connected to and where you find yourself in this parable from Jesus.
Before we get into the story, let’s start with the understanding that all of us bring unique perspectives and contexts to interpreting Scripture. You cannot read the Bible objectively -- you hear and interpret Scripture based on who you are. This is a good thing! And this is exactly why we engage Scripture together -- to learn from one another.
I’ve been leading a parents’ group on Wednesday evenings in Lent as part of my internship project, and we discussed the prodigal son story a few weeks ago. Each person resonated in different ways with the characters and heard particular messages. I also shared with them this true story from author Mark Powell:
Powell separately asked a group of Americans and Russians to recount the prodigal son story. Only 6 out of 100 Americans remembered the famine, but 42 out of 50 Russians did. And whereas most Russians didn’t reference the son squandering the property, almost all Americans did. Powell also asked Americans, Russians, and Tanzanians, “Why is the younger brother hungry?” The Americans said because he wasted his money; the Russians said because there was a famine; the Tanzanians said because no one gave him anything to eat. Who was right about why the younger son was hungry? They all were. (Powell writes about this in chapter 2 of his book What Do They Hear?: Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew. I summarized this paragraph from STORY 2015-2016, a curriculum by the NE MN Synod.)
Your experiences impact what you hear, what stands out to you, what strikes you as important. Pay attention to what you connect with and why as we explore some perspectives and messages in the parable of the prodigal son.
Let’s start with the younger son. He goes to his father, demanding his inheritance now -- essentially saying he wishes his father was dead. He receives the inheritance, and spends it recklessly. Then a famine strikes and he has no resources left. He takes a degrading job feeding pigs, and has a difficult time getting by. With shame, he finally returns home and is met with surprising and overwhelming compassion from his father.
Perhaps you have had a period in your life in which you did incredible wrong, but eventually found your way back to someone you hoped would still love you. Consider the story of Jenna. Jenna grew up in a troubled home with parents who weren’t always around. She had access to drugs and alcohol pretty much whenever she wanted, and had no problem finding friends to join her. As she got older, her addictions became worse. Too young, she had a son, Caleb, and couldn’t care for him with all her problems. So she sent him to live with an Aunt, Lila, who was the only stable and successful family member she knew. Jenna, even with her addictions, was ridden with guilt from giving up her son. She didn’t clean up right away, but a few years later she finally began a rehab program. After more time had passed, and with help from a new support network, she was able to get her life on track - a job, an apartment, regular help. But she hadn’t spoken to Lila or seen Caleb since that day she sent him off, eight years ago. Nervously and shamefully, she knocked on Lila’s door. Her aunt opened the door and could see at once that there was something different about her niece than in years before. Lila embraced her, crying, “Have you really come home?” Jenna, overwhelmed by the acceptance, told her aunt all about her current situation, and said she felt new life in her aunt’s love.
Maybe this is your story, maybe not. Perhaps your first semester of college you took a turn for the worst and had to seek forgiveness from your parents. Perhaps you distanced yourself from good friends to follow a relationship that was never going to work, and you returned to them seeking support. There are many ways you might be like the younger son.
Let’s consider now the father. He gives the inheritance and painfully watches his younger son abandon and disregard him. But when the younger son comes home, he can’t help but be overwhelmed with love, that “what was once dead is alive again” -- and this is cause for celebration. His lost son has been found.
If you haven’t been the lost one, you may have been the one who received and welcomed the lost. Aunt Lila may be your experience. Think about how good it feels to find something that was lost. I have two brief examples.
One day, while I was waiting for the bus to go home from Luther Seminary, I realized my wedding ring had fallen off. My heart raced as I frantically searched for it in the dirt -- I probably looked ridiculous to others. The ring isn’t only special to me because it’s my wedding ring -- which is special enough -- but also because it had belonged to my great grandmother, a woman I adored. This ring has deep value to me. I kept searching, and finally, I found it, and was overcome with relief. It was far more important that I found it than that I’d lost it.
A second example - growing up, I watched my two younger brothers a lot. I am 7 and 13 years older than them. One summer day when I was 13 and my brother, Kade, was 4, he was having a particularly rough day. Nothing made him content and he wasn’t happy with me for some reason, probably because I wouldn’t let him eat chocolate all day or something like that.
Anyway, I went to use the bathroom while he was playing, and I came back and he was gone. My 13-year-old self was terrified. I couldn’t find him anywhere in the house. Finally I checked outside, and there he was, a short way down the dirt road. I caught up to him; he told me he was “Running away.” I was just really glad I found him! Eventually he forgot why he was mad and we had a good rest of the day.
Often we are so overtaken with joy at finding what has been lost - especially a person - that everything else fades and you’re just so glad to be reunited with what or who was gone.
Now let’s move on to the older son -- too often he is overlooked in this story! He is not excited that his brother comes home and that his father is celebrating. He has worked hard exactly like he is supposed to and can’t find it in himself to be happy that his brother is now “alive again.” You can understand his frustration while also wishing he would set it aside and put the possibility of a new relationship with his brother first.
Maybe you are the responsible sibling, always taking care of household chores or always the one to take care of your aging parents. But when one of your less-dependable siblings does one good thing, they get all kinds of recognition and praise, leaving you, the always-reliable-one, rather annoyed.
Or maybe you’re an always-in-church-every-Sunday kind of person, which is a good thing. But you become prideful and arrogant about it -- not a good thing. Then, when someone who hasn’t been to worship in months comes one Sunday, you scold them for never being there instead of extending a grateful welcome that they’ve come. This is like the older son, too.
I’ve shared several possible connections with the story of the prodigal son, and suggested a variety of messages that it may speak. Where do you find yourself? What message do you hear most clearly?
Although I can identify with each of the characters, yet another perspective stood out most for me this week. I feel grateful that God can do something that I can’t always do – embrace others who’ve gone astray. Even when I can’t love someone as God has called me to, I trust that God can and does, and I’m thankful for that. What is not always possible for me is more than possible for God. And that’s okay.
Instead of preaching one particular message today, I wanted to invite you into the richness of Scripture. I hope you see and experience the many insights of this Bible story. One passage contains so much. God’s Word breathes life into our lives, and if we’re willing to delve in, to put ourselves in the stories, then we can draw deeply from this rich well of Scripture.
Today I encourage you to go home, take out your Bible, and start reading. Start reading and experiencing, even if it's confusing or hard to understand … and expect God to show up and speak to you in that holy time. Amen.