By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friend Church
March 27, 2022
Luke 15:1–3, 11b-32 (ESV)
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 11 “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. 17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” ’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ ”
There are stories in scripture that we all know. We know them so well that at times we no longer think about them. This is one of the points, especially with the dealing with the parables of Jesus. Jesus’s parables cover the normality of life. Often, they take an extreme stance, but the point of the story is so mundane that they point can be overlooked.
This is what happens with the parable of the sons. We find ourselves identifying with one of the characters but do look at the larger story. We know this passage by a name, “The Prodigal Son,” this directs our attention to one aspect of the story, but there is a fallacy in this. When biblical scholars within the English traditions add this title to the parable it directs our thought. At times these titles can so direct our attention that it can distract. We must always be careful when we read. We need to understand and recognize the aspects that are part of scripture and the things that are not. The things like titles and verse numbers were added. Most of the New Testament was written in Greek, not in English or Swahili. When people wrote in these ancient languages, they did things that we are not accustomed to. The first thing you would notice if you were to look at the ancient manuscripts archeologist have found is that the writing is that the letters, the words, and the sentences are written in a complete block. There are no spaces, punctuation, or anything that would give us a clue that these things are narratives. In fact, when most of us would look at them it would resemble the seemingly random printout a computer makes when there is a printer error. Solid blocks of symbols all run together.
Why did they write this way? They did this because paper and ink in ancient days was expensive. They wanted to get as much information onto a single sheet of paper as possible. We do this ourselves too. Think back to when you were a child in school. You are following the lines on the paper and suddenly you come to the end of the sheet but you have more to say, do you go to another page? No, of course not that would potentially break the train of though so you start to curve your writing up the side of the margin, you completely fill the sheet. We have limited space, and limited resources, so we make seemingly logical decision to make the most efficient use of what we have available.
Our computer systems do this as well. If we were to look at the actual code within a document it would be squeezed together to get the maximum amount of information in the least amount of space possible. Little pieces of code would tell us where one word ends and another begins. And once we begin to understand the context we can break the blocks down into words, sentences, and paragraphs. We use these ques to translate these larger blocks into the language and grammar we can understand, and as biblical translators work through these blocks, they developed verse numbers and joined certain blocks of information together so that we could have chapters and subchapters so that we can get to certain portions of information quickly.
We added chapters and verses, not because they were there but so that we can easily find the information. But we might notice at times that these verses and chapters do not always break up in grammatical coherent groupings. There are times when one sentence is broken up into several verses. And at times a chapter will end before a complete thought is made. It is not always broken up as we would break up a book today. This is done not for reading but for copying. These verses are broken up so they are easier to transcribe. These are tools used by the bible translators, and these translators give us a document that we can read and hopefully understand. The thing is that when the translators do their work, they work within a language. And depending on the language the structure is different. In German this parable is not known as the prodigal son but the lost son. These subtitles give us a clue as to what is going on, but not the complete story. Some scholars have entitled this section the two sons. The subtitle is not part of scripture, but it does help us. It directs our attention to who or what the theme the words are discussing. Unfortunately, sometimes our commonly held and commonly used subtitles can distract instead of focusing our attention. That happens with this passage. What is the focus: The lost son? The loyal son? Or the Father? All of these have been presented as potential titles, but all of these fall a bit short. Because this is a story of relationship, grace, and our ability to participate in reconciliation. But those themes do not have good catchy titles that would grab our attention.
Enough of this nerdy stuff. We all know the story. We have all read this story from a perspective of the lost or prodigal son, maybe a pastor has taken an approach to direct our attention to the older brother or the loyal son. Others might encourage us to look at the story from the perspective of the father. None of these perspectives are wrong, but they do not give us a complete picture.
The passage begins not with the story of the sons, but several verses before. Jesus begins this line of teaching for a reason. There were Pharisees and scribes grumbling because, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” They were upset because people like tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to Jesus and listening to his teaching.
We might see this debate in contemporary circles as well. There are arguments surrounding the concept of making the worship services seeker sensitive, or relevant. The argument is that if we make the service sensitive to the seekers, we might be watering down the message. The reality is it is not easy to follow Christ. Even the most righteous among us struggle, and it should be a struggle. It is difficult but it is also open and available to all. There were teachings within the first century that closed the religious observance off from those deemed socially unacceptable. This is an actual prayer among the Pharisees during that time frame: “I thank you Lord, my God, that you have set my portion with those who sit in the sanctuary, and not with those who sit on street corners. I rise early and they rise early: I rise to attend to the word of Torah, and they to attend to futile things. I exert myself and they exert themselves: I exert myself and receive a reward, and they exert themselves and receive no reward. I run and they run: I run to life in the world to come, and they run to the pit of destruction”
This is what Jesus is speaking to. He is highlighting the tension between the godly and the seemingly ungodly. He is explaining that access to God is not based on our works, but our lives should reflect the belief in our hearts.
It is from this perspective that we need to look at the story of the prodigal son. It is not just a story of sin and redemption but relationship. “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his propter between them.”
As I studied this, I found that there are two terms used for property or inheritance in this section. The first deals primarily with wealth or the financial aspects, the second deals with life. The son asked for the wealth, but the father did not just give his wealth he invested his life into the sons. This is important to consider, because we often only regard the passage from the financial side of things. We neglect the fact that the father did not just give the son a financial means, but he sacrificed his very livelihood, his lifestyle, his essence so that his son could go off to this distant land. This tells us a bit about what true parenthood involves. We do not simply provide for the financial wellbeing of our children but we invest our lives in them. We give ourselves so that they can succeed. It is not about our success. Everything we do once children are involved is done so that they have a greater chance than we had.
The inheritance would be divided equally between the sons according to the society’s norms. That being that the oldest son would have a double portion. In this case, there are two sons, so the property would be divided in thirds, one third would be given to the younger and two thirds would be given to the older. If there were three sons it would be divided into quarters, and the oldest would get half and the others would get a quarter each. The reason for this was that the oldest son had the greater responsibility. If anything happened, it was the oldest son’s duty to protect and preserve the family. The younger sons could go out to do whatever they could to make a name for themselves, but no matter what happened the older would be the source of security for the family. The younger sons could always come home.
This is the part of the story we often miss. The younger son was not necessarily sinful in the idea of going off to make a name for himself, the problem is in the relationship between the two. The younger son did not want to remain in the family. He did not respect or want to associate with the current direction the family was going. We get this because the younger demanded his inheritance before the father had died, and he gathered all he had and took a journey to a far country. This request does not translate well into English. He has put away social protocols, meaning has spoken out of turn. The eldest speaks first, and if the father lives the father is the eldest. The eldest carries the greatest respect and honor, but the younger son clearly has a problem that he speaks to. He feels as if he is not being heard, and that his ideas are not being honored.
By making this request, the son is not only requesting his property, but he is expressing that he no longer wishes to live within or be identified by the family. He is dissolving any connection with this life.
I mention this because this is the argument that the Pharisees are making. To become a tax collector is in effect a member of Israel turning their back on their family and their faith and aligning their future with the Gentile world. They are not looking to the traditions of their family for they future financial security but they have sold their inheritance to a foreign land.
This is the unforgivable sin among the faithful. To turn your back on the traditions of your ancestors is basically saying that you do not accept your history. By recognizing this we can understand the tension between the two sons.
We all know the story the younger son goes to the distant land and lives with the Gentiles. He goes and he squandered his money. We think that he lived recklessly but the reality of the wording is that he socialized. He lived in the manner of that society. But the son falls on hard times, and we are told that he hired himself out to one of the citizens. This to us seems a bit ambiguous. We understand if you cannot make enough on your own, you get a job. This makes good financial sense, but the word translated as hire or hired has a deeper meaning than he just got a job. It means to bind oneself closely to another or to cleave to. This man did not just get a job, but he removed himself from everything he previously knew and he became a citizen of this country. He no longer identified as what he was before and became fully vested in the country he lived. And as a citizen of this distant land, he was sent out to the fields to feed the swine. This basically means that he has become fully incorporated into that life and lifestyle, he is living as they lived, he eats what they eat. In the end he begins to realize that the glamorous life he once thought he was moving into is what he thought.
When I spent a summer in Ukraine, most of the students I worked with wanted to come to America. In their mind all Americans were rich. We were trained not to speak about things in terms of money. I at the time made a pretty good living. I was making $10 an hour, today that doesn’t sound like much but in 2000 that was a good wage especially for where I lived. The dollar amount does translate well. In Ukraine $10 an hour sounded like $50 an hour, and Kansas City $10 and hour sounds like poverty. The context is what is important. They thought if they could only get to America and make that income all would be well, but it costs much more to live in the United States than it does in Ukraine, or in other countries. What this story is saying is that this man came to America thinking that he was walking into the promised land. He took what seemed like a fortune in Ukraine. He got a nice apartment and tried to live like everyone else, but soon he found that his fortune was not translating well and he needed a job. Once he got a job, he became vested in this new culture. He started paying taxes, he had to go to school and now has student loans, he is connected to this culture but it is not what he thought. He is broke, he is working harder than he had ever worked in his life, and he suddenly gets home sick. I should go home.
I understand this feeling. I just spent a few days back home. I love the farm and am also connected to the city because I love our church. There is a constant draw to go home at times. My son may not know that draw like I do, but for me I will always be an outsider in this place. I am always a farm boy. As much as I may want to be something else, I am not. I am still connected to the farm.
This is what Jesus is saying. Although this man turned his back on his family and his faith there is something pulling him back. This is where Jesus wants the focus. No matter how far away you travel the father is always at home ready to welcome you back, because God is the God of all people no matter where you are from.
The younger son begins the journey home. We are told that the father sees the son while in the distance. This is interesting because this is the same word used to describe the country the man went to. He sees his son not just down the road, but in the distance, in the place of his sin. Just as Jesus spends time with the tax collectors and sinners. He is not spending time with the irreverent, but he is meeting them in the distance. And it is while the son is at that distance that the father runs to meet him. We are all far from home. We are all in the distance, but the father runs toward us. We have been in this distant land for so long that at times we do not even realize we are still in the distance. We might think we are where we need to be, but the father is still running out toward us and will take us, escort us back to our home.
He yells out to the servants. Go get a robe, a ring, and some sandals. This son has taken the very life that his father has invested in him and squandered it in a foreign land. The things valued in his homeland and that of the foreign land are not equal. And the son quickly finds that life is different. And he has turned his back on everything he once knew. Yet his father looks in the distance and sees his son, and he calls out to those who are with him to restore his honor. His honor is restored in the distance, not when he gets to the house but in the distance. While we are still sinners, while we are still in the distance Christ restores our honor.
But what about the other son? What about the son that remained faithful, the son that stayed at home? We might think that this son has a perfect relationship with the father, but even this son has problems. He sees that a celebration is happening, but who does he talk to? He does not approach the father, but he calls to servants. His brother was at a distance, but so is this older son. He too is distant from his father. He calls the servants. And his father comes out to him while he is in the distance. His father explains that the lost son has returned, but the older son expresses just how lost he himself is. You have killed the fatted calf for this son of yours, but what about me. I have never done this, I have never disrespected you, I have never disobeyed, I have never…and you have never given me a goat so I could celebrate with my friends. Notice the I’s. I deserve better, not so that we enjoy life together but so I can celebrate without you. This older son may not have gone to a distant land a thousand miles away, yet in his mind he is just as far away. Both sons are distant from the father, and the father meets them where they are.
We are all far from home. Our sins might be different but the distance is similar. The father will meet us in that distance and escort us back home. It does not matter where we are or what we are doing He meets us there, but we need walk the distance back home with him. We might believe we are where we need to be or we might realize we are far from home. The reality is there is a distance between us and home. What are we going to do? Where are we looking and where are we walking? We might be in a distant land or distant mind, but the father is still running toward us ready to restore us to the place we were meant to be. As we move through our lives, let us assist each other to turn toward the father instead of creating greater distance.
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2015), 433.
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