The Prodigal Father

Message for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C (3/27/2022)

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32


Ask anyone the title of Jesus’ famous parable in our Gospel from Luke today, and they’re likely to know. Even people who aren’t familiar with the Christian story in general may be able to tell you that this story is called the Parable of the ________ ___.

At least, that’s what we’ve called it in the past.

It’s a text like this one, a story so well known both inside and outside the church, that presents the greatest challenge to the idea that the word of God is living and active. How can a parable we’ve heard so many times before have anything new to say? We already know what it means; how can it speak to our hearts and refresh our lives yet again today?

Let me propose that the problem with a familiar text like this isn’t so much that the text itself has nothing new to offer, but that our preconceptions impede us from perceiving the new thing that God is doing. In other words, we impose our expectations on the word, rather than letting the word speak for itself.

The classic title of this parable is a case in point. If this is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, then we’re apt to focus our attention immediately on the younger son and his prodigality, or wastefulness. It becomes a story of human selfishness and folly first and foremost, emphasizing our need for repentance and grace. And, some of us may, in fact, identify with the younger son, whose carelessness devastates his father’s estate and his honor all at once, setting the family up for an awkward reunion down the road. If your mistakes have led you down the road to ruin; if you know what it is to be lost, to come to your senses, and to throw yourself on the mercy of others; then the outcome of this story is indeed a word of hope: “Let us eat and celebrate,” the father declares with joy, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

But, what about those of us who identify instead with the older son, the dutiful, responsible one? What if you find yourself quietly cheering his angry outburst? “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, [father,] 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!” Maybe the father’s behavior in this parable drives you a little crazy, too. If you make a point to play by the rules, if you’ve committed yourself to honesty and diligence, all the while assuming that people will mostly get what they deserve, then this is a story of disappointed expectations. And, let’s be real; it isn’t fair. The younger son doesn’t get what’s coming to him in the end, no matter how badly the older son might like to see that happen. No wonder he’s in no mood to celebrate.

But, while we tend to put the emphasis on the younger son’s repentance in this parable, keep in mind that the older son has reason to repent, too. Even as he’s spent years cultivating his father’s land in his brother’s absence, he’s also spent years cultivating his resentment and sense of entitlement. His rant outside the party doesn’t come out of nowhere; he’s been nursing righteous indignation all along, just waiting for a chance to unleash it. And, isn’t it strange that his father’s act of mercy is what provides the occasion? All the venom the older son has repressed over time comes pouring out – against his brother and his father alike. He even takes a swing at people he doesn’t know yet whom he judges anyway, the nameless and faceless sex workers he imagines his brother has been seeing (although there’s no evidence of that in the story). We can’t even know for certain that the older son eventually accepts his father’s invitation to share in the celebration. So, maybe we can do better than the classic title after all; maybe we should call this story the Parable of the Bitter Older Son.

No matter which of the two brothers you more closely resemble, let me invite you to consider yet another possibility. Maybe this story isn’t as much about one or the other son as it is about their father. Although we may be preoccupied with the siblings, and the rivalry that grows out of their wildly different choices, maybe this story is about the father’s steadfast love for both.

Marvel with me, first of all, at his extravagant mercy for the younger son. Having planted the seed of love long ago, the father hopes against hope that the seed will finally bear fruit in his wayward child’s homecoming. And when that happens, he abandons any pretense to respectability and runs to embrace him. This is extremely out of character for a Palestinian patriarch. He rolls out the red carpet for the son who assumed he’d never be treated better than a servant, and what’s more, he dares his neighbors to welcome his son home, too, by inviting them to the party of the year, an invitation they can’t very well refuse. Despite his own wounded pride, despite the damage done to his reputation, despite the community’s misgivings, the father insists that this is how we love our children well: “Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

The surprise twist at the end is that the father extends that same love to his older son. Faced with his unprocessed anger, his self-righteousness, his impetuous resistance, the father doesn’t chide his son for his disrespect or ingratitude, but humbly, reassuringly coaxes him back into relationship: “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.”

So in the end, maybe we ought to call this story the Parable of the Prodigal Father. After all, if anyone is excessive, friends, if anyone throws caution to the wind, it’s the ever-faithful parent, the one who grants his children the freedom to make their way in the world, yet who lavishes them with grace no matter the ups and downs. The prodigal one is the father who, in spite of his children’s blunders and bitterness, nevertheless showers them with generosity and joy, and thereby makes a way for a future together.

As it turns out, neither good behavior nor bad, neither deserving nor undeserving is the reason for the party in the first place, but only the father’s love. And what a party it is – prodigal, to say the least.

I’m glad you decided to come.

Liturgy © 2022 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.

Liturgy © True Vine Music ( All rights reserved. Used by permission under CCLI license #11177466.

“Now the Feast and Celebration”; text and music: Marty Haugen, b. 1950; © 1990 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.

“Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)”; Chris Tomlin | John Newton | Louie Giglio; © 2006 sixsteps Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing), Vamos Publishing (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing), songs (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing). All rights reserved. Used by permission under CCLI license #11177466.

“Ubi caritas et amor”; text: Latin antiphon, 9th cent.; Taizé Community; tr. With One Voice; music: Jacques Berthier, 1923-1994; text and music © 1979 Les presses de Taizé, admin. GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.

“Bless Now, O God, the Journey”; text: Sylvia G. Dunstan, 1955-1993; music: Welsh tune, 19th cent.; text © 1991 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-706920.