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The Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C

The Parable of the "Prodigal Son" 

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...In this case, what happens is, while all this is going on, the elder son comes in from the field. So what’s he doing out in the field? Well, he’s working, because he works for his father on the family land. What is his response to the repentance of the younger son? It’s not mercy, it’s not compassion, and it’s certainly not joy. It is anger. He is angry, and he’s so angry at what has happened that he refuses to go into his father’s house. Now notice, notice the parallel between this and the younger son. Earlier, when the younger son asks for his inheritance, he leaves the father’s house and goes to another land. It kind of symbolizes his exile from his father, his breaking of that relationship. Now, the elder son refuses to go into his father’s house. So what does that signify? Again, a kind of brokenness in the relationship; he won’t go into his father’s house, and the father has to come out to him and say what is happening. He explains how the brother’s come home and they’re rejoicing because he’s safe and sound.

Now, in this case, notice what happens here. When the older brother begins to speak to his father, and the father is entreating him, begging him, “Come in, rejoice with us”, what does the older son say? “Lo, these many years I have served you and I’ve never disobeyed your command.” Pause there. How does the older son see his relationship with the father? Even though he’s a son, he sees himself as a slave. He sees himself as a servant. “I’ve worked for you, I’ve served you all these years, and I never broke any rules.” Now, I want to stress here, being a slave or a servant of God is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s required. We are required to obey the commands. Paul (the apostle Paul) calls himself a “servant of the Lord” or a “slave of Christ” over and over again in the New Testament. So service to God and obedience to God isn’t a bad thing. But if all you see yourself is as a slave, what you’re 9 saying is, “I’m not a son.” There’s an antithesis here that the elder son is revealing that he only sees his relationship with his father in terms of his work and his obedience. But you can serve someone and obey them and not love them. That’s very easy to do. It’s kind of like a window into the son’s heart. “I’ve done all this, I never broke any rules, I’ve served you all this time, and you’ve not even ever given me a kid,” (which doesn’t mean a “kid”, it means a goat), “to sacrifice and make merry with my friends.” Notice, the elder son wants to celebrate with his friends, not with his father. Notice, the next line, and then he says “When this son of yours comes, you kill the fatted calf.” Notice he does not say, “When my brother comes.” Not only does his refusal to go into the house symbolize that he’s cut himself off from the family, but when he speaks to his father, he says “this son of yours”. So he cuts himself off from his brother as well.

This reminds me of something that has happened in my own household. Sometimes when (and I’m sure parents can identify with this), say one of the kids is bad, or they’ve been bad that day, me and my wife might say, “You want to know what your son did today?” or “Do you know what your daughter did today?” It’s a kind of way of like distancing yourself from the kids because they’re bad. I’m like, “Hold on a second, I think the child belongs to both of us.” But that’s the way we use language. Now obviously that’s in jest, it’s in joking, but the son here is in earnest. “This son of yours”, he has cut himself off from his brother and, in a sense, cut himself off from his father in saying that this way. How does the father respond to the elder son? Notice, he refuses to accept the image that the son’s painting of himself as just a servant. He says, “Son, you are always with me. All that is mine is yours, but it was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this, your bother (See? Your brother) was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.” So there we have it again, he’s calling the elder son into joy over the repentance of the younger one.

Why does the parable end this way? I think it takes us all the way back around to the very first verses. What was the setting of the parable in which Jesus delivered it? It was in the context of the Pharisees and the Scribes, who saw themselves as keeping the commandments and as serving God, being angry that Jesus was offering mercy and compassion and salvation and the opportunity for repentance to sinners. They are, in this sense, the Pharisees and the Scribes who feel that way about Jesus eating with sinners are like the elder son, who instead of feeling joy at the repentance of a sinner actually feels anger. They’re repelled by the compassion and the mercy of God. And that’s a real easy thing, to just ascribe to the Scribes and Pharisees of the 1st Century, like “Oh they were self-righteous and that kind of 10 thing.” But, if you search your own heart, you’ll see, that that’s a very easy temptation to fall prey to. Like Jesus says elsewhere in the gospel, “Are you angry because I am generous?” (in The Parable of the Talents), Why does God let some people in at the ninth hour to the kingdom and they receive everything that the people who’ve been working all day do? That doesn’t seem fair It’s easy to feel a kind of spiritual envy toward that (or spiritual anger) about the kind of seemingly irrational and unjust mercy and compassion that God will show on a sinner who repents, even after the worst sins. And so, Jesus is using this parable here to teach the Scribes and Pharisees about the kind of God the father really is, and about the mercy and compassion of God that we ourselves are to emulate in loving God and loving our neighbor....

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