It’s a beloved parable, but a challenging one to preach on precisely because it is so beloved.
“A man had two sons…. “ That’s really all you need to hear and you can probably fill in the rest of it.
The older brother.
The wayward younger brother who is impatient to get on with life.
The incomprehensible father, who we either hale as being far too loving, far too forgiving, far too insensitive to the needs of both children, or far too stupid to have ever acquiesced to the younger son’s demands in the first place.
He’s the first “far too permissive parent,” – way too eager to please his little boy.
Yes, this is difficult parable to preach on precisely because built into the parable is just enough ambiguity that you can insert some of your own experience into it.
But then, maybe that is the point.
If there is one thing that this parable does very well it is invites you into it. Hardly anyone hears or reads this without forming opinions about the characters involved.
Where do you see yourself?
Are you like the older brother, the responsible one, bothered by his father’s actions so much that he can’t join in the party? Feeling overlooked, under-consulted, and under-appreciated? Grumbling like those at the start of this chapter because way too much emphasis seems to be placed upon “sinners” – those who have done egregious things.
Are you like the father? Do you have someone estranged from you, someone you’ve watched wander where you wish they would not have gone? Are you the one now looking out at the horizon every day wondering if they will ever come back to you? Are you planning what you would do if they were to show back up in your life? Would you be gracious? Reluctant? Expectant? Cautious? Do we hear this parable in the same way these days with children who launch and then end up returning because they can’t find a job, or can’t manage in this economy?
Are you that younger son, chafing under whatever real or imagined restrictions you feel are placed on you? Perhaps you were the one who couldn’t wait to get away from home, eager to make your mark in the world. Or having tried and failed, wondered how you’ll ever figure out a way forward, starving for another chance?
Where do you see yourself in this parable? Countless possibilities exist, and none of them really wrong or off base.
It is possible to understand the resentment of the older brother – we’ve felt that ourselves.
It is possible to know the longing aching heart of the father, we have felt that or known those who shared their concerns with us.
It is possible to see in one’s own hasty or ill-conceived plans times when you thought you really had something all worked out in your own mind, but upon hitting the “real world” your elaborate plans all turned to ruin and embarrassment.
Where do you see yourself?
We could spend hours parsing that out, and looking for places of connection, and deep digging at meaning to be found wherever you happen to see yourself.
The parable invites it.
So, part of me is tempted to just let you turn to one another and hammer this out on your own with those around you. That might be the best way to spend this time.
If you did so, you might gain new appreciations for the characters as you listened to others tell you of their experiences.
You might “hear” this parable differently if a red eyed widow and mother sitting next to you talked about her own estranged children, and the longing to want to have them come back home.
You would experience this differently if the cross armed man grew suddenly red in the face as he described how in his own family, he was the slighted one as his no-good brother or sister got all the attention.
You would experience this parable differently if the person next to you started her own reflection on the parable with “I ran away from home…”
Jesus isn’t afraid to let messy stories stand.
We’d like this parable all wrapped up in a bow, like the two parables that precede it.
You know, the parable about the woman who loses a coin and sweeps the corners to find it. Upon finding the coin she then invites everyone into her joy with a party!
Or the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd leaves the Ninety Nine to go and find the lost sheep. Upon finding the sheep, he then carries it back home upon his shoulders, and then invites everyone into the joy, along with all the angels of heaven rejoicing that the lost has been found.
We’d like this parable to end the same way, the way a good 30 minute sitcom is supposed to end,— the way we’d hope our own lives would work out, neatly and clearly with a definite resolution to things.
But that’s not how this parable ends.
This parable ends with the younger brother partying with the servants, enjoying restoration to the family while he remains oblivious to the hurt feelings of his older brother.
This parable ends with the older brother arguing with his father about how this family works, and how he has been treated in the past, and refusing to join the party.
This parable ends with a plea by the Father to have the older son come in now and join the party, and to rejoice that the one who was dead to us, (your brother) has come back to life.
The parable ends with this nagging question, this tension, “what will happen next?”
Will the younger brother ever apologize to the father or his brother?
Will the older brother join the party?
Will the Father ever see his kids back on speaking terms?
We like things resolved. That, however, is not how we tend to experience life.
We experience life in all of its messiness, with all if its apparent complications, and its incomplete information.
We don’t really know the internal motivations of the younger son in this parable any more than we know the internal motivations of our own family member who is estranged, cut off, or who perhaps despaired and never came back.
Ambiguity is the lot of real life.
We don’t really have a handle on all the ins and outs of the family dynamics, not here in this parable, or even in our own extended families. (I mean, the mother in the parable is nowhere in sight! We could speculate forever on unresolved issues of guilt, abandonment, or grief right there!)
Just as we could blindly “speculate” on what it is that drives the conflicts and issues in our own extended family.
This is the way families are! Unreasonable demands are made by individuals. Irresponsible actions are sometimes taken. Wisdom is seen as being in short supply, or wisdom and sound judgment is overridden by emotions in the heat of long held grievances. Communication is less than ideal, so misunderstanding, hurt feelings and brokenness are the result.
Where do you see yourself in this parable? More like “Where do you NOT see yourself?”
Most poignantly, where do we see ourselves is in the ongoing question and tension of “What is going to happen next?”
So then, as we hear Jesus tell this unresolved parable, it is important to remember the context into which it was told.
Remember the grumbling?
It’s important to place this image firmly in your mind, of Jesus surrounded by all the people mentioned.
Sinners and tax collectors are there.
Disciples and close followers are there.
Pharisees and scribes are there.
They are all there, this whole messy “New Testament Family” that we see Jesus hanging out with in the Gospels, in all their dynamism.
They are there with all their competing interests, their differing motivations for following or watching him, and with their opinions already firmly formed about God and about one another.
It’s a family!
And, there is grumbling, as there always is in any family.
So, Jesus tells these three parables, two of them with happy, nicely resolved endings because, you know, such things do happen from time to time! You do get resolution, togetherness, forgiveness, and much rejoicing in the family sometimes.
But you know what else you get in any family?
You get the unresolved tension of not knowing what exactly will happen next, and how all these things, these dynamics, will play themselves out.
You get the grumbling and the uncertainty, and the feeling that the whole thing is somehow held together by the barest of threads, and the power of love expressed by someone in just the right moment.
That’s the Father in the parable.
That’s Jesus in the gospels, and in our lives.
Where are you in this parable? Well you’re the listener, really. And you’re sitting with your fellow tax collectors, and sinners, and with the good Pharisees and scribes, (of which you may be one!) You are all here just because Jesus is here, and he’s talking, telling you a story!
That’s where you are.
You, with all of your already formed opinions about how things should work, or your relief that Jesus has found you, or your anxiety at what others might be thinking about you, and your guilt at what you’ve done or not done in the past.
Where are you?
You are with Jesus in this moment, listening to a parable about how families work, or don’t work as the case may be, because families are always messy!
The whole venture of faith sometimes feels like it is just held together with the barest of threads and the power of love expressed by someone in just the right moment.
That’s where you are.
You are with Jesus – listening and wondering how the story of your life will turn out for you, and listening for him to speak of the power of love at just the right moment for you.