Last summer, I took my son Will to New York City for a vacation. It’s great father-son time, and we do it at least once every year. It’s always a great trip. But last summer, we had a bit of added excitement. As we usually do, we get tickets to go see the Yankees play up at Yankee Stadium. We had great seats, right behind home plate. And it was a great game. After the game, since we had taken the subway uptown to Yankee Stadium we would head back downtown to the Princeton Club, where we were staying. New York is blessed to have a really outstanding public transportation system, but when you have 45,000 people trying to make their way home after a game, and a considerable number of those taking the subway, things get pretty crowded. First you have to push your way through a mass of humanity just to get through the gates to the subway station, and from there, through the turnstiles, and then to the subway platform. It was so crowded that night that quite literally the crowd just moved you along—we were like one large mass of humanity! Will and I kept close, however; even though he was only 15 at the time, he is pretty savvy when it comes to navigating his way through New York—but I did not want to press my luck on that night. So we make our way together down to the platform. The next phase of our mission is to go from the platform onto a subway train. As the cars arrive, they quickly fill up with passengers, and so I tell Will as the trains arrive that we should move further down the platform to the trains that are less crowded. And I assume that both Will hears me, and that he is following me as I make my way down the platform. Never assume, friends. You know what it does, and I’ll leave it at that. So I think that both Will and I are stepping onto the same train. And the subway doors close behind me. And I notice Will is not with me.
The Princeton Club is in Manhattan, about five miles from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, as the crow flies. Not really that far, but we’re not flying like crows. We’re travelling underground, at night, from the Bronx—infamous for its violence, gangs, drugs, crime—to Manhattan. I’m scared. I’m wondering where the heck is Will?! So I begin just looking around the very crowded subway car in which I’m standing, and I don’t see him anywhere. When we were standing on the subway platform we had been speaking with some other people, one of whom was stood about 6’5’, so I think maybe Will is with him? Don’t spot him on my car. I’m thinking now what my plan is—if I can’t find Will, I’ll have to go to the NYPD and enlist their help. My mind is swimming with thoughts, both hopeful and fearful. Will knows where the Princeton Club is, and he knows the subway system really well, and maybe he’ll find a cop who might help him. Maybe he’ll know which subway stop to get off at and have the presence of mind to wait for me there. I’m just thinking there must be a way out of this mess. But I am also planning for the worst case scenario, like how do I tell my wife. “Hey, we had a great time at the game, the Yankees won, but I lost Will.” Not the kind of phone call I can even imagine making.
So the train continues to rumble downtown, stopping along the way, letting passengers off, taking a few on. As the crowd thins on the train, I’m better able to move about and look for Will. I walk through my car, Will is nowhere, and head to the next car. Look around, don’t see Will, move on to the next car, which is still really crowded. I’m sweating bullets at this point—and then I see his hand raised high in the air, waving to me! Thank God! And he is with that 6’5”, who had spotted me and told Will to wave.
It was a terrifying experience. I honestly thought that my son was gone. When we were reunited, I just hugged him, and thanked God again.
Jesus told a parable that we read today about a father who had two sons. We know this story as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It could also be called the Parable of the Two Lost Sons. But the central figure in this parable is not the younger son, nor the older son, but the father. Jesus is putting on display for the scribes and Pharisees to whom he is speaking the powerful, awesome, unconditional love of God the Father. What Jesus shares in this parable is some of the most shocking and powerful teaching ever to come from his lips.
A crowd is with Jesus, a crowd composed of his followers, included among them “tax collectors and sinners.” These are the people to whom Jesus is drawn, and they are drawn to Jesus. Tax collectors and “sinners,” a rather broad term that likely includes those who were not meticulous in obeying Mosaic Law. In the eyes of the Pharisees and scribes, a sinner was anyone who did not practice their religion as they thought they should. Sinners, in that sense, included anyone who had fallen short of the religious standard established by the Pharisees.
The Pharisees grumble about Jesus: “Look at that one,” they sneer, “this man receives sinners and…eats with them.” In the culture of that time, to sit down and dine with someone meant that you were expressing solidarity with them, and to say that he “eats” with them indicates that this is not a past activity, but one in which Jesus still engaged. How could this man claim to be God if he welcomes sinners into this presence? It was here that the Pharisees totally misread Jesus. It wasn’t that Jesus was affirming sin by welcoming “sinners” into his presence, but rather that he was calling all sinners to Him so that they might be saved.
Jesus hears the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees and tells them three parables that deal with the restoration of the lost. First Jesus tells them the parable of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, followed by the parable of the lost coin. In both cases, something of value—a sheep, a coin—had been lost, and then found, and in the finding and restoration there was great rejoicing. These are two brief parables that set the stage for the third parable—the Prodigal Son.
“There was a man who had two sons,” Jesus begins. The younger is a rebel. He has been chafing at living under his father’s rules at home, and has come to a point in his life where he just wants to strike out on his own. As is so often the case in families then and now, birth order helps to shape the attitudes of children. Frequently—but not always—the older child is the responsible, obedient, compliant one, who follows the rules, obeys his parents. The younger child is the one who pushes the envelope more, is a bit more of a challenge for mom and dad, a freer spirit who wants to live life his or her own way. That is what Jesus is describing here. So the younger son asks that he might receive his share of the family estate NOW! Jewish law at that time structured estates so that the older son, upon the death of the father, would receive the larger share of the estate, and the younger sons smaller shares. But, then as now, almost all the time estates were divided after the death of the parent or father. There were rare instances in Jewish culture where a father might give a child or children their share of the estate prior to death, but those were rare instances.
But this is more than just an issue about wealth. In essence what the younger son is saying to the father is “I can’t wait for you to die.” The younger son wants what the father has—but he doesn’t want the father. The fact that the father is still alive stands in the way of the younger son getting what he wants—freedom! And money! “Father,” he says, “give me what’s coming to me from your estate.”
The father does what the younger son asks.
Taking his inheritance the younger son wastes no time in leaving his father and older brother. Jesus tells us, “the younger son…took a journey into a far country and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” I used to live in a sea-side town that had a somewhat robust fishing business, and I remember some of the fisherman who were not really good at managing their money. They would be paid on a Friday, cash their check, and then drink away their earnings that night, waking up Saturday morning not only with a hangover but with an empty wallet. I imagine the younger son was much the same way. His pockets filled with money, he was the life of the party, picking up tabs he could ill afford. One day he must have reached for his wallet, and it was empty. No money, no job, and now a famine. Wicked combination. Can’t go back home because he thinks he has burned that bridge. So he takes a loathsome job feeding pigs. About as low as it gets for a Jew—recall that pigs are an unclean animal according to Jewish ritual and purity laws. Living in a foreign land, flat broke, estranged, and unclean.
At some point while he is feeding the pigs, he begins to yearn for home. He thinks back on the good old days, a comfy bed, good food. Home. And he even begins to crave the food he’s feeding to the pigs. But when he yearns for home he is acutely aware of the reality he has constructed. He believes he has shattered his relationship with his father to such a degree that he has even lost the right to be called his father’s son. Maybe he can head back home, but not as a son, but as a hired hand. Then, at least, he’ll be fed with the rest of the workers. Maybe, just maybe, he can begin to earn his way back into the father’s household.
He had to go home. The younger son, poor and hungry, was now a broken man. He had to go home, had to face his father again, had to fall on his knees and beg forgiveness. Take me back as one of your hired men.
I shared earlier the experience of being a father who though he had lost his son. Awful and terrifying. I know to a certain extent the broken heart of a father who believes that his son is lost, gone. But I also know what it feels like to be the younger son, who takes an inheritance—understood as what God in his generosity gives us every day for the primary purpose of serving and glorifying Him—and has squandered it in reckless, selfish living. I’ve been there, as a younger man, out with my friends, staying out way to late, spending way too much money, waking up with hangover and an empty wallet in a strange place. Friends, as bad as those experiences are, I firmly believe God uses them to break us and to form us. God forms us all differently. For some of us, we are like the elder son. We never wander astray, we are devoted and faithful to the father all our lives. And the truth is that the older son, as is seen in this parable, is also lost, separated from the father. He refuses to join his brother and his father at the feast. His alienation from the father is the result of his obedience, his perfect following of the father’s rules. He believes his relative goodness has put the father in his debt. He does not love the father, only what he can get from the father. And he will get what he wants from the father not because of love, but because he has been so good, so perfect, that he deserves to be blessed. He expects to be blessed because of his performance. But others of us are the younger son, the rebel, the wanderer, the ones who want to do it our way. We don’t want the father, only what we can get from the father.
The younger son begins the long journey home. While he was still a long way off, Jesus says, “his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” While the younger son had written off his father, the father had never given up on the son. Did he wonder if he was dead and gone? Yes, he did. But as with any parent, until you have evidence that your child is indeed truly gone, you hold out hope. This father always held in his heart hope that the son would return. And he did. Spotting him off in the distance, the father hitches up his garments and runs out to the son. This was not the typical action of a Jewish man, to hike up his garments and run like a school-boy down the road. But that is how great the father’s love is for the son. With his father’s arms around his neck, the son speaks up, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Those words—they are a confession of sin. The father’s actions that follow indicate forgiveness and restoration.
The father really does not respond directly to the son. His next words are directed to the servant: 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.
Last Sunday Jesus taught about the importance of repentance. We are to live lives of repentance and faith—that is what we offer to God. We are to repent, to paraphrase another saint, until the day we die. We seek God’s forgiveness, we repent of our sins, and we trust in God. And God is always faithful. God is always willing to forgive us. We might act as the younger son, live lives of dissolute living and recklessness. God is always willing to forgive. Always. The image Jesus gives us of the father running out to meet his wayward son—the very son who basically said, “Old Man, I wish you were dead!”—is how God loves us. God loves us although we might shake our fists in his face; God loves us in spite of our brokenness, of the wrecks we might make of our lives. King David in Psalm 51 wrote, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” When we come to God in our brokenness, on our knees, God is there to embrace us and draw us to himself. Prodigal is defined as “wastefully or recklessly extravagant; lavishly abundant.” Indeed, the younger son had lived wastefully; but the true prodigal is God. God loves in a recklessly extravagant fashion, and is lavishly abundant in his love for us. Jesus offended the Pharisees because of how he dined with and accepted sinners. They were angered at how Jesus loved and loves the unlovable. We behave as Pharisees, too, when we set boundaries around whom we deem worthy of God’s love. Our Lord is our prodigal—the one who loves us recklessly, extravagantly, abundantly, and eternally. We were lost, and now we’re found. This is grace, brothers and sisters, amazing grace. Amen.