The land of the settling sons

Luke 15:1-3,11-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them this parable: …”There was a man who had two sons.   The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.   A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.   When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.   So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.   He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.   But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!   I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;   I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘   So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.   Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’   But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.   And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;   for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.   “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.   He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.   He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’   Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.   But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, 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!’   Then the father said to him, ‘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.’”

In a letter to his friend Philip Melanchthon, on August 1, 1521, Martin Luther wrote, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly… Pray boldly – for you too are a mighty sinner.” The reason for such a strange instruction from a man who had spent much of his life as a monk obsessed with making reparation for his own sins, is testimony to the insight Luther had into the Sola Gratia-by grace alone nature of our relationship with God as God’s children. Melanchthon, Luther’s colleague, and the theological brains of the early Lutheran movement, suffered from that deadly virus that kills a vibrant spirituality called Scrupulosity. Luther was addressing this obsession in the timid and fearful Melanchthon when he penned this trademark quote.

Later John Henry Newton would pen “Amazing Grace” as his response to the same insight that Luther had.

In our own time Philip Yancey has written a modern classic titled, “What’s so amazing about grace?” Yet, Luther, Newton and Yancey are simply pointing to a reality that every Christ follower in every generation has come to discover, namely, we are created to be at home with God our essential parent.

There are as many pointers to this truth in the words of Scripture as there are in the literature of faith which reference those scriptures, but none of these has the poignant earthiness of the parable in this coming Sunday’s gospel.

Coming to the parable nested as it is with two other lost and found parables, I feel tempted to do what Stephen Leacock’s fictional horseman did, “He flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.

I could go with all three parables and link them to the confession in our liturgy of Holy communion, We have sinned through ignorance (how sheep get lost) through weakness (how coins in a woman’s headdress get lost when the thread breaks) and through our own deliberate fault (how the son gets lost). I could then note how when loss is through ignorance and weakness, there is no end to the resources that must be thrown into searching for those lost ones. However, when the loss is deliberate, then there is no search. There is only a longing prayerful waiting for prodigality to run its course and for the lost to “come to themselves” and come home.

Whoa boy! I am going to rein in on that direction.

I could go with what the parable should be titled. Rather than the regular, Prodigal Son, perhaps it should be called the Prodigal Father? Or would Helmut Thielike’s title of The Waiting Father, still be the best choice. What about The Prodigal and the Prosaic? Or, The Settling Sons?

Whoa boy! I am going to rein in on that direction.

This Sunday I am drawn to a completely different angle as suggested by Prodigality, liberality and meanness in the parable of the prodigal son: by David A. Holgate It is a rather dry as dust, literary critical analysis of the parable but which, as all these scholarly works are wont to do, dropped a burr of inspiration under my saddle, so….Yeeehah! Giddyup!

Three paragraphs from Holgate opened up a line of insight for me.

The most important character is the father. He forms the standard by which all other behaviour is to be judged. His home is the central place. His workers and servants reveal his liberality, and his sons evoke his compassion. Luke emphasizes both of these virtues, so that each qualifies the other. The subjects of his speech make this clear: his gifts, his joy at his younger son’s recovery from ruin, and his concern at his concern at his elder son’s criticism of the celebration to mark his brother’s return.

The presentation of the sons as opposing stereotypes reveals Luke’s rejection of such behaviour. His rejection of prodigality is shown by his brief mention of prodigal behaviour and places greater stress on the younger son’s conversion and return. This emphasis is also evident in the way most of the action in the parable is related to his return and takes place on the day of his return. Luke’s rejection of meanness is seen in the way he places the father’s appeal to his elder son at the climax of the parable. In the appeal to the elder son, Luke appeals to his readers. Page67

Thus, I conclude that the parable teaches the virtue of compassionate liberality and rejects the opposing views of prodigality and meanness. It illustrates that liberality is a source of physical and moral health and harmony, for the individual and the community. Through the creative use of a simple plot, conventional characters and familiar moral language, Luke appeals to his readers to behave with liberality, particularly towards their Christian brothers and sisters. Page 68

What I enjoy about Holgate’s insight is that he holds to that ever true, Middle Way.

All too often. in our life and preaching as the church we have tended to side with one or the other of the sons. The Evangelicals have tended to say that we all have to be prodigal before we can experience the Luther-Newton-Yancy syndrome of AMAZING grace. And of course they are correct. But as one wag has said, “It would seem from some Evangelical preaching, that in the church, you have to have a lousy past to have a decent future!

On the other hand, almost every time a preach or teach on this parable someone will come to me afterwards and whisper, “You know I really can understand how the elder son felt!” They are correct too. Many Christ followers have been that from their mother’s knee. Do you really have to go off to some exotic prodigal place before you can come home?

What Holgate has captured in this middle way, is the central focus on the liberality of the father.

The Prodigal son who doesn’t deserve anything because he hasn’t earned it and in fact has wasted what communal resources were given to him, still gets all the regalia (robe and ring) and ritual (fatted calf feast) of a bona fide son.

Don’t you love the fact that he only get’s one sentence of his prepared penitential speech out before his father interrupts him? Or as Eugene Petersen translates in The Message, “The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ “But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast!”

The Prosaic son, who has lacked the imagination to even ask for a goat, is also affirmed as having access to everything at any time.

Yet when we look at the life of the average church household do we not see a constant conflict in our Church Councils, between the Prodigal and the Prosaic. (Guess who the Treasurer usually is?)

The polarities are endless in this encounter:

  • Youth versus Elderly
  • Mission versus Maintenance
  • Expansion versus contraction
  • Evangelism versus Pastoral Care

We can go on and on, but we are missing the point. The Liberal Prodigal Father seems to be saying, “Hey kids, there is enough for everyone!”

“The polarities only exist in your scarcity mentalities. You don’t have to compete, judge and resent.”

Open up to what is available and join the party!

And by the way, you can rein in that high horse too!


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