11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 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. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 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. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 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. 21 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.’ 22 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’”
A mother was out walking with her 4-year-old daughter, when the little girl picked something up off the ground and started to put it in her mouth. The mother stopped her, patiently explaining that the item had been lying on the ground and probably had germs. The little girl looked at her mother in absolute admiration and asked, “Wow, Mommy…how do you know stuff like that?”
“Well…” said the mother, thinking quickly, “…all Moms know these things. It’s in the Mommy test. You have to know all these things to pass the Mommy test before you can become a Mommy.
The little girl pondered this new information as she and her mother walked on in silence. After a few minutes, the daughter suddenly stopped and said, “Oh, I get it! If you flunk the test, you have to be the Daddy.”
So today is mother’s day, and some of you are probably wondering why, of all the texts to preach from on this day, I chose a good Father/Son story, like the Parable of the Prodigal Son. That would be a great sermon on any other day…but not this one–so what’s the deal?
Well, usually I wait until later in the sermon to talk about who’s who in the parable, but just this once, I’ll cut to the chase and let you know that the Father in this story represents God. And despite much belief to the contrary, the Lord God Almighty, Creator and Sustainer of the Universe…is neither male nor female.
While we often refer colloquially to God as “Father,” Jesus himself is not nearly so exclusive in his own use of gender-imagery for God: In Matthew 23 and Luke 13, Jesus compares God to a mother hen, “gathering her brood under her wings.” In John 16, Jesus describes God as giving birth to humanity like a woman in labor,” and in the parable immediately before this one in Luke 15, God is represented by the woman who rejoices over finding a lost coin.
And then there’s something about this parable, too–the parable of the Prodigal Son–that I hope will convince you that it is not quite the stereotypical Father/Son story we often make it out to be, but rather a very fitting text for the day we set aside to celebrate those who have mothered us.
But first, how many of you actually know what the word “prodigal” means? Most people, because of this famous parable, when they say something like “he’s a prodigal” or “look how the prodigal returns” mean someone who has wandered off or gone astray, just like one of the main characters in this story. Actually, two of the characters in this story (but more on that later).
If you look the word prodigal up in a dictionary, you’ll find that it actually means–and has always meant, right back to it’s Latin origin (prodigere = pro/forth + digere/drive) one who is extravagant, who spends lavishly, to the point of being wasteful. And that makes sense. We can see how the younger son spends his father’s inheritance extravagantly, wastefully–hence, “the prodigal son.”
But there are three main characters in this story: The father, the elder son, and the younger son. I’m going to make the case that all three are “prodigal,” extravagant, wasteful, in their own way…One prodigal parent, and two prodigal children.
I said “one parent” but an obvious question that some people have on reading this parable is, “Where’s the mother? Didn’t she have any say in the matter? Why didn’t she stop her youngest son from leaving? Where was she to welcome him back?” I’m going to suggest that the mother is right there in the heart of the story, if you know the right place to look. Or, rather, if you know the right “way” to look, and that is to look at the story through first century Middle Eastern eyes.
At this point I need to acknowledge that much of what I’m about to say doesn’t come from my own first-hand knowledge of first century Middle Eastern customs, but from a Presbyterian pastor, scholar, and missionary named Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey, who spent 40 years living, studying and writing in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Cyprus. Dr. Bailey is famous in the field of New Testament Studies, and taught at Princeton Seminary, though long before my time there. I actually came to know of his work through his son, David, who was a friend of mine, and perhaps equally famous as a Presbyterian Folk Singer and a brain cancer survivor. My friend David passed away in 2010, and his father, Dr. Kenneth Bailey passed away right around this time last year. For this sermon, and many others, I am indebted to them both.
So let’s dive in.
Verse 11: There was a man who had two sons. In those few opening words, a first-century Middle Eastern audience would have quickly grasped several things: First, “a man.” Much more so than today, there were clearly defined roles, responsibilities, expectations, and behaviors that went along with that title, “a man.” That’s important. We’ll keep coming back to that.
Next, “two sons.” Middle Easterners in the First Century practiced primogeniture–that means all or most of the father’s lands and possessions would pass to the firstborn son…upon the father’s death. So in verse 12, when the younger son says, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me,” that would have been…nothing. Or next to nothing. But what would have shocked those hearing this parable most was the fact that the son made such a ridiculous, insulting request–presuming his father’s death before the fact, and presuming he deserved more than he actually did.
What would a first-century, Middle-Eastern “man” of any dignity and worth say to such a request? How dare you. And who do you think you are? Whatever little you might have gotten, will now surely be nothing. If I am dead to you, then you are now dead to me. Go–and make your own way in the world.
That’s how the audience probably expected the story to go. And so the next sentence probably caused a few jaws to drop: “So he divided his property between them.” Divided. That’s half of the father’s wealth, to live upon (since he’s still alive), and to pass on to his rightful inheritor, the eldest son. That would have been absolutely scandalous. No decent, dignified man would behave in such a way.
In the next few verses we read that the younger son takes all that wealth and squanders it wastefully, extravagantly…but the first act of wasteful extravagance (at least in the eyes of Jesus’ audience) would have been on the part of the wasteful, extravagant, “prodigal” father, who is clearly not acting like a father should.
When the money runs out, the younger son gets a job taking care of pigs. This, too, would have been shocking to Jesus’ audience, since pigs (think pork!) were unclean and forbidden for Jews to touch or associate with. Today, perhaps it would be like hearing your child got a job at a cockroach farm, or a rat farm. And then the younger son starts to get hungry for the food that the cockroaches (or rats) have already picked over. (I think I may have just broken the ancient “don’t be gross on Mother’s day rule!).
So the younger son comes to his senses, prepares a big apology speech for his father, and heads home. The next part of the story typically moves a modern day audience to tears, but once again, a first century Middle Eastern audience would have been shocked and appalled. Not by the younger son, this time. His idea of becoming a hired servant probably sounded fair enough. They would have been appalled to find that the Father–a man with responsibilities to his remaining land, and family, and servants, and business affairs–has apparently been neglecting all those things to stand watch for the possible return of a son who should be dead to him. Verse 20: “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion.” Compassion? After what he had done?. Not fatherly, not manly. Not responsible.
But the next two words in verse 20 are far, far worse: He ran. A man, a father, a dignified landowner and elder, does…not…run. And to run in a long, flowing (but very manly) Middle Eastern robe meant hiking up that robe and revealing his bare legs. Absolutely undignified, immodest,and inappropriate. Followed by an embarrassing public display of affection, as he embraces and kisses his son.
It’s worth noting here that the father runs before the son even has a chance to begin his speech. I know a lot of Christians who think that should be the other way around–God forgives us, they say, but only after we repent, confess our sins, and sincerely ask for that forgiveness. The father in this story doesn’t seem to care much about any of that. He just runs, and cuts his son off in mid-sentence, to the consternation of ancient and modern theologians alike.
Much has been written about the meaning of the different symbols the Father now gives to the younger son–the robe, the ring, the sandals, the fatted calf. I’m not going to dwell on them, except to say, there he goes again, that wasteful, extravagant, prodigal father, not acting at all like a responsible man and father should.
Enter the elder son. And boy is he pissed. Rightfully so–his father just gave the robe and the ring (symbols of authority and inheritance) to the wrong guy! But the elder son too, insults the father, in verse 28, by refusing to go in, and by forcing his father to come outside and plead with him in a disgraceful reversal of roles (sons plead with their fathers, not the other way around!). The elder son stresses the obedience he has given to his father through the years, questioning whether it was all for nothing, all “extravagant waste” in light of his younger brother’s rewarded sins.
But the real extravagant, prodigal, waste on the part of the elder brother is the wasted opportunity to come back into the fold. Just like his younger brother did before him, he has humiliated his father, and now in his pride refuses to come home. Sadly, that’s where this parable ends. While the father, the younger brother, and all the household servants celebrate, the older brother is now on the outside, and we never learn what happens to him. Once again, Jesus opts for the cliffhanger ending.
So. Who are we in this story? At least one ancient interpretation taught that Jesus was the prodigal son, the one who left his Heavenly home behind to come down to earth, extravagantly dispensing his father’s love and forgiveness where it was not deserved, the one who “was dead and is now alive.” According to that interpretation, we would be the pigs–those unclean sinners and tax collectors that Jesus was always associating with. Unfortunately, that interpretation would have Jesus claiming to be a sinner in need of forgiveness, something which conflicted with most early Christian teachings. That interpretation remains a minority position.
I think we desperately want to see ourselves as the prodigal son–the ones who benefit from God’s forgiveness and mercy; the ones who, despite all we’ve done wrong, still get the party at the end of the story. If we had been part of Jesus’ first century audience, that would have certainly been true, because unless you’re Jewish, that means you would have been a gentile. This parable appears in the gospel of Luke (and only in the gospel of Luke), a gospel that was written specifically with gentiles in mind. The older brother, in this interpretation, would represent the Jews–the ones who first made a covenant with God; the ones who (in Jesus’ time) stressed obedience and faithfulness to that covenant.
When Luke wrote this Gospel, there were Jews who believed that Gentiles should have no place (or very little place) in God’s kingdom (in other words, no inheritance), or that at the very least, they had to conform to Jewish laws and behaviors (obedience) in order to be included. So once upon a time, we were the younger brother.
But somewhere along the way, Christianity became the predominant and “normative” religion in the West. We became the “religious” ones, the ones with expectations about proper behavior, proper belief, and “following the rules.” In short, today, we have become the older brother. And I think Jesus is still waiting for us to decide if we will get over our pride and join in the party…the heavenly celebration which includes all the people we think really should NOT be there; all the people we think take advantage of OUR inheritance, of the things WE deserve. You know…THOSE people!
Ok, some of you are still waiting to hear where the mother is in all of this–I said you could find her if you know where (or how) to look. Well, remember: To our first century Middle Eastern audience, the father is not a very good father. He doesn’t do any of the things a father should do. Recalling the very first (ironic) words of the parable, “there was a man,” he doesn’t even play that part well.
I think that in this parable, Jesus is telling the story of a father…who acts like a mother. Given Jesus’ descriptions of motherhood in other parables and teachings, none of the father’s actions would be surprising to his audience if he…were a she. Leave it to Jesus to turn first century gender roles upside down and remind us that it is only through God’s extravagant, wasteful, prodigal, MOTHERING love that true reconciliation is possible.
That’s hopeful news today, when our families come in more shapes and varieties than ever before. If you are a single father playing the role of a mother, or a single mother playing the role of a father, a family with two mothers, two fathers, a step-mother, a step-father, a mother figure, a father figure, or a family with two working parents where everybody is trying to be everything to everyone at once–know that still, God sees his children in the distance and comes running to embrace us. May we do the same for our children, and for each other.
One more story: A little boy forgot his lines in the annual church play. Luckily, his mother was in the front row especially to prompt him. She gestured and formed the words silently with her lips, but it did not help. The little boy was nervous, and his memory was completely blank. Finally, the mother leaned forward and whispered the line, ‘I am the light of the world.’ The little boy’s face lit up, remembering, and with great feeling in a loud clear voice he announced, ‘My mother is the light of the world.’
Happy Mother’s Day, First Presbyterian Church. May the light of Christ and God’s mothering love shine in us for all the world to see.