Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
An offensive telling of the Prodigal Son.
He did a very, very offensive thing.
The younger son offended all the customs and conventions of his day. He stepped outside of the norms, crossed over the lines, and acted in ways that were shocking and shameful for himself, his family, and his neighbors.
Perhaps he had considered his plans for a while and practiced how he might ask the question. “How should I word this exactly. . .?” he may have wondered.
Or maybe his plans were made on the spur of the moment. Perhaps the desire for immediate gratification overcame him, and he didn’t really consider how his words might hurt or wound those around him.
“Father, give me the share of the land that will belong to me,” he stated.
That wasn’t really a question at all. It seemed to be a demand, an expectation, and an entitlement. And did you catch that? That word ‘will?’ He’s asking to translate ‘will’ into now.
The younger son did a very, very offensive thing. . . Because under all conventional standards of the day, he would not have gained this inheritance now. The ‘will’ of it all – “Father, give me the share of the land that will belong to me” – hinged on one thing. It hinged on the death of his father. In other words, as we translate this demand into the cultural language of the day, the younger son is in effect saying, “Father, be dead to me. I can’t wait around for your death. I want my share of the inheritance now.”
That was a very, very offensive request to make.
He does receive that inheritance, but he doesn’t use it to care for himself or his father. Instead, he runs off to a distant country and squanders the entire inheritance on dissolute living.
He asked for his father to be dead to him.
Then he became dead to himself.
And yet, thank God, there is grace.
Thank God that grace can come even in the rock bottom moment.
A famine comes. The younger son may have assumed that his inheritance was abundant enough to last forever, but like all things that are perishable, his monetary inheritance hit rock bottom. And so did he.
He was so poor and so in need, he made a decision that would have seemed wildly offensive to anyone he grew up with back at home. He hired himself out to be a swineherd, to tend to pigs which were unclean under Jewish law.
And his rock bottom moment came when he was so hungry that he envied those pigs. They had sustenance even in that slop, and that’s more than he could say for himself. The scripture says that there was grace even in this filthy moment of needy destitution. The text says that “He came to himself.”
Isn’t that an interesting phrase?
His monetary inheritance had run out, but he was on the verge of discovering that an inheritance exists which is never perishable. It cannot be squandered under any circumstances. This inheritance has to do with identity through love.
There was grace in a glimmer of understanding, yet even then, he underestimated it for what it really was. He began to dream of return, but he underestimated it. “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,” he planned to say. He set off to return, to be less than the one he was called to be.
And he too did a very, very offensive thing.
He stepped outside the norms, crossed over lines, and acted in ways that were culturally shocking and shameful. The father did a very offensive thing, culturally speaking.
Though shamed by his son and treated as though he were dead, the father continually sought after his son. He did not avert his eyes, constantly looking in love, dreaming for the wellbeing of his treasured son. He broke every standard, every expectation, and looked like a fool to his neighbors.
In love, perhaps beyond what we can imagine, he did an offensive thing.
Like a fool, when he saw his son in the distance, he ran with open arms to greet the one who had disowned him and wronged him. The father kissed his son. He didn’t let his son finish this speech, this tainted version of who he was in his father’s eyes.
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” he began. But there would be no talk of acting as a hired hand. This was his beloved child, and he had returned. He had come to live as the one he is.
“Bring the robe – the best one! Bring the best sandals and a ring to place on his finger. My child! My child has come home! My child! We will eat and celebrate, for this child of mine was dead and is alive again! He was lost, and he was found!”
The younger son may have treated his father as though he were dead. But there is nothing he could do and no distance that he could travel that could render his father’s love dead.
This love was alive, and for that reason,
he named his son as the one he had always been,
he named him as the one he would always be –
his fully alive, beloved child.
The father welcomed him in love and threw a lavish party to celebrate that deep, rich, love. That love was wildly offensive in the world’s eyes. This child had returned toward deep, rich, unconditional love.
And he too did a very, very offensive thing.
The older brother was hurt by this lavishness. Perhaps he felt as though this feast, another outpouring of abundance, was being squandered too. His younger brother had not only shamed himself. He had shamed everyone! He had left more labor for his older brother because he was not here to do it himself.
The older brother was angry that his younger sibling had literally demanded his share of the land only to squander the proceeds it provided him. And because his father was still alive (He didn’t want his father dead like somebody else. . .) the older brother had to take care of his father with a smaller pool of resources than they had before.
His younger brother had tarnished his family’s name, and for what? For a lavish party! Since when had his father done anything like this for him? He had stayed here. He had toiled. He had been faithful. Where was his party? Where was his feast?
He did an offensive thing.
The older brother refused to enter the party. He chose to be alone. He could be self-righteous, yes, but he was also alone. Somehow, self-righteousness can make hermits out of us. . . He stood there, scowling and sulking. He tried to stay distant from his father.
But unconditional love can look so downright foolish.
It’s offensive really.
The father’s deep, rich, unconditional love was offensive in the way that it was willing to enter even the most offensive of places.
Once more, the father stepped outside the norms, crossed the lines, and acted in ways that were culturally shocking and shameful. He did what no host would do it his culture: He left his guests, and he went out to meet his older son.
The older son made his complaints. He expressed his frustrations. His father listened, but he also lavished this son with abundant love,
“Son, you are always with me. You cannot truly be distant from my love for you. All that is mine, is yours.”
And then the challenge: “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life. He was lost and has been found. He is mine. Will you let him be yours? Will you come in, where my love is big enough for the both of you?”
What a story. . .
And to our stories. ..
Do you know who you are?
Do you know it?
Do you know Whose you are?
Do you know who and Whose you were created to be?
The first epistle of John says it so well: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. . . if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
There is good news for each one of us:
You are included in God’s love. You can trust that reality and walk right into it. You can live like that’s actually real and true. Let it seep into every living cell inside yourself.
And there is good news for the entire world:
The world is included in God’s love. God’s love for you is so big that it can include the world – those you love, those known unto you, those unknown to you, those you can’t stand – without ever diminishing God’s deep, rich, unconditional for you.
God’s love for the world is so big that it can really and truly include you – yes, even you! yes, even me!– without diminishing any of that love for the world. This love is endless, and it is boundless.
So what are we waiting for?
Won’t we go into that party and celebrate?
Won’t we walk right toward it?
We may feel as though we’ve have wandered so far away from God that God has stopped waiting for our return. We may feel as though God would never run toward us with open arms. It may seem as though we’ve squandered it all, and we might as well indulge in pig slop. Well, the good news for us today is that we are not pig slop, and we were never made for that.
God is loving with open arms. There is nothing we can do to nullify that love. We can’t un-beloved child ourselves! Since that’s true, here’s the challenge. If we don’t know that love, or we’re not living as if that love is real, we are missing something. We can turn around. We can come to ourselves – our true selves, our true beloved selves. It is time to leave that distant country, whatever it may be. . . addiction, rage, pettiness, pride, self-loathing, isolation, greed, hoarding, competition, or gossip.
Whatever it is, we can come home.
There is a Love so deep that it’s offensively running toward us.
It’s on the offense!
We can turn in the direction toward the One who runs toward us.
Or maybe we feel as though we’re standing outside these days. Perhaps we’re resentful. Perhaps there are people we’d rather God not love. Perhaps we define them as outsiders, and yet, we are the one refusing to enter God’s deep love. Or perhaps we feel ostracized yourself.
Remember that God’s love for them cannot nullify God’s love for you.
And God’s love for you cannot nullify God’s love for them.
If all that is God’s is lovingly ours, our neighbors and our enemies are ours to love.
We can embrace them.
We can run toward them as God runs toward them.
And we can allow ourselves to be loved by them.
Enter that lavish party.
All the love in the world is right here for us.
All the love in the world is right here for us.
Won’t you come inside?