Thomas J Parlette
“A Father had Two Sons”
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
Once upon a time, there was a man who went to the movies one cold and rainy Saturday afternoon. He hadn’t been to a movie in quite a while, so he thought it would be a nice change of pace. He made himself comfortable, enjoyed the pre-movie trivia and the coming attractions, and settled in for the main feature.
On the screen there appeared the MGM roaring lion, and the man thought to himself, this is the same way the last movie I saw started, with that same roaring lion – and he decided, I’ve seen this movie before – and he got up and walked out of the theater.(1)
As silly as that story might be, it holds a nugget of truth. There is a word of warning there.
When we hear that opening phrase in our passage for today – “There was a man who had two sons…”, we might be tempting to check out mentally. We know this story well – it’s the parable of the prodigal son. We might decide that we don’t need to pay too much attention – we already know the story, we already get the point. Time to leave the theater.
But when we really listen to it, scripture can surprise us. This is part of what makes it the word of God: no matter the situation in which we find ourselves, when we read it afresh God speaks to us and our circumstances. Today, as we read this passage we know oh so well within the context of Lent, that context may help us hear a new word from an old story.
The passage for today begins with the first three verses of Luke 15, and then skips ahead for 11 and half verses to get the story of the prodigal son. I’m always interested is what the lectionary leaves out, so it’s interesting to note that the stories being skipped or two very short parables – the lost sheep and the lost coin. Obviously the whole chapter is held together by the theme of being lost. The shepherd loses a sheep, leaves the 99 and goes in search of the one that is lost. The woman loses a coin, and then turns her house upside down looking for it. When she finds it, she calls all her friends and neighbors and asks them to rejoice with her. Such is God’s joy when even one sinner repents. So it’s not surprising that we look at these parables as words of hope and invitation for the lost, for that is certainly one of their meanings.
However, when we look at these three parables in the context of Lent, a time when we are called to self- reflection and repentance, another dimension comes forth. The introduction provides a different setting than we usually imagine. The Pharisees and scribes are disgruntled because Jesus is receiving tax collectors and sinners. These parables about being lost are addressed to them, the religious leaders of the time – not primarily to those they consider sinners.
Despite all the bad press that Christians have given them over the years, the Pharisees and scribes were deeply religious people. In fact, for those Christians who regularly attend worship and seek to practice their faith, we are most like the Pharisees and scribes. Whenever they are mentioned in Jesus’ story, that’s where we are most likely to stand. They were very concerned with obeying God and all the religious laws of Israel. From their perspective it was others – the tax collectors and the sinners – who were lost. So the Pharisees and tax collectors would have been unlikely to identify themselves with the lost sheep that the shepherd rescues or the lost son whose father awaits. They would see themselves as the 99 sheep, the faithful who stayed with the shepherd, and as the older son, obedient to his father. It would seem shocking to them to see a shepherd abandon 99 in the wilderness to go looking for just one sheep, or to see the older son missing the banquet thrown for his brother. These parables speak of the error of considering ourselves faithful and obedient. Ken Bailey, in his book The Cross and The Prodigal, points out that “a parable is like a house in which the reader or listener is invited to take up residence. The reader is encouraged to look out on the world from the point of view of the story. A house has a variety of windows of rooms, with a different view from each.”(2) A parable works the same way. The view changes depending on where you stand in this story, which character you identify yourself with. The season of Lent invites us to see ourselves through more than one prism- to see ourselves as both the lost and not lost.
For in reality, both sons in this story are lost. They both have broken relationships with their father. The younger son broke his relationship in the audacious move of asking for his share of the inheritance now. This was basically wishing that your father would die so you could have control of your assets right now – and telling him so to his face. People would have gasped at the gall of the younger son.
And to top it off, the story tells us that a few days after this shocking request, the younger son gathered all he had and left. Which means he sold everything, took the money and ran. He basically had a going out of business sale, getting rid of his father’s assets for much less than they were worth. And then he skips town – turning his back on his responsibilities both to his family and to his village and community. This is not a case of a young man striking out on his own to make his own way in the world – no this younger son is thumbing his nose at everyone as he slams the door behind him. His relationship with his father – and with his community is broken.
And then there’s the older son. He is lost in his own way as well. Yes, on the surface he seems to be obedient, staying on the farm, faithfully doing what is expected of him. But does he really?
In Middle Eastern society at that time – and still true today – the oldest son inherited the larger share of the property. The older son was expected to have a special position, second to his father. So when his younger brother makes this extreme request, it would have been expected that the older brother would intervene and act as mediator between his father and brother. But he does not – he is silent. When his brother has their possessions spread out on the front yard to sell off as quickly as possible, the brother should have intervened and tried to reason with him – but he did not, we hear nothing from him. When his younger brother is leaving town, possibly for good, the older brother should have been there to at least say “Farewell” - but he is nowhere to be seen. The older brother has a broken relationship with the father as well, for he didn’t live up to any of his responsibilities as the older son.
Throughout the whole story, the younger son’s departure and humbling return and the older son’s refusal to welcome his brother home, the father remains the father. Even though both of his sons have broken off their relationship with him – one by running away and one by following the rules, but failing to love his brother or father in his heart – the father never cuts his sons off. He welcomes one home with a feast, and lets the other know he is always welcome and the door is always open. In the end, we don’t know exactly how it turned out for these two sons, but we know where the father stands - in the doorway with arms wide open, welcoming them back into relationship.
In Lent, it is good for us to listen to the parable of the two sons while moving back and forth between seeing ourselves as the lost son who is received with open arms and the obedient one who apparently thinks he is more deserving. Lent is a time to consider both the grace of God that has sought and welcomed us and the constant danger that religious people face – thinking that we are better than we are.
Jesus is addressing the best and most religious people in Israel. And yet, while Jesus addresses those who consider themselves “not lost”, the lost are overhearing what Jesus says. In a way, we are the lost overhearing what Jesus says to those who believe that they are not lost. From this perspective, this parable – and the other two that were left out – is a parable of joy and promise. No matter how far we have strayed, God awaits us with open arms and a feast of welcome. We have experienced the joy of God welcoming us when we least deserved it, and for that we must rejoice.
But once we have experienced such welcome and rejoiced in it, we have to watch out for our tendency to stand with the ones who consider them not lost. During Lent, it’s easy to adopt that attitude as we move through the Holy Season with our ashes and fasting and prayer and study. When we lose sight of our “lostness”, we must realize that the parable speaks to us not as the sinners who overhear, but rather as the Pharisees and scribes who resent Jesus’ welcoming attitude toward those who are not as good, or faithful or religious as they are.
Lent invites us to count ourselves continually among both groups, as we seek to obey God in all things while also grounding our joy in the experience of being found.
So when you hear that “a father had two sons”, I hope you don’t walk out believing you’ve seen this movie before. Stick around, view this story from another angle, and see what else God wants to show you.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Justo Gonzalez, The Christian Century, March 13th, 2019, p. 18.
2. Kenneth Bailey, The Cross and the Prodigal, Intervarsity Press, 2005, p. 87.