Standing there, knee deep, coated with mud and pig waste and who knows what, he waited. Gosh, he was hungry. He picked up one of the pods he was feeding the pigs, looked to either side, stuck it in his mouth. That’s when it hit him. What had he done? WHAT HAD HE DONE?
Everything in this parable turns on a moment of insight the younger son has with the pigs. Jesus is getting drawn further into conflict with the Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders who understood themselves as guardians of the law. In previous weeks He has healed on the Sabbath, humanity and compassion trumping rigid religious observance. Last week he is invited to a dinner party with those same leaders, and he notices the jockeying for position, to make sure they are seen by the right people. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted, he says. He walks up to the host of the affair – and this is surely bad manners – and says not to invite the rich, your family or neighbors. Don’t invite anyone who could return the favor. When you throw a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. THAT is what the feast looks like in the kingdom of God.
In chapter fifteen the intensity builds. ALL tax collectors and sinners, Luke says, all the WRONG people, were coming to him. This provokes grumbling, the religious leaders murmuring…this fellow welcomes sinners, eats with them. For Judaism, for Jesus, and for the early church, table fellowship was laden with very important meanings, religious, social, and economic….how one ate, and with whom, was crucial.1 In response to the grumbling Jesus tells 3 stories – of a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to find the lost one, a woman who scours the house for a single coin. Then we meet a man with two sons. The younger son, out of nowhere, asks for his share of his father’s inheritance. The essence of inheritance at that time was land, and the only way it could be received was on the father’s death. Thus his request, Alyce McKenzie writes, was essentially, "Father, I wish you would drop dead."2 This is more than a teenager yelling, I hate you, through the bedroom door. This is an adult looking his father in the eye and saying, You are dead to me.
The father, without comment, complies. That is amazing enough in itself, though the son’s actions next – Luke has set us up to guess correctly – are predictable. As quickly as he got the money, he took off and ‘squandered his property in dissolute living.’ Luke sets up a progression of decisions that drive distance between the youngest son and his home: he asks for the inheritance early, relocates to the land of the Gentiles, lives fast and loose, and, then, he stoops to the level of working with pigs, an act Leviticus specifically forbids.3 By any way you measure it, he is out of the family.
Then, knee-deep in pig slop, their food begins to look appealing. And it causes a crisis. "He came to himself…" Luke writes, decides to confess his tragic mistake and ask to be treated as a hired hand. He begins to see how just disappointing he has been. I wonder if you’ve been there, looking at a parent, or a coworker, or a spouse, someone you care about, someone whose opinion matters to you, when both you and they know you have disappointed them. The alcohol has become too much. You dropped the ball on a project everyone was counting on you for. You forgot and missed your child’s command performance and they are heartbroken. The affair. I imagine the younger son’s gut tightening as he walked the dusty road. I wonder how much he regrets asking this of his father in the first place, of the sadness he saw on his dad’s face when he asked, as he sold some of the land, as he handed him a bag of silver. He was ready for it all, he had convinced himself, the yelling, the way the community would talk, the shame.
He turns the final curve, sees the house from afar, begins the rocky path through his father’s fields. He clenches his fist. Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you… Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you…he looks down…and the tears come. It is then he hears the shouts from the house, he looks up, straining, and sees his father running. When he was far off, Luke writes, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. The word in Greek literally means ‘to have the bowels yearning’ – every ounce of him was drawn to his son. He runs, which is another thing, because Middle Eastern patriarchs do not run. He runs, robes flying, looking silly, embraces his son, practically tackles him. He holds him, like he had never held him before, kissing him, hugging, kissing again. The son tries to get his lines out, and halfway succeeds… Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you…and his father responds as if he hasn’t even heard him. He calls for slaves to come – quick, get a robe, not that one, the best one, get a ring, prepare the feast, get the fatted calf, the best one we’ve been saving, set up the hall, call in the musicians. We will celebrate! My son was lost and is now found, he cries as the band begins to play. Grace. Grace. Grace.
It would be outstanding if the story ended there. Then it’s JUST a story about the power of grace to welcome us warts and all. We could, and still can, rest comfortably, knowing that no matter how irresponsible we are: greed and prostitutes, our egos and drive and misplaced priorities, our narrow, narrow vision, God forgives us. No matter what we do, how ridiculous we are, God loves us. But the scene shifts. Jesus mentions an older brother, working out in the field, who hears the music, sees the dancing. Hey, he calls a servant over, what’s the deal? At the words ‘YOUR BROTHER,’ his heart sinks, and he can barely hear about the fatted calf as the fury builds. I feel a lot of this. I’m the older brother, the oldest, and you’d better believe I fit the role. This past Christmas we were playing a game after dinner. My dearest sister, my younger sister, came in after putting her daughter to sleep. Who won the first round?, she asked. I did, I happened to mention. Of course you did big brother, she said. Of course you did.
Us oldest brothers and sisters, and I suspect there are some of you here, know how to handle things. Presbyterians in general are pretty darned good oldest siblings. We get things done; we solve problems, often problems someone else has created, and we’re only a little self-righteous about it. Why? Because that’s what oldest children do. We handle things. And when other people don’t live up to our standards, it makes us mad. The older brother refuses to go in and dad comes out, pleading. Come in, please. Look, dad, I have been here all of these years. I have respected you, I have worked hard. And what have I gotten? Not a piddly ‘ole goat to eat with my friends, yet HE, this son of YOURS, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him. I see where I rate, dad. I see. Dad is near weeping. 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."
Flannery O’Conner once said: "The operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner – which creates much misunderstanding among the smug." It is hard enough to believe in this grace that welcomes us not matter what, that welcomes all. I think those of us who work hard and who cling to the illusion that we have earned what we have have an especially hard time with it. That God’s grace is real for YOU no matter what. But that grace also burns through all of the other stuff, our brokenness and our assumptions, and MUST transform us and our relationships. That’s what following Jesus is about. Not JUST receiving the father’s welcome at the party, but letting that grace seep into us…seep deep into our bones…so that, older brother or younger, deeply broken or a little self-righteous – or both, we’re really all both – Jesus Christ wraps his own arms around us all. And says come, come into the party. Come to the feast at my table. Come. All of you. Together.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 175.
2. Alyce McKenzie, The Parables for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2007), page 95.
3. From the Rev. Pen Peery’s paper on this at the 2009 gathering of The Well in Austin. Also Leviticus 11:7-8.