You have all heard today’s Gospel lesson before. Everyone knows the parable of the prodigal son: it’s all about a lost and wayward son coming home, and about his father welcoming him back with wide-open arms. Except, of course, that that’s not the whole story—Jesus has just as much to say about the older brother as the younger brother. The great preacher Tim Keller says that we shouldn’t call it the parable of the prodigal son, but the parable of the two lost sons, and I think he’s right. It’s not just a story about one lost son who comes home, but a story about two sons who are lost in different ways, one of them so lost that he doesn’t even know it.
The two lost sons, you see, are the two groups of people standing around when Jesus told this story. Chapter fifteen starts off this way: “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.’” Jesus heard what they were grumbling about, and as he so often did, he answered with a story.
Let’s be clear: the Pharisees and the scribes had good reason to grumble. To them, Jesus welcoming and eating with these people was nothing less than a moral scandal. Tax collectors were not good people. They were the ones who shook people down to send money to the imperial overlords in Rome, traitors to kin and country who usually skimmed more than a little off the top for themselves. And the sinners were people who had broken the Law and kept on breaking it, and who didn’t go to worship. In Jesus’s day, to eat with someone carried much more meaning than it does for us—it was a highly symbolic act, that meant you approved of their character. It looked as if Jesus were giving the seal of approval to some highly dubious folks. The Pharisees and the scribes, by contrast, cared deeply about God’s law, kept the traditions of their people alive, and in fact were the ones responsible for carrying Judaism forward through the destruction of the Temple all the way down to today. So it’s too simple to see the Pharisees as nothing more than proud and haughty hypocrites. They were good and devout people. And it’s too simple to see the tax collectors and sinners as romantic outcasts. They were, some of them at least, dishonest traitors. So why would Jesus eat with them? Why not give them what they deserve, and lend a hand to the ones who are trying to teach people how to follow the Law, God’s good gift to his people?
That is probably what the Pharisees were grumbling about, standing off to one side as the tax collectors and sinners crowded around Jesus. So, what does Jesus do? Tell the Pharisees they were right, and tell the sinners to take a hike and come back after they’ve cleaned up their act? Or, does he tell the Pharisees off, and say their Law doesn’t matter since God loves us all just the way we are? Well, Jesus said—you see, it’s this way. There once was a man who had two sons.
The youngest son’s story, as Jesus got going, probably sounded familiar to the sinners and tax collectors. My guess is that some of them standing around recognized themselves in the shoes of the younger son in his Las Vegas days. The King James version puts it evocatively: he had, so it says, “wasted his substance in riotous living.” There are many ways to waste one’s substance, some of them more riotous than others, but they all lead to the same place, which is where the prodigal son wound up: alone. Whatever friends he thought he’d made in his good-time days, they clearly weren’t good enough to care that he was starving to death. He’d slammed the door on his family a long time ago. He’d spent his life living for himself, and when you live that way the only people who’ll stick around are the ones who are getting something from you. When your substance runs out, they’re gone, and you find out what a waste it all was. He was lucky to have his substance run out when it did. It brought him to his senses. That doesn’t happen to everyone, and it probably hadn’t happened to all of the tax collectors and sinners standing around. But maybe some of them listened to Jesus, and saw where they were headed, saw the bottom opening up under their feet. To say “I repent” is hard—it often means admitting that following your own path to happiness got you nowhere, that you can’t make it on your own steam, that you need your Father after all. But the prodigal son did. He came to his senses, and he headed off toward home.
Some of the tax collectors and sinners standing there probably heard that part loud and clear, but didn’t think there was any home left to go back to. They’d made their bed and slept in it, and they knew they weren’t welcome where they came from. After all, you can’t go home again. Maybe you can find someplace to move on, but you can’t move back. That would mean confronting the people you hurt, the person you were, the things you’d done. And who could bear it? The past is the past and it’s best left where it is. Some things are just too broken to fix.
That’s what the prodigal son was thinking on his way back home. He had a little speech rehearsed: “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 doesn’t go back, you see, with any hope of forgiveness, of going back to the way things were before. In his time and place, asking for your inheritance before its time was a deep insult, which basically amounted to saying that he wished his father was dead. He didn’t think he could fix that. He went back because he had no place left to go.
Jesus told the next part of the story for people like him. “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he put his arms around him and kissed him.” The son starts giving his little speech, but his dad doesn’t even let him finish it. All Dad hears are the words ‘Father’ and ‘son,’ and that was all he had to hear. “Quickly, bring out his best suit—you know the one, we got it for his brother’s wedding—get him a towel, get him cleaned up, get him something to eat! We’re inviting everyone over right away, tonight. This son of mine is alive again. Son, let’s be clear about one thing right now. I don’t care about where you went or what you did. You came back, and that’s all that matters.”
It can be very hard to say, “I repent.” It can be even harder to believe that you’re really forgiven. Real forgiveness can be hard to come by down here. But Jesus is telling these sinners and tax collector something about the heart of his Father. His Father is the one who watches for them while they’re still far off. In fact his Father does more than watch—he runs out into the road, and sends his own son to journey into the far country, to eat with tax collectors and sinners. St. Paul says that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “In Christ,” Paul says, “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” How could we ever come home again if not for this? We are able to come, not trusting in our own righteousness, but in our Father’s manifold and great mercies.
The next part of the story is for the Pharisees and the scribes, for good church people like us. We tend to forget about this part—we don’t think of it as the parable of the two lost sons, but the one prodigal son—and I have a hunch about why. My hunch is that we church people are an awful lot more likely to be older brothers than prodigal sons, and that we don’t like Jesus telling us that we’re just as lost as our no-account kid brothers out in California who never did anything serious with their lives except work on their suntans and explore Buddhism. We didn’t go to California and get suntans and explore Eastern spirituality. We stayed in St. Louis and went to church. Shouldn’t we get credit for that?
The older brother would agree. His father is being completely unfair, and he’s absolutely furious about it. He heads home after a hard day of work and sees some kind of party. He probably has a hunch about what’s going on—he doesn’t go inside to see for himself, and he doesn’t ask his dad what’s up. He has someone else find out for him. It’s as he thought. There’s no way he’s coming in, not after what his blackguard brother did to the family. His dad, making a fool out of himself, always letting his brother walk all over him—how could he fall for this again? And it’s not fair. He’d worked hard his whole life, and did that count for anything? Apparently not. His father can hear him shouting from outside: Why can’t I get any respect for what I earned? For what I earned with my own hands? Why can’t I get what I deserve?
Just like he came out to meet his younger son, his father comes out to meet him too. Come inside, come inside where it’s warm, he says. I know you’re angry. But don’t you see what you’re doing? Your brother wound up cold and alone God knows where, and now he’s back—he’s alive again. Try to forgive him, don’t hold on to this—why should you stay out here by yourself, like he was? And all of this about deserve, deserve. You’ve always been this way, ever since you were a little boy. You’ve worked hard, I know that, don’t think I don’t appreciate it. But don’t you know that I’ve already given you everything? All that I have? My own heart? But all you’ve ever wanted is what you deserve. You never let me give you anything. Come inside, my son—all of this is for you too. Amen.