The Parable of the Shameless Father

Lent 4, 2010                The Shameless Father             Luke 15:11-32

You’ve heard me say before, that part of the problem we have when we read the Bible is our inability to read it fresh.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to grow up hearing these bible stories in our homes or in Sunday school, we’ve heard them so often that for the most part, it can be really hard to hear anything new.

Many of us have heard preacher after preacher talk about this story.

We’re used to the story, and so the novelty has worn off.

We think we get it.  We know that the younger son basically told his dad to drop dead.

We know the youngest son is a greedy, selfish piece of work.

We know the older son works faithfully, day after day while his good-for-nothing brother wastes his money and his life, squandering the family wealth on friends and prostitutes.  We know the father seems to care only about his younger child, throwing caution and dignity to the wind as he races off to meet him.

We know that the father disgraced himself by running.

We get the picture.  We know all that.

That’s part of the beauty, and part of the problem with so many of these parables.

They’re stories about other people in other times…but at the same time they’re stories about us, right here, right now.

These stories meet each of us right where we are.

Everyone has a messed up family, and everyone can understand messed-up family dynamics.  This is a story we can relate to, so it’s a perfect story to teach us about God!

So what does this parable teach us this morning?

We have to admit, there is nothing special about a young adult who leaves home.  It happens every day!

There’s nothing unique about a story where one of the main characters leaves the family behind as he seeks his fortune in the world.

This story is what our American dream is built on.  The earliest pioneers were people like Daniel Boone, carving a life out of the wilderness.  The rugged individual is a national icon.  And it’s no different in church.

In fact, we expect our young adults to leave home!  We encourage them to set their sights high as they leave with a small fortune that costs us dearly, of course we wouldn’t keep it from them for anything.

Maybe they don’t bring shame to us when they leave, but they leave all the same.

This young adult son did what we expect young adults to do.

He may have hurt his family in the process, but as long as it works out in the end, it’s worth it, right?  As long as this young adult gets it right—the right job, the right spouse, the right location—then it’s all worth it.

Well, as the story goes, this young adult fails.  It didn’t work out.  He got it all wrong.

He came up short, but all was not lost.

Instead of earning success, the son earned wisdom.  It was a hard lesson to learn, but eventually he goes back home and begs his father’s forgiveness—which his father gave him before he even asked.

The boy who was lost had been found. The son who was dead came back to life.

He still had some things to work out with his elder brother, but this rugged individual who had finally found himself was restored to his family.

He was less rich and less happy, but more wise for all that he had been through.
The way we’re used to hearing this story, we can rest assured that whenever we decide to repent and go back to God, He will be waiting with open arms and a big feast to celebrate our homecoming.

And that’s a fine way to read it.

But in reality, that sounds to me like a Christian version of Daniel Boone.  J

The rugged individual makes a journey into the wilderness, makes some mistakes, learns some hard lessons, and eventually lives happily ever after.

We have to ask what this story might have meant for a Middle Eastern audience hearing it from a Middle Eastern storyteller in the middle of the first century.
Well, I’m pretty sure that most of Jesus’ listeners were farmers, like the family in this story. Their land was their life. They received it from their ancestors and they held it for their children.

There was no courthouse.  There were no deeds, no titles.

So the only thing that protected your borders and therefore your family’s future was the memory of the community, where honor was everything.

It would have been pretty important to literally be ‘good neighbors’, you know?

If you lost good standing, that is, if you lost honor in your neighbor’s mind, your property lines might be “forgotten,” just like that.
And so, people went to great lengths to be “good neighbors”.
When you needed help getting your crops in before the rain, or if you needed help delivering a baby, if you needed a spouse for your child—you counted on your neighbors… the same way they counted on you.

To me, life back then sounds like what I’ve imagined pioneer life to be.  It was important to keep good neighbors.  There was literally a lot riding on that communal memory.

So you were quick to bring honor, and slow to bring shame on your family name.

This is still kind of true today, but maybe not to the same extent.

For example, when I was in Junior High school, I remember getting to know a kid who sat in front of me in a math class I had.  He smelled funny, his clothes were always dirty, and one day I remember seeing little pieces of sticks and leaves matted into his hair as I looked at the back of his head from my seat.

I’m guessing all of us can think of at least one person like this that we’ve gotten to know over the years.

Well, for some reason I brought this kid’s name up at home, and I can still remember my mom saying “Oh Patrick, you stay away from that family”.  “They’re bad news”.

I didn’t really plan on getting to know this guy, or his family all that well—but I thought my mom’s reaction was interesting.

She could give me no specifics about why I should stay away from that family—but apparently at some point their family name had become tarnished in my home community.

See, even today, at least in rural areas like ours, an individual has little identity apart from his or her family.

So it was in Jesus’ day, but on a whole other level.

Your identity was wrapped up with your family, not your individual ‘self’.

And at the same time, there was a lot tied up in honor and shame.

To hold honor meant you acted in a certain way.  And this meant a lot, especially for the heads of families—the patriarchs.

For example, to hold honor as a father, you controlled your children.  You never ran.  If a child was disobedient, they were cut off.  You never left your place at the head of the table when guests were present.

Finally, come what may, fathers did not plead with their children; no—they told their children what to do…and obviously their children obeyed them.
So, knowing all this, it becomes not the parable of the prodigal son, but rather the parable of the weak, shameless patriarch with two rebellious sons he is unable to control.

Suddenly it’s not about either son as much as it is about the Father, who is willing to sacrifice all of his honor and good standing just to keep his family together.

Read in this way, it becomes a reunion story more than a repentance story.

It’s about the humiliating cost of reconciliation, where worth, identity, and rightness all disappear so that both the right and the wrong—both the honored and the shamed—can live together in peace.

And seeing how divided the church is today, I think we need this parable more than the one that focuses on the rugged, individualized, youngest son and his actions.

We need to hear about this love that God has for all of His children.

We need to be surprised by the way God who is the Father leaves his place of honor and runs with arms wide open, in spite of all the rules we have against Him running.

We need to turn our attention away from the wasteful self-seeking actions of this childish boy, the one we love to ridicule, and turn instead to the father who is risking it all just to bring the family back together.

When the son finally comes home, the father doesn’t say anything to him!  Have you noticed that?  He tells the servants to bring the best robe, to put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Then he sends for the fattened calf–a clear sign that the celebration about to take place is not a quiet family affair but a feast for the entire village.

It is a feast to restore the family’s honor, as well as a feast to restore the family’s son.

The Father is a genius.  He gets to his son before anyone else can.  He declares his son to be welcomed home and accepted before anyone can tell him what a bum he is.

Finally, he throws a huge party, because there’s no other setting where people with questions can so easily find out the truth and get to know each other.

Indeed, this is a banquet of reconciliation for anyone who will come.

So just like that, before anyone has time to process what a genius he is, the father saves the prodigal.

He is restored into the family—and the family and the village are also saved (that is, re-united) by the father’s willingness to be a really bad patriarch.

The son’s salvation costs the Father almost as much as the abandonment did in the first place, yet this genius of a father never says a word about the price.
Now there’s still a good bit to say about the other son.
The older one.
No one asked him whether he wanted to be reconciled with his good for nothing brother. No one asked him how he felt about spending what was left of his inheritance taking care of one more person they had written off as dead.

See, the older son is the good son!  He’s done everything right, and he isn’t about to sit down at the same table with that self-centered, pig-feeding, tarnished brother who has cost his family so much grief.

So he stays outside, refusing to come in—which was also a terrible insult to his father!

And once again, this Father had every right to act like this kid never existed.  The honorable thing would have been to ignore him until the guests were gone.  After all, a good patriarch never left his position at the table—especially while guests were present.

But as we know, he goes out.

He doesn’t run this time.  Maybe he’s tired of the bickering, the waste, the self-centered-ness of his children.  He goes out even though his honor means so little to his children.

No, they’re more interested in being fulfilled and fed, or blameless and right, than they are in coming to the banquet table, being made right at the party.
You can’t have peace and stay exactly who you are.

Sometimes you have to give up honor, greatness, or the satisfaction of being right.

It feels good to stand in the yard sometimes, even when standing there dishonors the family and divides the village.

It feels good to know who’s right, who’s wrong, and which one you are, even when that shames your father and breaks his heart, causing him to die a little right before your eyes.
But meanwhile, there is a banquet going on! You can hear the music and the dancing even out in the yard, and there is plenty left to eat.

The beauty of this parable is that God won’t make us go into the house.

He’ll just stand there, right beside us.

This story is partly about repentance, and partly about holding grudges.

But mainly, it’s about going to the party.

What’s left of God’s honor is in our hands, and I have a hunch he’ll stand with us, wherever we are, for as long as it takes to get us to join in the celebration.

(In preparing this sermon, I found a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor some years ago to be immensely helpful in re-thinking the prodigal and how first century Jews may have heard it.  Most likely the really good thoughts are hers, adopted by myself, and the mediocre or even bad stuff is completely mine.)  ~patrick

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