The Prodigal Son

We’ve learned in our Parables series that parables tend to come in threes. Triplets. Jesus works parables into threes. Two weeks ago, we had the treasure in the field, merchant in search of pearls, and the net. Three distinct stories with a common theme.

There are also triplets within parables, like the Good Samaritan: Priest, Levite, Israelite should be the triplet. Yet Jesus does the unthinkable and swaps Israelite for the Samaritan. Saying “The Good Samaritan” would be like saying, “The Good Enemy.” The Good Hamas. The Good Al Queda. The Good Steelers fan. Wait, one of these things is not like the other…

Today, we have both have three parables and three characters. This is fitting for St. Patty’s Day as the Celtic Christians were all about things coming in threes. The Trinity is central to Celtic Christian spirituality. What kicks this set of parables off is the line, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were listening to Jesus and the religious were grumbling. So Jesus told them these parables.”

The prodigal son is the last of three parables he told together. These parables are in order:
1) God is like a shepherd that leaves the 99 to find the one. He finds and rejoices.
2) God is like a woman who lost a coin out of 10. She finds and rejoices. 3) Then there was a man with two sons.

Theologian AJ Levine states that “Every Jew knows to go with the younger son.”[1] Abraham has Ishamel and Issac, and Jews know to go with Issac. Issac had Esau and Jacob. Every Jew knows to go with Jacob who wrestles with God and becomes Israel, who now bears his name. Yet this younger son is not the one to pick. This younger son asks his dad to put the will into effect and takes off to foreign lands. There he squanders his property in dissolute living. The younger son finally realizes that he would be treated better if he’d head home and work as a slave for his dad. He rehearses his speech to his dad and gives it. Levine points out, “Luke interprets these two parables for Jesus as being about repentance and forgiveness. Yet sheep and coins don’t repent. The sheep owner and the woman who find their lost objects do not forgive them. To the contrary, the problem is that they lost the objects.”[2]

For Levine, this parable is not necessarily about repenting and forgiving. I think it’s powerful story of repentance, but she’s right. Sheep and coins don’t repent. They were lost, and then were found. Let’s try to look at the lostness in this parable. Being lost is the triplet: lost sheep/coin/son. Being lost is also with each of the three characters in the final parable.

Each person in the prodigal son story has lost something. The younger son lost his sense of identity. He squanders it, forgets who he is, and hits rock bottom. Yet, in verse 17, “he came to himself.” He remembered who he belonged to.

The father lost his younger son. Yet, toward the end, he lost his eldest son, too. The eldest son also lost his relationship with his brother… “This son of yours… who devoured your property with prostitutes…” yet he also lost his relationship with his father “I’ve been working like a slave for you… you have never given me a young goat so I might celebrate with my friends.” Lost relationships all over the place. The father had time to call the caterer, the DJ, and get a great party started, but forgot about the elder son. It is the elder son who is the stand in for the religious of Jesus’ time. The religious who were grumbling about the company Jesus was keeping. The religious lost the narrative. We often do. We complain when the people we’re called to help show up.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had my bible studies interrupted by someone in need showing up. Or kids running through the church. I’ve had to remind myself… we’re not here to study the bible. We’re here to be faithful to God. Sometimes studying the Bible and hearing the stories of our ancestors or the parables of Jesus help us with that. We study so we can help our neighbor in need. We study so that we can let the children come to Christ. What I often mistake for an interruption is the whole point of the faith.

How quickly we forget to count. How quickly we can lose track. One missing from one hundred is hard to see. Sometimes even one coin missing from ten. Our friends at the Lutheran church used this illustration during their first joint Lenten Bible study. 100 items, 10 items, and 2 items were on a tray. We closed our eyes and when we opened them, we only saw one cup instead of two. Yet one was removed each time. It’s tricky. Now there are 500+ of you. It’s hard to keep track. When someone asks, “Hey, have you spoken to so-and-so?” Sometimes I need some help from you. If you think, “What’s going on with…” that’s God putting a name on your heart. Please follow that call and reach out. I have my own list. As does Meghan. And to be clear, I’m always open for suggestions and getting you on my schedule too… but we’re not mind readers. If you would like a visit, please call. If you wonder about a name… please call them.

We forget to count. Levine talks of how it’s easy to know the really bright students. It’s also easy to know the really bad students who will struggle. It’s the B and C students that are a struggle for her. They work really hard, but they just can’t crack that 89%. Who is counting them?

That statement made me think of the late Elaine McCarroll. She showed up to everything, but rarely spoke up. She just quietly did her work. I counted on her being there, but she was tight lipped about her story. We didn’t get a whole lot of information from her until her funeral. She was quite accomplished! We told stories that the family didn’t know, and they told stories that we didn’t know. And we had been journeying together for six years at the time of her death. How easy it is to look past one another. I don’t want to look past anyone here. If you email, text, or call saying you want a meeting, we’ll set one up. I want to be here for you when you need me. Yet visits between church members are encouraged! Y’all were around 198 years before I showed up, you know how to build community. Let’s keep meeting, church.

I have great sympathy for the father. He was so overcome with joy at the return of his son… whether or not the son was truly repentant is immaterial… the father’s joy is the point. Yet in that joy, the elder son was forgotten for a moment. The father patiently tries to reconcile with his eldest son, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.”

When is a time you felt lost? Are you feeling that way now and you thought you’d give this church thing a try? Was there a time when you found yourself?

I’m feeling a little lost at the moment. We recently had to put our dog down. Rufus was our Medina Mutt. He loved us well. I am feeling lost without him. We rescued Rufus from the County shelter September of 2017. We were looking for a smaller dog that didn’t shed as much. Our last dog was 60lbs and shed a lot. Rufus was 96 lbs, shed, and drooled! God knew exactly what dog we needed. Yet we saw he was losing weight. We get the terms Lyme Disease. Then kidney damage. Then kidney failure. And we had to put him down.

When I come home, there’s a gap in there air. He was always right by the door to welcome me. Didn’t matter what type of day I had. If I had squandered the day through procrastination or laziness, Rufus came running. If I followed all the rules and did what I set out to do, Rufus came running. It didn’t matter if I was the younger son or the older son, he ran to greet me like the father. I miss him. He is lost to us. I feel lost in my grief. Sam asked on the way to the vet why we have pets if we’re going to have to face this day. I told him I wouldn’t trade this day for the seven years of love we had with him. We faced that day in love.

We found our love. A deeper love. A love that slowly trickled into us through this dog. That last day, we were with him until the end. We found that love. We remembered it. We counted on it. And y’all showed up with your condolences and cards and texts and all the many ways we humans show our strange love for one another. I am humbled and connected to you all. Love has found me again, and I don’t feel so lost anymore.

That’s faith. Easy to take faith for granted on sunny, easy days. Yet we really need faith for the dark, hard days. Our faith is to help us walk with God and neighbor in love when it gets hard. That’s what the religious who grumbled had lost. Often we have people categorized. Like Meghan’s sermon last Sunday on the Pharisee and Tax Collector. The Pharisee is thankful that he’s not like the Tax Collector, and we thank God we’re not the Pharisee. Yet that’s not the parable. The parable is to show how both were justified alongside one another. Not rather than, but because of.

We religious miss that. We’re too often like the older brother; too focused on how we followed the rules but neglected a loving relationship. Saying things like, “This child of yours” and not “this sibling of mine.” Both sons are invited to the party. Both sons are found by the father. Both sons are justified alongside one another. Levine writes, “We need to take count not only of our blessings, but also of those in our families, and in our communities. And once we count, we need to act. Finding the lost, whether they are sheep, coins, or people, takes work. It also requires our efforts, and from those efforts there is the potential for wholeness and joy.”[3]

Count your blessings. They are still there. They will come running to you. I’m reminded of the great poem Having it Out With Melancholy by Jane Kenyon. She writes about her depression and how it “taught me to exist without gratitude. You ruined my manners toward God.”  She calls herself, “a piece of burned meat.” It’s a truthful poem about feeling lost in depression. Yet there is a moment of salvation.

“The dog searches until he finds me upstairs,
lies down with a clatter of elbows,
puts his head on my foot.
Sometimes the sound of his breathing saves my life.
in and out,
in and out;
a pause. A long sigh.”[4]

May you seek. May you find. And if you yourself are feeling lost, may you be found. Maybe by a friend. Maybe by a pet. Maybe by the memory of either. May you find a neighbor you didn’t know was lost. May you celebrate. May you hear your invitation to a great party! For your sibling was lost, and has been found: dead, and they are alive again. And may grace and peace be yours. Amen.

Works Cited

[1] Short Stories by Jesus DVD session 1

[2] Short Stories by Jesus: Leader Guide. Page 17.

[3] Short Stories by Jesus: Leader Guide. Page 20.

[4] Jane Kenyon. Collected Poems. Pages 231-235.

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