The Three Prodigals – Luke 15:11-32

This is the sermon from last week.

1 spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant : prodigal habits die hard.
2 having or giving something on a lavish scale : the dessert was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream. See note at profuse.
This was broken into three scenes which were read in parts by various people in our meeting. Here is a link to the scenes.

[Read Scene 1: The First Prodigal]

Jesus’ parable often called the parable of the prodigal son is clearly about forgiveness, but not just any kind of forgiveness. It is about the deeply divine forgiveness that only a caring and compassionate parent could have toward his or her child. The prodigal son is about radical, unsolicited forgiveness. It could even be considered a reckless forgiveness that doesn’t take into account the cost involved in the sin. This forgiveness flies in the face of many of our own feeble attempts at reconciliation. This is the forgiveness, Jesus proclaims, (jubilee) that is available to all of us from God, no matter who you, or what you have done with you life.

But in this parable what makes it so radical, on the top layer it seems basic enough right? A father forgives his son and so on. But there is something rather shocking about the first scene of the parable. Often the story has been read as one in which the son screws up royally, repents, then returns home to a forgiving father.


But I don’t think this is the best way to see this story. Instead, it is story of almost uncontrollable escalating shame and brokenness within a family. It goes something more like this: The younger son goes to the father and asks his dad for his inheritance. Not only would this mean that his father would have to split up his estate between his two sons thus losing his right to his own estate, but to have your son request his inheritance while you were still alive was basically to say, “Dad, I wish you were dead,” can I have what you are going to leave for me now? Obviously, this would have brought shame upon the father and been rather offensive to say the least. But beyond this, the son then goes and squanders his father’s hard earned estate on “dissolute living.” Dissolute here being the translation of the word where prodigal comes from, in other words, reckless, unthinking, wasteful, rebellious.

But even this leaving his father behind (without or without the cash in hand, with or without recklessness) would have been shameful enough. In those days, there was a strong obligation of care around one’s aging parents (Wright 187).  And finally as if all this wasn’t enough the young man ends up being essentially homeless and hungry working among pigs and for a Jew to work with pigs, let alone trying to eat their slop would add insult to injury.

Would you say the father was reckless? I wonder why the father gave him the money?

And what is equally strange here is that the father is, at least from one perspective, just as reckless and wasteful. Why did he even fork over the inheritance to this son who he must have assuredly known was not the sharpest tool in the shed? Should he have stopped him? I mean seriously, isn’t there implied in this story a sense in which the father is in part the victim, but is also an enabler?

How many of you have had your parents hand of the keys to their 1967 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 fastback when you were 16 years? And then when you wrecked were angry you?

In traditional cultures, this point that the father actually complies with his son would have been too incredible to believe. Even in our own culture, I think we fathers would think twice. But back then, no father would have acted with this kind of gesture, what would have been more appropriate says one NT scholar in these times was a good beating, or expulsion from the household. And yet, for some reason the father does not try and stop the son, but let’s him go on his way to freely sow his oats.

Rock bottom

And so he does and the younger son had hit rock bottom.  Everything finally caught up to him.

Have you ever hit rock bottom, especially from your own mistakes? When you feel like you just can’t go on. When your chest gets tight, your head starts to spin an you feel like you can’t take in air?

I’ve never been in that specific place but I can imagine a deep humiliation comes with that. In the AA book Bill W, the found of AA describes hitting rock bottom like this, “No words can tell of the loneliness and despair I found in that bitter morass of self-pity. Quicksand stretched around me in all directions. Alcohol was my master.”

This son was were there too. His own selfishness and greed had taken mastery over him, he found himself utterly humiliated. And then he devizes a plan, it says he comes to his senses: he realizes it would be a better strategy to return home to his father so that he can live there as a servant, at least they will give him food!

It is easy to take this coming to his senses as repents, but I don’t think it’s the same thing. It might be the initial step but it isn’t the same as repenting.

An Irish theologian writes: “to come to ones senses is to become rational, to think of an action which will lead to desired reaction. The son is in a dire situation and so devises a plan to escape it. This is exposed as we note the reflexive nature of the sons “repentance”. Instead of the text saying something like, “in repentance he returned to his father”, it presents the repentance as something that was thought through; i.e. as a strategy” (Peter Rollins).
And this is the kicker, the shocking conclusion to scene one. The son via a strategy of survival returns home and before he ever gets to make a confession, or repent his father is on the run, coming towards him, offering an embrace of forgiveness long before the son ever says a word. Somehow, despite all the shame and the abuse this son had unleashed on his father, the father had already forgiven him and required nothing more than his return to deliver that forgiveness.

“But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20 NRSV)

This compassion of the father is a womb-like compassion often attributed to mothering characteristics in Scripture. It was the father who was so deeply wounded by the offenses of the son who responded with a womb-like compassion to his son.

And so for this first scene one reflection we might have is that maybe we are the ones who desperately need forgiveness and are sure that no one, especially not God would forgive. All the while God is running out to meet you.

[Read Scene 2: The Second Prodigal]

There’s some really important stuff going here. For instance, the elder son challenges the father because he killed the fattened calf for the younger son rather than a young goat. The fattened calf was essentially the family’s pet, growing up near the home, nourished with the best food, cared for and treated as part of the family (cf. Grassi), goats were less respected, considered cheap and more expendible and were used for sacrifices.

“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends” (Luke 15:29–30 NRSV)

When you hear these words, you start to get a glimpse into the heart of the elder brother. Cheap! Selfish! Playing favorites! Why was he really there? What was he after?

Now I don’t know about you (well I know about some of you!), but I can identify with the older brother, trying to win approval, wanting to be liked, wanting to be seen as the responsible one and somehow still falling short, still feeling like you don’t measure up. It’s like no matter what good you do, you only get seen for the missteps.

The elder brother is always trying to win the approval of the father, maybe he even tries hard at this because of the disgrace the younger brother has brought upon the family. The elder brother also never tested the father’s forgiveness and thus feels entitled to something better than what he has. This level of entitlement betrays the real motives to what he is doing. By going through all the right motions, following everything that was expected of him he thought that he would gain the approval of his father not noticing that he had it all the time. And actually disgraces the father just as much.


Here’s the thing. This parable is the last in a trilogy of stories. That all begin in the context of a challenge to Jesus and who he welcomed into his new movement. The people he drew in were a rag-tag bunch of folks, people who didn’t measure up, people who had no clout on their own, people who had hit rock bottom and had nothing to barter with. It was come as you are, or don’t come at all.

Just before Jesus launches into these 3 stories it says:

“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.” (Luke 15:1–2 NRSV)

The he tells a story about the shepherd who goes out looking for one lost sheep, even though 99 are safe – God is the Shepherd. Then he tells a story about a woman who loses 1 of 10 coins and searches desperately until she finds it, and when she finds that one last stray she calls all her friends and neighbors together and they rejoice – God is that rejoining woman who calls her friends. Now he turns to one last story to the rejoicing father, again God, who really lost two sons but one of them returns.

The elder son here isn’t the tax collectors and the sinners, he’s not the lost sheep, or the lost coin, he’s the pharisee. He’s the one grumbling, pointing fingers, all the time going through the motions of religiosity, and all the time being blinded by the fact that he too still needs forgiveness and the father’s love.  He is blinded to the beauty around him, all he can see is the bad, the cost to himself. He is unable to allow himself to see the beauty in the return of his brother. This was the problem with the pharisees too, and maybe some of us?

Therefore, The elder son has been reckless with the love and graciousness of his father.

The elder son may be an unappealing figure in the parable, but he has many descendants; they are found in both church and society, steadfast and leading citizens who have no patience for those who squander time and money or little sympathy for those out of work or down on their luck. While the elder brother has kept the letter of the law for many years (“I have never disobeyed your command”), he has broken its spirit. He doesn’t share his father’s grief over his lost brother—”this son of yours,” he sneers contemptuously—and is filled with self-righteousness (deriding the younger son for “devour[ing] your living with harlots”) and self-pity (“you never gave me a kid”).

The father reaches out to the older son with gentle love and acceptance: “Son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours.” The elder son, too, has been lost, but he is invited to come home again by the love of the father. How will he respond? The end of the story is up to us.  Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.

For this second scene the reflection becomes a question of whether I too kept the law but broken its spirit? Am I the one who does not recognize the need for forgiveness because I have covered up my sins by seeking approval?

[Read Scene 3: The Third Prodigal]

This is obviously a rewrite. What I like about it is that it acknowledges God’s absence, and the struggle with repressed anger, the festering wounds and the animosity that we may still have around pains from the past. Some of us are still waiting to offer forgiveness as the younger son. And some of us cannot yet, offer it as with the elder son in this story. This version of the parable opens up another category, that of withholding of forgiveness.

If in the first case we are those who desperately need forgiveness and have found deep humiliation in life and in the second, we are blind to our own sin, blind to the beauty around us, and blind to our own need for God’s forgiveness, then in this third prodigal story, we are those who are yet unable to give forgiveness for one reason or another.

Lent is a time to reflect on who we are and where we fall in this. We need to do the work of taking inventory of which of the three prodigals we are.

We are all prodigals and we all need forgiveness.

Open Worship:

Where are in you this parable? Which characters do you identify with most?
What can this text teach us about being awake?