11-12 Then he said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’ 12-16 “So the father divided the property between them. It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to feel it. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corn-cobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any. 17-20 “That brought him to his senses. He said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.20-21 “When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ 22-24 “But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a prize-winning heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.
This Sunday marks the first lesson of the Spring 2023 quarter which centers on the theme Jesus Calls Us. Given that last month’s lessons focused on the inclusive of God’s call, it is fitting that this month’s lessons explore the way Jesus included everyone in his call to discipleship. Because Christians affirm the incarnation—that Jesus is God in human flesh—as its central theological principle, there is no escaping God’s intention to include everyone, regardless of societal standing, in the Divine family. Jesus called people from every walk of life into a redeeming relationship with God. He incorporated people that society had pushed to the margins of life—women, widows, outcasts, sinners, the poor, the diseased, the scandalized—with a special attention on those who were forgotten. For Jesus, the only barrier to inclusion was a rejection of God’s grace and a refusal to accept God’s radical love ethic.
The call that Jesus issued over two thousand years ago to first century Jews and Christians living in Roman-occupied Palestine, rings out to contemporary Christians today. We simply have to accept the call of Jesus Christ and embrace His ministry to those on the margins as our own work. The late Reverend Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, Christian ethicist and progenitor of womanist Christian ethics often spoke of “doing the work our souls must have.” While Dr. Cannon was referring to the obstacles that African American women routinely faced while seeking to study and serve within racist, sexist, and classist theological institutions and congregational spaces, her aphorism applies to Christian ministry as well. As Christians, we must do the work that Jesus of Nazareth called us to do. This work—claiming and affirming those who are lost and marginalized within the oppressive structures of our society (the prodigal, the least, the Samaritan Woman, and Legion)—is the work our souls should have.
The Gospel of Luke, like all New Testament literature, emanates from a historical context of imperial rule. The first century Christians to whom the writer known as “Luke” writes are subjects within the Roman Empire. His intended audience would have participated in the Roman economy as those who subsisted from their labor, or the lower working-class stratus of society. As such, they were more likely to be the “have nots” instead of “haves.” Due to living within complex societal structures which protected the “haves”—like kings, governors, local political elites and their co-conspirators (the religious and priestly leaders, judges, tax collectors)—most “have nots” existed on the margins of society.
Further, within marginalized populations, additional marginalization occurred due to ethnicity, sex, gender, class, and disabling conditions. Therefore, Luke’s audience was intimately aware of how the family one was born into, one’s sex/gender, and one’s ethnicity, dictated the opportunity for surviving and flourishing within a system rigged to prosper the well-connected. The fact that the writer of Luke presents the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” underscores Jesus’ commitment to ministering to the most vulnerable persons within first century Palestine (Luke 4:18-19, NRSVUE). According to Luke, Jesus comes to resist imperial systems of stratification with an inclusive community where every person is welcomed, well-fed, and free to flourish. As such, the Gospel of Luke is concerned with extending the liberating activity of God to every sector of society, particularly the margins.
In Luke 15, the Pharisees and Scribes speak against Jesus’ practice of associating with people who live on the margins of society. Jesus uses their accusations as a teaching opportunity. Each of these parables—the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost or prodigal son—explores a scenario where something is lost and something is found. At first glance, the third parable seems very different from the first two. Whereas the first deal with certain “lost” items, the third parable deals with a lost person. However, we should suspend our usual interpretations of differences between the three parables because the final parable deals with people. The Lukan writer employs the lost sheep and the lost coin as metaphors to explore how disciples should fastidiously look for persons who find themselves lost and then celebrate once they have been found.
It is important to note, in all of the parables, lostness—not sinfulness—is stressed. In the first two parables, the owner takes the initiative in seeking the lost and then rejoice upon the recovery, and they expect their neighbors to do likewise. In both cases, Jesus likens the rejoicing of the one who has found the lost item to the rejoicing of heaven to the salvation of one sinner. One biblical scholar characterizes these parables as “the joy of recovery and return,” to symbolize the importance of seeking, finding and welcoming the lost and those pushed to the margins of society. Contemporary Christians should take Luke’s admonition to heart. We too should rejoice over seeking and finding even “one lost soul.”
11-12 Then He said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’ 12-16 “So the father divided the property between them. It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any. 17-20 “That brought him to his senses. He said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.
The beginning of this parable offers a type of Cliff’s Notes for the ending of the story. It says, “There was once a man,” which lets us know that while this parable features a young man who becomes a prodigal, the protagonist of the story is the father. This narrative underscores a father’s unrelenting, unfailing love for his younger son and older son.
It is also important to note that a close reading of the parable states there were two sons, but it does not call them brothers. They are the younger son and the older son. We are not sure if both sons have the same mother or not. We do not know if there is a mother and sisters in the picture. The text does not say. We are not sure if there were one year or many years between their ages. The text does not say. We only know that there are two sons and later it is revealed that sibling rivalry comes into play in this narrative. So immediately upon beginning this pericope the Lukan writer clues the reader into the family dynamics that are operative in this pericope. Again, this is a story about a father and his two sons.
The younger son approaches his father to request an allocation of his share of the inheritance earlier than would be customary. His actions are, of course, presumptuous and ill-advised. A man might leave his goods to his heirs as attested to by last will and testament, but he was bound by the provisions of the law codes. According to the Mosaic law, the elder brother received a double portion of the inheritance or two-thirds of the whole (Deuteronomy 21:17). This statute may have been put in place to protect the rights of an elder brother against a favored younger brother.
The father can make gifts before he died and this offers him a freer hand with distributing his wealth before death. (We see this in Genesis 25: with Abraham offering gifts to his sons.) The rules for disposing of property are given in the Mishnah. If a man decided to make gifts, he normally gave the capital but retained the income. He could then no longer dispose of the capital, only of his interest in the income. But the recipient could get nothing until the death of the giver. He could sell the capital if he chose, but the buyer could not gain possession until the death of the donor.
The father granted the son’s request—which he is not bound to do—and the younger son is able to convert his share to cash, but the father retains the ability to dispose of his ring, robe, shoes, and fatted calf. Shortly thereafter the son leaves his father’s house, his family, his country, and he goes to a distant country where he squandered his possessions in a reckless and wanton lifestyle. The money eventually ran out, and at the same time, a famine fell upon that part of the world, pushing the young man into desperate times. Once he was living “high on the hog,” but now, he is living “with the hogs.” The young man is forced to hire himself out as a slave, and his job was the unpleasant task of caring for swine. It was in this state of desperation and embarrassment that the young man comes to his senses. He recognizes that he can live better as a servant in his father’s house than as a hired worker in a foreign land. He knows necessitate facing his father, so he rehearses his repentance speech.
The younger son’s speech outlines his repentance—literally a reversal of his actions. He acknowledges he has sinned against God and his father. Further, the prodigal evidence three steps in his return to home. First, he comes to his senses. Next, he gets up from his present situation. Finally, he goes to his father. Thus, the process of returning home commences with self-awareness and terminates with a departure from the distant land that he found himself in. The younger son acknowledges he has no right to be accepted, and he asserts he will be satisfied to be a hired hand. But this speech is one that he is never allowed to finish.
20-21 “When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ 22-24 “But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.
The young man realized his mistakes, sin, and foolish behavior, and he returns to face his father. His hope is to be received as hired worker, but the father receives him as a son. He had hoped, at best, for a little bread; his father provided a banquet. The story does not say the young man gained all the material possessions he had lost, but he regains the joy and privileges of his status as a son. There are two important aspects to note:
• First, there is no attempt to minimize the seriousness or the foolishness of the sins of the younger son. Jesus did receive sinners and eat with them, but He never minimized their sin. Jesus always told the truth, then lovingly challenged people to “go and sin no more.”
• Second, consider the characteristics of the younger sons repentance. The process began when he began to suffer the painful consequences of his sin. Repentance begins, then, with seeing things as they really are. The son’s repentance then led him to his father, whom he had offended, and to whom he acknowledged his guilt and sorrow. The son’s repentant spirit is reflected in his deep sense of unworthiness. He doesn’t speak of or claim any rights. There are no demands. He hopes only for mercy. The son’s repentance touched the heart of his loving father and paved the way for restoration and rejoicing.
This parable turns not on the return of the prodigal son, but on the father’s extravagant welcome. It is the loving father of this parable who depicts the heart of our loving Heavenly Father, longs for the return of the sinner, willingly grants forgiveness, and rejoices in the return of the wayward.
This father gave the son what he had asked for. He allowed the son to go his own way, even when he could have prevented it. The heart of that father never forgot the wayward son. It was no accident that the father saw the son coming “from a long way off” (v. 20). The father ran to meet the son. He did not force the son to grovel. He did not even allow the son to finish his confession. The father quickly restored the son to his position as a son. The father commanded that there be a celebration.
When interpreting these three parables collectively, Jesus makes the point that the Pharisees and Scribes were concerned about “lost” things but had little compassion for “lost” people. While the father of the prodigal (God) was concerned about his son’s welfare, and rejoiced upon the boy’s return, the elder brother (the Pharisees and Scribes) had little compassion for his brother. Jesus, on the other hand, cared about people. This is why in order to fully understand the point that the Lukan writer is making with this parable, we must briefly consider verses 25-32.
25-27 “All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.’ 28-30 “The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’ 31-32 “His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”
The older brother is out in the fields working when the younger brother returns. The father, on the other hand, is apparently waiting and watching for the younger son’s return. The older brother doesn’t know of the younger brother’s return until he hears the sounds of celebration coming from the house. He learns from a servant that his brother has returned, that the father has received him, and that a celebration is taking place. The older brother is angry and refuses to celebrate with the rest, even though this celebration was called for by the father.
When the father comes out to his older son, he begs him to join in the celebration. But the older son refuses. His anger and self-righteousness is so great that he resents the grace his father extends toward his younger brother. Therefore, he cannot rejoice in his brother’s return home. The father’s words to his older son are significant. “Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!” The elder brother should have been happy that his younger brother was found, but he would only find satisfaction if his brother was completely dismissed and cast out.
When the writer of Luke wrote these three parables, it was expected that people would read and interpret them as a collective unit. The writer clearly illustrates that the older brother represents the Pharisees and Scribes, who grumble at Jesus’ association with sinners and lack any measure of compassion for people. Like the elder brother, the Pharisees and Scribes lacked empathy for lost people—those who found themselves on the margins of society. They rejoiced in keeping rules and that meant they were also keeping certain people—the marginalized—from the grace of God.
Like the Pharisees and Scribes, many contemporary Christians, sadly, also rejoice in the wrong things. A lot of Christians prefer keeping rules and in doing so fail to care for people. We say, "people should do this and people should do that, “the Bible says this and the Ten Commandments say that“, “the Church covenant states this and the bylaws and constitution affirms that.” But when we focus on rule-keeping we miss the opportunity to extend the grace of God and the love of Jesus to the people who need it the most. Luke 15 invites all Christians to consider that we are all called from the margins of society to embrace Christian ministry to the margins of society.