The Prodigal Son

The Rev. William Redfield
Trinity Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, NY
The Fourth Sunday of Lent—Year C—March 10, 2013

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So Jesus told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “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.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. 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. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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.’

The Wisdom of our liturgical year is that, if we impose it upon the usual perspective of the various ups and downs of our everyday lives, it has a sort of corkscrew effect that opens up these ordinary ups and downs to new meaning.  So, while we as individuals are moving through the demands of our specific lives and while we as a community are preparing ourselves for significant change in the life of this parish, the Gospel text this morning helps us to locate ourselves and understand ourselves with greater acuity.

We started out on Ash Wednesday by our facing our own mortal existence and the reality that these lives of ours in this dimension have a beginning and an end.  But rather than leading to some sort of depressive morbidity, many of us are finding that, if we take this confrontation far enough and deep enough, it surprisingly leads to a greater freedom and lightness.  It opens us up to a surprising sense of aliveness.  Incredibly, those ashes that were imposed on our foreheads are turning out, not to be signs of death, but signs of greater life!

In this journey we are also learning how important it is to let go.  Our model, of course, is Jesus.  Even as he has begun his own experience of suffering, his forward movement indicates that he is taking it all the way and is not going to hold anything back.  Eschewing any divine entitlement he might have been tempted to cash in, whatever human fears he might have been harboring are flowering into deeper love and compassion.  He is living from that eternal wellspring of Spirit.  Yes, he is living from the depths of his own humble heart.

And then last week we talked about dying before we die as being part of this letting go process.  And we began to see that the process of constant judging keeps us from the immediacy and aliveness of life.  One of the methods I introduced last week in assisting us in this is to track the way our mind instinctively leads us to judge the moment we are in and all its contents with an evaluation of “like or dislike.”  While originally designed to keep us physically safe, this judging reflex actually keeps us from the immediacy of the present moment.  Rather than actively try to change this tendency, I suggested that we just watch it.  And watching it in this way helps to create a space between the process and the observation of it.  That alone diminishes its power over us.

And today in our Gospel reading the story of the Prodigal Son suggests another way to get beyond judgment—and that has to do with opening ourselves to the infinite yet unmerited love from the Father.  When we open ourselves to the full realization that we are loved beyond measure, we begin to realize that it is no longer either important or necessary for us to judge ourselves or anyone else or even to count the costs.  If God is not keeping score, it is pretty unreasonable for us to do so.

And so the story…

Although the parable has been called the story of the Prodigal Son, it is so much more the story of a father’s steadfast love (so perhaps it should be called the story of the Prodigal Father!).  Told in a culture in which the father was the representative of the law, this father instead disregards his own rights, respectability, and honor in favor of his enduring love and an uncompromising forgiveness for his two sons.

You have just heard the story.  The younger son, feeling the ache to see and experience the big wide world out there, asks his father for his share of the inheritance.  This, in that society, he is technically entitled to do.  But it is then the duty of the sons to set aside enough in resources to provide for the father in his old age.

Well, the younger son spends the whole wad in riotous living and finds himself one day in the pits (literally as well as figuratively).  Feeding pigs in a foreign country has got to be about as low as you can get for a Jew in those times.  So he figures, even as a hired servant for his father, he could do a lot better.

But how will he be able to face the judgment and retribution of his father?  How can he possibly soften his heart?  The younger son begins to rehearse in his mind a repentant sounding story that might possibly open the door of his father’s heart.

But no story—rehearsed or otherwise—will be necessary.  The father, it turns out, has been watching the road and waiting and longing—yearning, really—for his son’s return.  And before he can even get to the property line, the father throws all dignity to the wind and runs out to meet his long lost son.  Runs!  No self-respecting elder in this society would surrender his dignity and run—unless, that is, his uncompromising love was bursting from his heart and so greatly overshadowed his need to preserve his own dignity.

Before the son can get a word out of his mouth to express his shame and remorse, the father throws his arms around his son and kisses him.  Again, this behavior was very much out of character for an elder in such a patriarchal society.  Stunned, the son tries to mutter a confession, but the father hardly seems to be paying attention.  The father is much more interested in expressing the joy he feels in the son’s return.  He calls for the finest robe (probably his own) and sandals for his son’s feet as a sign of his full restoration of honor back in the family.  Then the party begins!

But here, as you know, is where the story gets juicy.  The older son, who just happens to be working hard out in the field, hears the merrymaking and inquires of one of the servants what is going on.  The report of the forgiven return of his self-serving little jerk of a brother cuts like a knife into his heart.  He cannot abide this gross unfairness.  He shames his father by refusing to go in and join in the merrymaking.  And when his father graciously comes out to explain the situation to him and to encourage him to join in, the older brother dishonors the father by insulting him.

Now many of us—especially the prodigals among us—might judge the older brother harshly.  But before we think of this elder brother as a stuffy old stick-in-the-mud, let’s just think about it.

The younger brother has all but wished his father dead and expressed this by leaving with half of all the inheritance.  This is the money that was supposed to take care of the father in his old age.  That meant that the older brother had to care for the father out of his half of the inheritance.  And now that the reckless younger brother has returned, he too must live off his older brother’s half since he has squandered his own.

Knowing the impetuousness of his younger son, one wonders why the father would have given him his share of the inheritance.  He must have guessed his son would squander and lose it.  He was certainly not obligated to give him his share at this time.  It must be that the father valued his son’s freedom more than his own security.  Or maybe security was of no real value for him at all.

All that is bad enough.  But when the older brother sees the extent to which his father is celebrating the other son’s return and how quickly he has forgiven his brother’s grievous sins and reckless behavior, he is understandably upset. And the frosting on the cake is that the father is giving that profligate one the party that he has never given him, the dutiful one.  The father has simply relied on him to always do the right thing.

At the very least, the older brother is looking for conditional forgiveness.  He would at least have the younger brother pay back what he has lost and given some sort of provisional status in the family until this whole thing got sorted out.  He’s counting the costs, and he’s going to make him pay.  But because the father’s love overshadows all other concerns, there will be no conditional forgiveness here; the father’s forgiveness is immediate and completely unconditional.

So here in this story we can see and identify with part of us that so often and egregiously screws up and misses the mark—the part that is always looking for the easy way out.  We are, in other words, like the profligate younger brother.  Here too, though, we can also see and identify with the part of us that would prefer to stick to the moral high ground and express our self-righteousness in conditional forgiveness that would require some real conditions before reinstatement could place.  This, of course, is the part of us that is constantly counting the costs and keeping score.  Yup, we’ve got that part too.

Perhaps you had thought that the father in this story represents the unconditional love of God the Father.  Maybe.  But maybe that’s just the door to something deeper.  Maybe the father represents the wellspring from which we too are invited to drink.  Maybe the father is the picture of aliveness that reveals our essential nature when we are willing to take it all the way.

Take it all the way?  Yes, maybe this route to the father’s unconditional love and unconditional forgiveness requires that we be willing, first, to claim those profligate parts as well as those self-righteous parts of ourselves.

Perhaps we never quite completely leave behind us the part of ourselves that is subject to the whims of self-indulgence and thinks it can get away with murder.  Perhaps also we never completely leave behind the part of us that keeps drinking from the poisoned well of the need to be right and in control and takes refuge in some imagined moral high ground.

But maybe we are invited to take it all the way such that a deeper part of ourselves will refuse to get provoked or misdirected by our own waywardness, our own self-righteousness, or even our own self-judgment.  You see, we are not forgiven because of our expressed repentance.  Nor are we justified by any dutiful obedience or hard work.  The deeper part of us knows that eternal life is not the denial of these parts of ourselves.  It knows that these parts—the parts represented by the two sons—are only partial and conditional identities that are simply hiding our deeper identity in God.

And here’s the secret—once they are identified and claimed, they be seen for what they are—partial and conditional identities; they can be held more loosely; and gradually over the course of a lifetime, they become more and more relative.  This is precisely what delivers us to an existence that is both freer and lighter.


We are about to embark on a path through significant change here in the parish.  Having been here for nearly 20 years, it is hard for me to imagine not standing before you on Sunday mornings.  It may be just as hard for you.  But what I see as I look out at this congregation is the fruit of our meaningful work together.  As a parish family, we are not dominated by self-indulgence on the one side or the seduction of power and control games on the other.  Not willing to just “play church” or treat our work together as “business as usual,” we have, in fact, taken our very being to a whole different depth and dimension.  This is the source of love and aliveness.  And when we gather together, it is palatable.

This is does not mean that the change before us will not be difficult.  But what it does mean is that together we have found the eternal wellspring of divine love right here in our midst.  As the father in the story illuminates, the nature of this love is that it is always being given away.  And we will find that—even in the midst of difficult and demanding change—as we continue to give our own lives away, we will be sustained by that eternal wellspring of God’s abiding love.

Thanks be to God.