The readings for this Sunday include the parable of the Prodigal Son, which along with the Good Samaritan, is one of the two best known parables in the Bible. These two short stories are part of the greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus.
Together these two parables sum up what Jesus was all about–reconciliation between father and son, brother and brother, sister and sister, national enemies, and all broken human relationships–and at the same time reconciliation of sinners to God, the hope of unconditional love–and the life of love, showing compassion for a stranger, taking a risk to show compassion to one in need.
One thing puzzles me. These two stories are found only in the Gospel according to Luke. How could the other two evangelists have missed them?
I don’t have the answer, but maybe the other evangelists knew of the stories and understand them better than we do. Maybe they found them too shocking.
Scholars tell us the cultures around the ancient Mediterranean were “honor and shame” cultures–as if there are any cultures that are not motivated by honor and shame.
(Maybe we are getting close to it–the deposed governor of Illinois was not bashful about appearing on David Letterman last week.)
It is plain enough that the prodigal son had disgraced his family. He forced his father to liquidate the assets of the family farm so he could travel to a far place to find himself. And when his money and friends ran out he found himself feeding pigs–some job for a nice Jewish boy–and lusting after the pods they fed on. So when he gets desperate enough, he remembers his father is a generous man. He’s willing to go home on probation, work as a hired hand.
Hadn’t the father ever heard of tough love?
Instead of accepting the offer of probation, the father loses all his dignity, runs to meet his son, and throws a party for him like he is some kind of conquering hero returned from war. Can you blame the older brother for resenting the whole scene?
I think of another father in the Bible who had two sons. David’s son Amnon developed a sick obsession with his half-sister Tamar, lured her into his room, and raped her. Then he hated her and sent her away.
Absalom, her full brother, waited to see what the king would do. David evidently felt he had forfeited any moral authority with his sons. He was furious–but did nothing. Absalom let his outrage simmer inside for two years. Then he invited all his brothers to a sheep-sheering festival, where he had Amnon murdered. David was again furious and Absalom went into exile for three years.
David was finally persuaded to allow his son to return. He was allowed to live in Jerusalem, but David refused to see him. Finally after another two years David allowed a formal reconciliation with his son.
The formal reconciliation was not enough for Absalom. Again he allowed his rage to simmer until he found the opportunity to lead a rebellion against his father.
Our children break our hearts. A broken heart can heal by hardening or by remaining tender. People who have been deeply wounded can become bitter or sweet. Most fathers are more like David than the father in Jesus’ parable.