Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Old Testament Book of Joshua we find the liberated Israelites near the end of their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. They celebrated Passover and ate “the produce of that country.” The manna that had sustained them in their journey stopped. Luke’s Gospel gives us the iconic parable of the prodigal son. A man had two sons and expected that they would divide his land after his death. But his younger son asked for his half now and his father gave it to him. The son then sold off the land and left. He then burned through all his wealth and could find only a menial job. Recognizing that his father’s servants lived better than he did, he returned in the hopes of being one of his father’s servants. Instead his father welcomed him back with open arms and celebrated. The older son grew angry with this and reminded his father that he (the older son) had played by the rules, but was not given a celebration. The father then told the older son: “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it is only right that we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”
I know a lot of Christians and I don’t know anyone who isn’t familiar with the parable of the prodigal son. Perhaps it’s because we can all resonate with the experience of selfishness and reconciliation. Perhaps all parents and children can recount times that we’ve disappointed or hurt each other deeply and prayed the wound could be healed.
I also think we can find something deeper. There are only three characters in this parable and at times in our lives we can identify with all three: The father, loving and wounded, who loves enough to forgive and heal. The older son who feels cheated for doing nothing more than following the rules and being the son every father wants. The younger son who treats his family horribly, recognizes the havoc he caused, and humbly asks for forgiveness, willing to pay for his sins by accepting a lower status.
This parable has always fascinated me because of the very fact that there are layers upon layers to it. Each scene could be a sermon unto itself. Today I want to focus on one scene: when the younger son returns he does not expect the reaction he received. Instead of having to beg for forgiveness his father placed a robe on his shoulder, a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. He also ordered that the fattened calf be slaughtered for a feast. The older son felt this was unfair as he had done nothing wrong, but was never treated this well.
I know many Christians who find this reading troubling because it appears to reward bad behavior. I spoke with someone who said this: “So the younger son is welcomed back. The fact that he feels remorse doesn’t take away the fact that half of the father’s land was sold to someone else. Now the sons are set to inherit a smaller piece of land, and what happens when the younger son decides to do the same thing? Does the father’s land continue to decrease by half every time the younger son decides to strike out on his own?”
It’s a fair question and one I often find in my work. Parents love their children equally, but (especially when the children become adults) they recognize that some of their children require more of their resources than others. They have children they don’t worry about and they have children who are constantly in need of help. In the families I serve it’s not unusual to find a parent who lives with an adult child who “never got it.” This child (and as much as I hate to admit it, it’s normally a son) may have attempted a series of jobs but none of them worked out. In his 50s he sees that his mother in her 80s will not live forever and when she dies his living status in the family home is now in play. His siblings plan to sell the house and split the estate and he demands compensation for all the years he cared for his mother. His siblings remind him that he has been living on her income for years, and far from caring for her, he has instead lived on her generosity or her inability to confront his behavior.
These “prodigal sons” don’t see a connection to today’s Gospel, but his siblings do. And I think they have a point, but I would reread a line from the father in our reading: “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours.” The father didn’t say that “half of all I have is yours.” I don’t think I’m reading too much into this when I say that all the remaining land belongs to the older son.
Followers of Jesus recognize that forgiveness and reconciliation call us to our best selves and prevents all of us from being defined by our worst decisions. But forgiving someone’s sin against us doesn’t mean that we transport back to the time before the sin. Jesus’ death and resurrection redeems us and reconciles all things to himself but it doesn’t create a time machine.
And it meant that the younger son recognized that he can’t claim half of the remaining land. His father’s forgiveness allowed him back into a relationship with his father (and hopefully his older brother) and it allowed him to rebuild his life. But forgiveness also means that he has to live with the fact that his part of the inheritance is gone and isn’t coming back.
Too often we struggle with forgiveness because we believe that it requires us to allow the other person the ability to hurt us again. It doesn’t. Forgiveness gives us a path forward, not a path backward (or a do over). We don’t know what happened to the father or his two sons but I hope it meant that they found a path that continued to allow them to be a family. I hope it meant that, after the father’s death, his sons were able to create a relationship that kept progressing. Maybe it meant that the older son took part of his father’s love and gave his younger brother a second chance. Maybe it meant that the younger son found a way to earn enough money to buy half of his older brother’s estate.
In the end, I hope that the man with two sons looked back on his life and felt good about both of his sons.