The Young and the Reckless

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
Fourth Sunday in Lent/Year C/March 27, 2022
Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

For those of us with siblings, this parable of the prodigal son may bring back memories of sibling rivalry, moments of competition—some harmless and others deeply hurtful.  Arguments range from who should get more allowance to who should get the privilege of sitting in the front seat next to mom or dad; or even who gets to stay up the latest. Just below the surface of these seemingly insignificant quarrels is the profound question of who is the favorite.  

Consider the workplace where some may believe that seniority outweighs performance. Who is deserving of promotion?  The loyal senior person, who has worked at a company the longest and is obedient to the status quo or the newer worker who outperforms the one with seniority, and consistently exceeds status quo? What does each worker deserve?

Our Gospel passage in Luke 15, is Jesus’ response, in the form of a parable, to the disapproving grumblings by the Pharisees and scribes, as tax collectors and sinners gathered to listen to him. This passage is entitled, “The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother” (NRSV).

Before we can begin to find meaning in this parable, we must clarify the meaning of the word, prodigal, which has been widely misunderstood to describe a long-lost person, who has eventually returned to their home or roots. The adjective, prodigal, does not mean long-lost; it means reckless or excessive. The word, prodigal, properly understood, can frame our perspective of three persons who fit that description—two sons and one father. 

I note, also, that the title, “The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother” feels inaccurate. Throughout the rather lengthy text, there is no dialogue shared between the brothers and no interaction as far as the text describes. There are, however, independent conversations that the father has with each son which we will now explore. 

With regard to the sons, we have the younger brother who willingly risked disrespecting his father and broke Jewish tradition as he left home with an inheritance that his father gave to him while the father was still alive. The son squandered his inheritance, and his behaviors left him helpless and stripped him of his dignity. This son’s behavior could certainly be described as reckless. The reckless wielding of his words toward his father, “…Give me the share of the property that will belong to me” (v. 12), sounds a lot like, “I can’t wait for you to die in order for me to live my life; so give me what’s due to me now.” 

To better grasp the outrage of the older brother, recall that the father divided his property between the two sons. According to Jewish tradition, the younger son was entitled to receive only one-third of the property. One might speculate that the dividing of the property “between them” meant that half of the property, more than his deserved share, was bestowed upon the younger son. Of course, such an action would cause the older brother to investigate the absurdity of his father’s generosity.  Speaking of the older brother, he believed himself to be the model son, and expected to receive his father’s acknowledgment and praise. This son expected his inheritance when his father died—but the father was still alive. 

Refusing his father’s invitation to join the celebration, the words wielded by the older son were also reckless. Had his motivation for working like a slave for his father and his lifelong unwavering obedience been fueled by his hopeful expectation of the inheritance to come when his father died?  While unspoken, if the younger brother’s words to his father implied “I can’t wait for you to die,” the older brother’s words to that same father, implied, “Hurry up and die so that I can get what is due to me.” 

So, what about this one father of the two sons? This is the father who stood in the midst of this tension between the two sons, which seemed to focus on when each would receive their share of the father’s abundance.  This father, based on the sons’ reckless words and behaviors, was more valuable to the sons dead than he was standing alive before them.

To the angry elder son, the father said, “…All that is mine is yours…we had to rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life…” (v.32).  During separate interactions with his sons, the father’s words and actions communicated to each that they could have abundant life with him while he was alive. Blinded by jealousy, the angry son missed the message that his father would deny him nothing if he asked.  The more the elder son hung on to the anger, the hurt and resentment, the more he distanced himself from his father’s unwavering love for him.

This parable is not about sibling rivalry.  If we make the parable all about the brothers, we just might miss the steady, unchanging father who worked to restore broken relationship between his sons.  This prodigal father held both the tension between life and death by his own reckless, excessive, unbounded love for each of his sons. 

Through our Baptism into Christ, we are bound to our prodigal lover in divine relationship with God’s self and with our sisters and brothers in Christ. And, as God’s beloved children, God denies us nothing if we ask, for we are inheritors of His heavenly kingdom now and His heavenly kingdom come. 

We will soon gather around the holy table to break bread together. No matter who shows up at that table—all sinners are invited and welcomed—it is by God’s grace and mercy, that any of us are invited to come to God with repentant hearts seeking forgiveness, so that we might also extend that gift to others. It is by God’s grace and mercy that we come to God, in humility, seeking to be used to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. 

And while we, the children of God, may at times, feel like we are still far off from our father, let us rejoice in knowing that no matter what we do, we are inextricably entangled with the One who knows exactly who we are; the One who runs toward us with wild, reckless abandon to meet us right where we are and just as we are.  And that nothing we can ever do will separate God’s children from God’s love. 

As we continue our Lenten journeys, each in our own way, let us seek God, our prodigal Father, with whom, through Christ, we are eternally entangled, and who loves us excessively and recklessly.