11 Then Jesus* said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The 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. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with*the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But 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! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So 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. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”*22But 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.23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But 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.30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father* said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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.” ’
My grandmother was the most frugal person I know. Heck, maybe she was the most frugal person on the planet. As the oldest daughter responsible for raising her many siblings during the heart of the depression, she came by this frugality honestly. She’d pile cleaned and reused sheets of tin foil on her refrigerator. At Christmastime, she’d carefully open her gifts with an exact-o knife, and then later iron out the creases in the thin paper. Sure enough, the next year, our gifts from her would be wrapped in those all-too-familiar patterns of poinsettias and red-cheeked Santas. She never bought anything new for herself, and as kids, we all rolled our eyes and laughed at the bright red dress coat with wide spotted fur collar that she would wear to every special occasion, year after year.
Her entire life, at least as far as I knew, was a series of carefully calculated adjustments of give and take, exchange of goods, feelings, emotions, never giving too much, never keeping too much, never risking much. Always together, always in control.
There is much to be admired about my grandmother’s frugality. She was strong. She was independent. And she certainly never wasted a dime.
But there is also much that makes me sad about it. I wonder, did she ever just treat herself to a giant banana split, stuffing her tiny self, only to realize she couldn’t finish it all? Did she ever give a homeless guy 50 cents and not wonder if he was going to spend it wisely? Did she ever tell her children - not through sacrifice or duty, but through an extravagance of emotion - how very very much she loved them? In her stubborn refusal to never give up, in her shear will to survive, did she ever let it all go and just be? I never got to see that side of my grandmother, but I wish I had.
We call our very famous lectionary passage today, “The Prodigal Son,” but I think that this is really the story of The Prodigal Family. Prodigal is one of those old-fashioned words that means “wasteful, squandering, lavish, recklessly extravagant.” And this is the story of three different ways we can be recklessly extravagant. This is the story of the prodigal family.
Jesus is getting flack from the Pharisees and scribes because of who he’s hanging out with. He’s spending time teaching and eating with the reckless, the wasteful, the rejected in his society - the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the unwanteds. So, in response, Jesus tells the story of a typical family. A family of dysfunction, misunderstanding, and hurt. A family that many of us are quite familiar with.
First, we have the younger son, who recklessly squanders his inheritance.
He goes up to his dad one day, and basically says, “Dad, I wish you were dead, so that I could get what’s coming to me. Just give me my inheritance now, so I don’t have to work anymore. “Dad,” he says, “I’d rather have money than be your son.”
And strangely, illogically, the father gives him what he wants. MORE than what he wants. The son asks for his share of the property, his οὐσίας. But even though the NRSV translates it as property, what the father really gives in response to this request is his βίον, his “life.” His whole self.
And in fact, the inheritance, or more accurately, the father’s life, is split up between the two of his sons.
Both the elder and the younger son get their inheritance early. Why? No father at this time would do this. No head of the household would just hand over what is still rightly his. Children were to serve and respect their parents, and here is a son who blatantly, outrightly, recklessly, disobeys the fourth commandment to “honor thy mother and father,” and then goes even further to essentially wish for his father’s death.
Why in the world would a father agree to this? Has he gone crazy? Senile?
Is this guy a moron?
And of course, as we all could have probably predicted, the son squanders his money, and finds himself in the worst of all predicaments - he’s slopping food for pigs, an especially dishonoring job for any Jew, who would be rendered unclean by even touching a pig, and for whom, to be forced to eat a pig would be a fate worse than death. But here is the son, not even wishing he could eat the pigs, but the pods which the pigs are eating. He’s so lost that he begins to identify himself with the pigs themselves.
At this point, I picture the Pharisees and scribes smirking, rubbing their hands together, excitedly anticipating the horrible fate of this prodigal son. This kid is gonna get his just desserts.
But once again, Jesus spins us around, leaving our expectations in those muddy fields with the pigs and the slop.
The son comes to his senses and finally decides to come back home, to offer himself as a hired servant in his father’s house.
And as he walks home barefoot and in tattered clothes through miles of muddy fields, there’s that ridiculous father again. He sees his son from a distance, and throwing all caution and sense of propriety to the wind, hikes up his robes, reveals his spindly legs for all to see, and runs out through those muddy fields to meet his son.
Clearly, the father has gone mad.
Honorable fathers do not hike up their robes.
Honorable fathers do not enter muddy fields.
Honorable fathers never run.
Honorable fathers never show such extravagant, reckless outbursts of emotion to such an extent that they kiss the necks of their sons with tears streaming down their faces.
But this father does.
This father doesn’t even let his son finish apologizing.
Instead, the father throws him a party. A party for the whole community.
And now, the Pharisees and the scribes are experiencing some whiplash from the shock of what Jesus is saying. It is the shock of the unexpected outcome. It’s the shock of disgust that someone gets something that he doesn’t deserve. It’s the anger we feel when we find out that our coins dropped into begging cups have been turned into cigarettes and alcohol. It’s the frustration we feel when something that was so hard for us comes to someone else so easily. It’s the sense of betrayal we feel when someone else’s son survives the car accident or cancer or the drug overdose, but ours didn’t. It’s the pain we feel when someone takes something from us and never has to suffer the consequences.
This is the pain and the hurt and the betrayal of the elder son. He doesn’t even know what is going on. He doesn’t hear from his father what has happened; he instead must go to a servant to hear the news.
And when he hears what has happened, he is furious. It is simply not fair. What his reckless, extravagant, naive father has done is simply infuriating. Not only is this simply not fair, it’s poor parenting, it’s poor management of his finances, and it’s irresponsible and insensitive to the needs of the rest of the family.
The father comes out to this elder son, coaxing him to come inside, to join in the celebration, to share in the joy.
But the son is too bitter. Too hurt. This response to his brother’s return is just too much, it’s too unfair, it’s the final straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The elder son cannot share in the joy because he is too busy hoarding it, just like he has hoarded the inheritance he has received from his father. He is too busy holding grudges and keeping tallies that he cannot see the miracle that is right in front of him. If the younger son is reckless and wasteful with his inheritance, the elder son is reckless and wasteful with his joy. The older son squanders his joy by hoarding it. Like a bushel of perfectly ripe cherries that are saved for that “perfect” occasion, only to be found rotting in the back of the refrigerator, joy has a shelf-life. If you don’t grab it, embrace it, celebrate it when it does happen, it’s gone. And the elder son wastes his chance in bitterness, hurt and anger.
But the father is still recklessly trying to reach his elder son. Although his son is surely a grown adult, the father addresses him as τέκνον - child or son - clearly a term of tender endearment, and then says, καὶ πάντα τὰ ἐμὰ σά ἐστιν - “everything of mine is yours.” The father has just recklessly confessed how much his son means to him.
The father has squandered everything - his pride, his faith, his hope, his rejoicing - by spending it.
He lavishes it upon both of his sons. No matter the cost.
The story is left open. We don’t know if there is reconciliation between the two brothers. But I don’t think that’s the point.
The father will continue to welcome his young son back with rings and robes and fatted calves, even as the son will probably continue to recklessly waste what has been given to him.
The father will continue to embrace his elder son, giving him everything he has, tenderly calling him his child, even amidst his bitterness and anger and his hoarding of his joy.
Again and again and again the father will do this.
The father’s love is reckless, and embarrassing, and extravagant, and from most of our perspectives, it’s wasteful. It’s a heartbreaking love that will disappoint him and break his heart again and again and again.
What if our faith was like this?
What if our faith was
A reckless faith
An embarrassing faith
A faith that doesn’t make sense.
A faith that makes you look like you are out of your mind.
A faith that looks a little bit like...God?
This is not practical
This is not sustainable
This isn’t provable, or logical faith
This isn’t about belief or unbelief - it’s not about believing the “right” things, or confessing, or doing anything.
This is ridiculous, reckless faith
What if our Christianity looked like this?
What if our relationships looked like this?
If we tried to do this on our own,
We’d be eaten alive.
We’d be up there hanging on a cross with Jesus himself. Because that is how Jesus lived - with this radical, relentless, prodigal love and faith for this broken humanity, for both the elder and the younger son, for all of us.
But the beauty of the resurrection is that even as our ridiculous, radical, prodigal love for others is what will break our hearts over and over and over again, God doesn’t leave us there. God’s love is not a limited commodity. God is never frugal, as if there won’t be enough wrapping paper or tin foil for next year’s Christmas celebration. God will pick us up, clothe us in God’s best, and invite us into the celebration.
How can we learn to be a little more prodigal, not by wasting our money or our resources, not by hoarding of our love or our joy, but prodigal like the father - prodigal like God - prodigal with our love, our faith, or relentless refusal to give up on even the most lost among us?
When my grandmother died, we all gathered at her house, reminiscing, going through old recipes that used canned pineapple and jars of vegetable shortening, sifting through instructions on how to can green beans and save the bacon grease for lentil soup. And I discovered something I never knew about my grandmother. She collected tea cups - beautiful tea cups with matching saucers and silver spoons. Highly impractical tea cups with gold inlay and hand-painted flowers. I have one of those now, and I cherish it. Not because it reminds me of who my grandmother was to me, but because it causes me to imagine a woman who lived so extravagantly as to collect impractical tea cups, simply for the beauty, the recklessness, the prodigality of it.
May our faith in God and our love for one another be full of impractical tea cups.
Thanks be to God.