What would I have to do to make you not love me? Have a really bad hair day? Cuss from the pulpit? Not show up for vestry? Drink all the wine on the altar? Get 100 tattoos? Maybe just run amuck? Or maybe something simpler, like not talk to you or ignore you completely. What would I have to do to make you not love me? As silly as that sounds, it is the soundtrack of our lives, the color commentary always running in our heads. Do they love me? Who loves me? What do I have to do to make them love me? If I don’t do that, no one will love me! If I only had a new car, new job, new face, then people would really love me. Some of this is what’s going on in this parable today, which has been called the Prodigal Son, the Prodigal Father, the Two Sons or the Generous Father depending on what translation you’re looking at.
What we have here are two brothers. The older one is like most firstborns—responsible, kinda controlling, always doing the right thing while making sure Dad notices. The younger one is more relaxed, wants lots of attention, and is, of course, self-centered. The younger likes to party, so he asks Dad for his inheritance- but like right now. He’s saying “Drop Dead, Dad.” In order to split the will, the Father has to declare himself legally dead. The brother burns through all the money then realizes that the best place to get more is back home. The text says, “He comes to himself.” When the Father sees him coming home, he runs to him and gives him the family ring, which means he’s back in the will again. You-know-who older brother is, of course a little resentful. Who wouldn’t be! He tells Dad, “After all I’ve done for you, this is the thanks I get!”
If you grew up in a family of any sort, you can relate to this story. Who hasn’t left home at some point, determined not to do what your parents want you to do? Or maybe you had children who left home and wouldn’t do anything you thought they should do? Who hasn’t had a sibling you think is spoiled by your parents—or maybe you were the spoiled one? Who hasn’t thought, “What about me? After all I do for you!” Who doesn’t think if you follow all the rules, you should get the biggest reward? Who hasn’t thought if you mess up, you should be soundly punished, not rewarded? This is why this parable has been called The Greatest Short Story Every Written because it flips all these ideas on their heads.
The word Prodigal actually means “wastefully extravagant.” Any father who runs out to greet a son on the road who has wished him dead, and also embraced a son who has hardened his heart to him, is indeed extravagant in his love and grace. The wasteful extravagance, however, also seems to be in the way the sons throw away the love of the father and the home that is their life and identity. They are looking for a way to fill the God’s sized hole in their souls, but they use things that deaden their hearts. In this way, we too are prodigals. We are both of these brothers.
Like the younger brother, we feel cramped by God’s Father style—all that love and grace. It really is too much. It’s pretty boring. We’re like girls who only date bad boys—we want a little excitement. Our self-centeredness has left us feeling dead inside and we want to feel alive, we just don’t know how to do it. So we get a plan that we think will make us happy—more stuff, more fame, more fortune, more admiration, more more. We are self-will run riot in a land far from our true selves. We use people to get what we want. No matter what we achieve or earn or buy, it just never feels like enough. And somehow we don’t trust the people who love us, because they must be wrong. We are not loveable without our stuff. We slowly blow hot air into the inflatable doll of our imaginary selves, until it eventually pops and we are found out. W.H. Auden said, “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die.” (Appropos of Many Things)
Or like the older brother, we think we are right—fighting to direct everyone’s lives and stepping on everyone’s toes. We follow the rules– because we make the rules. We try to fill that God sized hole with ourselves- our goodness, our thoughts, our ideas, our designs. We know best. We’re smarter and righter than anyone we know. We don’t want to change. We think being right will make us happy. Richard Rohr says that, “What the ego hates more than anything in the world is to change—even when the present situation is not working or is horrible. Instead we do more and more of what does not work…because the last time did not really satisfy us deeply.” (Breathing Under Water)
In this parable, Jesus was addressing the Pharisees who thought he shouldn’t be friends with the sinners—but who could never admit they were sinners, too. They are also the older brother. Tim Keller says, “As long as you are trying to earn your salvation by controlling God through goodness, you will never be sure you have been good enough for him. You simply aren’t sure God loves and delights in you.”
The younger brother is symbolic of the tax collectors and sinners that Jesus was hanging out with. Henri Nouwen describes this younger brother experience like this: “Perhaps you, too, run for affirmation, affection or success. Perhaps you don’t know clearly what exactly you seek. But you experience an angst that holds you back from feeling truly free. You, too, may be afraid to open yourself to the unconditional love of the One who ‘formed you in your mother’s womb.’ You might ask yourself why you are always busy and seldom still, always running and at the same time having no time to simply be.”
Like the riotous life of the younger brother, I have lived a life of self-will run riot. Like the older brother, I am arrogant in thinking I don’t need anyone’s help, much less God’s. Many years ago, Stuart and I decided we wanted to have a business so we could be in charge and own something. We found a franchise that seemed to fit the bill and single- mindedly made that happen despite any warnings or red flags from lawyers and advisers. I was convinced that I knew more than they did and was smart enough to overcome any obstacles. We invested most of our life savings and we ended up in financial, emotional, physical, spiritual and career bankruptcy. We had to sell our house, almost got divorced, neglected our children by working day and night and both got sick. In a way, we answered the question, “What would I have to do to have you stop loving me?” We would rather be ruined than changed. Both Stuart and I now see that as the worst decision of both of our lives. What it did, however, was the same thing it did for the younger son.
Circumstances brought us to our knees and where the arrogance and certainty had been in our hearts, an open space was created for new life, for resurrection. Luckily, God is not as easily deterred from loving us as we humans are from loving each other.
This was something I never noticed in this story. Neither one of the sons asks or cares about what the father wants. They only want him for his stuff, what he can give them. They do not care about the great love he has for them, love that even brings him to die for their sakes. Before my spiritual bankruptcy, I had never asked what God’s will was for my life. I gave God directions and lists of what he could do for me, never once asking what I could do for God. Not for religion—but for God. What was God’s will for my life? What are the works that God has give me to do? My will seemed to lead me into dead ends, death and bankruptcy. I hear it whenever we say the confession, “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” On my own, I cannot do this. Only through dying to the idea that I can do this on my own, can I ask Jesus Christ to help me be willing to receive the help through love that only he can give. What Christ as the Father in the parable is offering is love and we have a really hard time wanting or accepting that.
The sons also do not see or experience the Father’s suffering. As a parent, I know that suffering first hand as well as the suffering I have caused my parents. One of our daughters was lost in a Sears store one Saturday when she was two years old.
I let go of her hand to pay a clerk and she ran off. Security closed all the doors while we frantically searched for her. I was a crazy person. We finally tracked her down by her smell—she had hidden herself so she could have some privacy and made a mess. I didn’t care what she smelled like—I was so glad to have her back I cried and scared her. I think God is like that—God doesn’t care what we’ve done. He’s just overjoyed to have us back. He cries with joy at our return. This parable is about how there is nothing that we can do that could make God stop loving us.
This is where forgiveness comes in. One of the names used for this parable is The Forgiving Father. Is there something you have done that you think is unforgiveable? The younger son thought that, too. But in the middle of his confession, in the middle of his admission of guilt, his father cuts him off with an embrace of love and forgiveness. Like him, God’s love is not contingent on our guilt or confession. It is about the forgiveness of the Father. You only need a forgiver to be forgiven. Jesus’ parable is of the Forgiver. It’s an assurance that we have a Forgiver.
There is one more death in this parable. Robert Capon says that Jesus is the fatted calf that has been waiting to start the homecoming party for you. His only job was to show His love for you through his sacrifice of love. Jesus’ ministry is a rescue operation, coming to seek and save that which is lost. (Luke 19:10) When we think we are most lost, is when we are closest to being found. What would it take for God to stop loving you? There is nothing that would make God stop loving you. Full Stop. Amen