Not one but two sons

Lent 4 – 2016

Luke 15:11-32

Marian Free

In the name of God who longs for us to lower our guard, let go of our pride and allow ourselves to be completely and unconditionally love. Amen.

When many of us were growing up, we knew today’s parable as “The Prodigal Son” – the story of the wastrel who took his share of his inheritance before his father had even died, spent it all, and yet was welcomed home in a show of extravagant love. Over the past few years I have become used to calling the parable “The Forgiving Father” because it has been argued that the point being made was more about the reaction of the father than it was about the action of the returning son. My reading this time around has opened my eyes to another, and to my mind, more applicable title – “The parable of two sons”.

This much loved parable is so popular that the story has passed into popular culture and the expression, “prodigal son” is almost as well known as a “Good Samaritan”. Popular usage and interpretation often makes us blind to the role of the older son, who gets mentioned as an example of poor sportsmanship or else is ignored altogether. A close examination, or even a re-reading of the parable without the blinkers of past experience and pre-conceptions makes it very clear that this is the “parable of two sons”. The clue, as we might expect is the first sentence: “There was a man who had two sons.” There is no need for Jesus to mention the older brother unless he is essential to the story. As we will discover, the older brother is not simply an addition at the end to be taken or left, he is an integral part of the point that Jesus is making.

A fundamental aspect of first century culture is that of honour and shame. A person’s (read man’s) position in society was entirely dependent on what others thought of him and there was a strict code that governed the interaction of equals and that between those who were not of equal status. Honour was ascribed (a matter of birth) or acquired (bestowed by virtue of some act such as service to the Emperor that a person performed.) Whether ascribed or acquired, honour had to be carefully guarded if a person was to maintain their position in the court of public opinion.

The beheading of John the Baptist fits into this picture of honour and shame. Having made a promise in front of his guests, Herod would have been publically shamed if he hadn’t given his stepdaughter what she requested. Being deposed from the best place at a dinner party (Luke 14:7) would be equally embarrassing for a person who had taken the higher place. When Jesus argued with and confronted the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus was in effect, challenging their honour. When he bested them in debate they were publically humiliated – unable to maintain their position of authority in the eyes of the crowds. In order to restore their honour, they had to find ways to expose and humiliate Jesus.

Associated with the culture of honour and shame is that of the collective personality. In our individualistic world, it is difficult for us to understand that a person in the first century did not see themselves apart from their family and the community in which they lived. The action of one member of the family impacted positively or negatively on the family as a whole, which was why it was so important for the head of a household to have firm control over his family and their public and private behaviour[1].

All of which brings us back to the two sons. By asking for his inheritance, the younger son brings the family into disrepute by, in effect, wishing that his father were dead. Then, having taken his share of the inheritance, he brings further shame on the family by squandering the money, and by working not only for a Gentile, but as a swineherd. Despite all this and against all cultural norms and expectations, the father longs for his son’s return, watching and waiting for him to come home. When he sees the son, he casts all dignity to the wind as he does the unthinkable and runs to embrace him. Jesus’ listeners would have been astounded, that the father could endure so much shame and then further humiliate himself by doing the unimaginable – running down the road in full view of everyone.

During the absence of the younger son, the respectable, rule-abiding son has remained at home, doing what was expected and creating no waves. It seems however that his motivation has been, to some extent, self-seeking. He is not doing the right thing out of love and respect for his father, but because he expects to be noticed and to have his efforts rewarded. He has failed to see and understand that he already has his father’s love and attention. Instead he has got it into his head that he has to work for it. As long as our focus is on the younger son, we fail to see that the older son dishonours his father as much as his brother has. We fail to see that the father endures a similar amount of public shame in his attempt to convince the elder son of his love. The older son’s refusal to go into the house and join the party shows a lack of respect for his father and exposes the father to disgrace in front of the servants and neighbours.

We are not told whether the older son, like the younger comes to his senses. The story is left up in the air for the listener to answer. To understand this we have to go back to the beginning of the chapter and the statement that introduces Jesus’ three parables of the lost – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons. Luke tells us that: the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The parable is left up in the air to allow Jesus’ listeners to form their own opinion, to allow them to consider whether or not, they will allow themselves to be gathered into God’s love alongside the tax collectors and sinners.

The gospels demonstrate what to many is an unpalatable truth – that God loves everyone unconditionally and that salvation is dependent more on what God does for us than on what we do for God. The failure of the older son, is that he is unable to accept and to value the love that his father offers. As a consequence locks himself out of the benefits that are his for the asking. He cannot rejoice in his brother’s return, because he has not allowed himself to be loved.

God loves us. It remains for us to accept that we are loved. When we know that we are loved, we cannot help but allow others to share in that love.

(See last weeks sermon to see how much God agonises over our refusal to be loved.)

[1] We see a form of this in the honour killings that so horrify us in the Western world. A father or brother feels that the only way to restore the family honour is to kill the daughter who by falling in love with the wrong person has brought shame on the family as a whole.


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