Grace for the Dysfunctional Family
Today’s magnificent, profound parable of Jesus (Luke 15:11-32) is usually known as The Prodigal Son, but I think it might better be called The Dyfunctional Family – or, Grace for the Dysfunctional Family. Each of the three main characters, the two sons and their father, has issues. And each is offered a chance to be healed and turn things around.
The context in which Jesus told the parable is important, because it helps us understand why he told it and who he was aiming it at. Luke says that “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1,2) The undesirables, the losers, the social outcasts, the morally corrupt are hanging around with Jesus, and he with them, while the righteous, law-abiding good guys are complaining about the company he’s keeping. So Jesus tells a series of parables, one of which is this one. Its characters are clearly caricatures of the bad guys and good guys. And they also, of course, represent parts of ourselves.
So let’s look at these story characters:
1. The Prodigal Son
This is a character we can all recognize, either in ourselves or in someone we’ve known. He’s the reckless one, who is motivated by a deep desire to have a good time. He asks for his inheritance in advance of his father’s death, and then splurges on it without a care in the world, till it’s all gone. He’s that part of us that’s impulsive, foolish, self-indulgent. But it gets worse: he ends up broke, homeless and starving at a time when there’s a famine in the area, and the only work he can get is feeding pigs. He’s sunk so low he can hardly fall lower.
(Michael Van Dusen has written a reflection on this parable in light of the men with addictions that he works with: people who have sunk so low they’ve lost just about everything, including their self-respect. It’s a moving reflection, and you can find it on our website here: www.staidansinthebeach.com/blog/the-prodigal-son-mar-31-2019.)
When the son finally comes to his senses, steeped in regret, he realizes that even his father’s hired hands on the farm have better conditions than he does. So he makes up a nice speech of repentance ( - I wonder how genuine it is) and sets off to go back home with his tail between his legs.
He’s an idiot. He’s messed up his life. And Jesus is saying that this is exactly the sort of person he wants to hang out with, that he needs to hang out with, and bring good news to. God loves losers like this with a tough and tender love that offers a better way.
2. The Brother
This is the upright, up-tight, bitter, judgmental character – very much like the self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees that Jesus was constantly being criticized by for hanging out with the wrong crowd. The elder brother lives with the cold ethics of righteousness, with no openness to the joy of redemption. He’s living by the rules, grudgingly, and feels hard done by. “You never threw a party for me,” he pouts to his father. He’s bitter and envious, both scorning his brother and wishing he could get the same lavish welcome from his father.
The irony with the elder brother is that he doesn’t recognize grace when he sees it. He doesn’t realize that everything his father owned is now his, because his younger brother has squandered his share. He doesn’t realize that it’s all his, and it’s all gift.
He disowns his brother, whom he refers to as “this son of yours,” to his father. He refuses the party, refuses the celebration of joy in community. He’s that part of us that believes people should get what they deserve, and if someone’s down on their luck it probably serves them right. We are him, when we step over a pan-handler lying on the street and refuse to make human contact. We’re him, when we believe that you have to be good to be loved by God. We’re him when we close our hard hearts to someone who’s messed up and hurt us.
3. The Father
And then there’s the father. He doesn’t simply represent the loving Father God, because he’s a bit of a chump. He’s foolish to let his wild younger son have his inheritance early. And think about it: maybe it implies he thinks of himself as already dead. Maybe he’s a widower, sunk in loneliness and depression, so he doesn’t care if he gives away half his wealth. There’s no mention of his wife, the boys’ mother, so perhaps he’s alone and feels as good as dead. So he lets his younger son leave home, and he doesn’t pay much attention to his older, more responsible son. He certainly doesn’t seem to praise him or affirm him.
But when the younger son doesn’t come back, and his father starts to miss him and worry about him, it’s a sort of wake-up call. He longs to have him safely back at home. He stands with a view of the surrounding countryside looking for him. And finally he sees him making his sorry way home, so he runs to meet him, doesn’t even let him get his little prepared speech out, just wraps him in a giant hug and gets a party going for him.
Grace for All
A second chance is being offered to each of these characters. That’s the point of the story – the good news of the gospel is that God is constantly offering second chances and fresh starts, if we could only see and accept them. The wild young son is being offered a chance to turn his life around and live in a less self-destructive way. The self-righteous older son is being offered a chance to get off his high horse and be glad that his brother has come home. The father who was out of touch with his sons is being offered the chance to show them his love.
Do they take those chances? It seems the younger son and his father do: that’s the embrace, the kiss, the party. Does the older son soften and join in? We don’t know. Once again, Jesus leaves it hanging. And he turns the camera lens on us, as he turned it on the Pharisees and scribes: Can we recognize grace when it’s in front of us? Can we say sorry? Can we say Welcome Home? Can we say, Yes, you’re my brother? Can each of us say, indeed, I stand in need of grace, even if we look as if we’ve got it all put together? I pray that we can. I pray that I can. Till we all learn how endless God’s patience and compassion are. Amen.