Luke 1-3a; 11b-32

For many years now I have urged people to have a will; a simple will is inexpensive and can save a family from many heartaches. If you die with no will—even if you think you are healthy and too young to die—the state has a set formula that describes how your assets will be used. If you go to a lawyer and say, “But she told me all the time who she wanted to have that money” you are wasting your breath. The state still decides. I posted the state rules on our Congregational Life Bulletin board; with one glance I hope you will run to your attorney to create a will, or we have an attorney in the church that can help you with that! Have a will! Back in the day when Jesus told his parable of the lost son, did you know that there was a system set by Jewish custom that prescribed which child got what part of the father’s estate? If the oldest son was an angel or a hooligan, he still got a double portion of his father’s estate when the father died; in the case of the Luke 15 story, the older son would have gotten 2/3 of the father’s possessions. The younger son got the other 1/3. That was how it was done, no matter if they were wonderful or horrid to their father.  And we know one other thing: in the Old Testament—particularly in the book of Genesis—there were some examples of terrible parenting. The father always seemed to love one son more—and the Bible even said so—and in some cases the mother loved a different son more! Check out the story in Genesis 25: Isaac loved Esau who was legitimately his first-born son; the twin son born right after him was Jacob.  By law, Esau received the birthright. It was irrefutable, except it could be sold or traded by that son. Everyone knew that: even his wife Rebekah. The birthright son got a double-portion of the estate, remember?  But younger brother Jacob caught his older brother in a moment of weakness and Esau agreed to see him birthright for a bowl of lentil stew!  What a foolish agreement.  And there was no buyer’s remorse rule; it was done! Jacob got 2/3s of his father’s estate by buying the birthright from his brother who was older by a minute.  Then Rebekah schemed with her son Jacob to trick her nearly blind husband into blessing Jacob instead and giving him Esau’s blessing. Such is one of the most sordid family stories in Genesis!

One more piece of background before addressing Jesus’ parable: the late Dr. Edwin Friedman was the master of what psychologists call “Family Systems.” He was in Daytona Beach in February of 1994 and I attended his lectures. He said clearly that if one child in a family develops certain traits and skills, a second child—even a twin—develops complimentary traits and skills, not identical ones. He also said if parents clearly made it apparent that one son, or one daughter was the apple of their eyes, the other children in the family would immediately sense it and react to it. One of the typical reactions would be rebellion; a tendency to do things to get into trouble; or they could latch onto peers instead of parents; or experiment with drinking and drugs.  Dr. Friedman was unequivocal in his assessment. You can ponder your own experiences with your children or grandchildren as I go on.

In the background of Jesus’ parable would have been two very safe assumptions: 1) The older son is very loved and appreciated. Even in our brief story we find the son declaring to his father: “These many years I have served you and never disobeyed you.”  He is the apple of his father’s eye. And our second assumption is: 2) That he will receive the birthright- the double-portion of his father’s estate; and it’s safe to assume he has already received his father’s blessing. So perhaps this son has not gone through many situations that drew his father’s attention away from him. Could he be spoiled? Does he act sanctimonious around his younger brother? Out in the field he’s filled with anger.  I hope this Jesus story gives food for thought about your own family of origin—to consider where you were in the birth order, and what might or might not have been expected of you. The story also may inform the way you—and your children if you have any—interact.

We don’t know the backstory of your family, any more than we know the backstory of Luke 15. All we know is what happens: 1) We know in verse 11 that this father had two sons, not three, not just one. 2) We know that in verse 12 the younger son said something considered utterly disrespectful to his father; we don’t know what provoked it, whether it was his brother, or his friends, or his attitude, but in Luke 15:12 the Younger son SAID, did not ask: “Father, give me the share of the property that falls to me.” Middle Eastern expert Kenneth Bailey said this about that confrontation: “The younger son requests his inheritance while his father is still alive and in good health! In traditional Middle Eastern culture, this means the prodigal cannot wait for his father to die….If the father is a traditional Middle Eastern parent, he will strike the boy across the face and drive him out of the house. [Jacob and the Prodigal, Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003, p.99.]  The father could have reacted with a huge ranting outburst: how many fathers today do that to outrageous requests from their children?  The father could have walked a way. The father could have said “Let me think about it; I’ll give you my answer in the morning.” But no; this father went through his financial reserves, and perhaps estimated how much that son would get as a third of his ranch and his home, and he gave it to him, in gold or shekels, as if the father were dead. It was an audacious request. I don’t know all the fathers here today, but this one in Luke 15 bends over backwards for his family. Is he a pushover or just generous, or just gracious?  Could he have thought that the son will learn a valuable life lesson about getting lots of money in a short time?  I have known a young man who had the finest computers, the finest Lexus, and the finest clothes that his mother gave him after his father died when he was a teenager. I knew him when he was in his 20s. He lived like a prince. Several years later I saw him again. He was driving a used Toyota and living in a modest apartment. “What happened to what you had?” I asked him. “I lost it all,” he admitted. “I didn’t make enough money to afford them.”  His gift from his dad had dried up. In our story, the father’s gift seems to dry up even quicker, like the way some people who have received lottery winnings. He not only ended up with no money, his dream of living the good life went up in smoke.  To rub salt in his wounds Jesus, says he was so hungry he took a job feeding swine; pigs; an animal considered unclean by Jews. This was rock bottom, right? No.  Rock bottom was when he considered eating pig food! I have known people who are so, so poor, but they refuse to give up their pets, even though they themselves need to eat. Some of them, in their desperation, actually eat the dog food or cat food they have bought for their pets. It is a foolish and sickening decision.  That’s where this young man was: desperate.

You should know that by Jewish rights, the father did not have to take a son that treated him like that back into the family.  Do you also know that the townspeople where that ranch or farm was located would back up the father when they learned of the son’s act of insolence? Most farms were part of a village of about 6 acres, and such an act would “spread all over town.” The boy seemed oblivious to what he had asked, but he left town in a hurry before townspeople could get to him. “What would they do?” you might ask. 

Dr. Bailey tells us:

In the Jerusalem Talmud and elsewhere in the writings of the sages, we are told that at the time of Jesus, the Jews had a method of punishing any Jewish boy who lost his family inheritance to Gentiles. Such a loss was considered particularly shameful….To discourage any thought of committing the heinous offense, the community developed what was called the kezazah ceremony….Fellow villagers would fill a large earthenware pot with burned nuts and burned corn and break it in front of the guilty individual.  While doing this, they would shout “So-and-so is cut off from his people!” From that point on, the village would have nothing to do with that hapless lad.  [p. 102]

Before the young man got a word out of his mouth as he is returning to his father, the father ran to his son—something no Middle Eastern man would ever do in robes. He did it to deflect attention from his ragged son coming home over the horizon. Then he kisses his son before the son has a chance to share his practiced speech about making him a hired servant. By doing that, the father indicated to the community that the two of them had reconciled, even though no such action had yet taken place. The father threw his reputation, his dignity, and his honor to the wind for his son. I know many parents who would do anything for their son or daughter. We have too. And yet, sometimes our child gets on our last nerve. Today I want you to imagine that you are the prodigal—or can you? Can you only imagine being the older son? I almost always identify with the older son: my place in the family line up. So the lesson I have always had to learn comes from the words of the father, offered to his fuming son: “Son,” he said, “you are always with me, and everything I have us yours! But it was fitting that we celebrated; for I thought your brother was dead, but he’s alive! He was lost, but now he’s found.” That’s always the message of grace and mercy I need. Who knows when I, and maybe you, need someone to welcome us home?

Let us pray:

Like a Father who welcomes a prodigal child home, remind us, O God, about the power of reconciliation and reunion, safe in your arms. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 31, 2019