Prodigal Sons and Loving Fathers


The text for this sermon is Luke 15:11-24.  Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon on March 14, 2010, the Fourth Sunday of Lent.


Dear Friends in Christ,


It may be that you have heard the Parable of the Prodigal Son so often that you think there is nothing new in it for you.  Oh I hope that isn’t true!  I sincerely hope that God will use me today to bring some new and useful Biblical insights into this familiar story for all of us.


Here’s a cute story.  A religious education teacher was reading the story of the prodigal son to her class.  She asked a question: “who was really sad that the prodigal son had come home?’  After a few minutes of silence, one little boy raised his hand and confidently stated, “the fatted calf.”


I wish the fatted calf was the only one who had a problem with the return of the prodigal son.  We know, for sure, that his older brother harbored real resentment


There was an artist by the name of Sir Noel Patton, who did something interesting in his paintings.  His paintings are exquisite and beautiful and often are scenes of birds and flowers and sometimes children at play.  But in each of his paintings he would always put on the very corner some grotesque object, such as a serpent or an eel.  I think this is what Jesus the master painter has done with this parable, really a family portrait.  We see this loving scene of the father and the prodigal son in one another’s embrace.  But in the very corner of the painting we see the grotesque face of the elder son as he is watching what is happening.  Jesus is really trying to tell us that there are 2 prodigals in this story.  There is the sin of the younger son.  His sin is plain for all to see.  But there is the sin of the elder brother.  His is the sin of resentment.


You know the story: A man had two sons.  The younger asked for his share of the inheritance and goes away.  The older brother stays home and takes care of the family business.  The younger brother loses his money and has to take a job feeding pigs in order to get something to eat.  He determines to return to his father and get a job there as a hired hand.  When he returns his father greets him lavishly and throws a party.  The older son is hurt and angry and tells the father so.  The father does his best to love both his sons equally.


How you hear this story depends a lot on where you are in your life and in your faith.  Do you identify more with the prodigal son, or the elder son, or the father?  Could you find a little of each of them in your life?


The inheritance rights and laws of first century Israel are important to understanding how this story was received by Jesus’ audience.  Normally a transfer of property took place after a person died, and in this case 2/3 went to the elder son and 1/3 went to the younger son.  To request your inheritance early was an insult.  It appears that the father granted it anyway, and was prepared to never see his son again.  The elder son worked the farm and knew that it would be his someday.


How did the prodigal son lose his money?  Why did he have to get a job feeding pigs?  I hope that you will go to the actual words of Jesus to get these answers.  I think there are differences between what we popularly believe the story says and what the words actually say.  How the prodigal lose his money?  We are not told!  The older brother in his anger is the one who says to the father, “He squandered your property with prostitutes.”  How could he know since there has been no communication all these years?  Sometimes people say things in anger that may or may not be true simply to justify themselves.


Fred Craddock was a most-respected preacher.  He writes about a man who approached him after one of his sermons on the prodigal son.  “I just don’t like this story.  It just isn’t right.”  Craddock asked him what he would like to change about Jesus’ story.  “I would have had the father arrest the son when he came home.”  Craddock concluded his telling of this conversation this way.  “We are not told the conclusion of the story.  We are not told how the older son reacted to his father’s plea for forgiveness and welcome to his younger brother.  What do you think the conclusion should say?”  Without hesitation, the man answered, “Six to ten years!”  By the way, did I mention that the man was an attorney?


Mark Allen Powell gave us some good insights on this parable when we heard his lectures on DVD in our adult forum.  He told us that it really does make a difference where you personally are in life and in this world as to how you perceive the characters in this story.  Dr. Powell told this story in three different settings, in a seminary class in the United States, in a seminary class in Africa, and in a seminary class in Russia.  At the conclusion of the story, he asked, “Why did the prodigal lose his money and have to feed pigs?”



In the United States, most responded that he wasted his father’s inheritance and did not live a responsible life.  For many in the U.S., inheritances and investing and living responsibly are very important values.  When he told this story in an African nation, most could not relate to the idea of an inheritance.  There just is not enough to leave, and especially not enough to share with multiple sons.  They zeroed in on the lack of help he received.  The 16th verse states: “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.”  In this African nation, a core value is to help people in need, it is a community obligation.


In St. Petersburg, Russia, they zeroed in on something in this story that most of us in the United States simply miss.  Verse 14 says “there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.”  It seemed obvious to them that a famine is what the problem was.  Dr. Powel reminds us that during World War II, St. Petersburg, or Leningrad, as it was known then, was besieged by the Germans for 7 years, and people starved to death, over 700,000 died.   To zero in on famine and starvation is very understandable for folks in that part of the world.


What about the father in this story?  We don’t get much insight into his character until the son returns.  We’re told in a rush of verbs what his response is: seeing, running, embracing, kissing.  He does not wait for an explanation for a confession or a list of promises.  He is not concerned with his own damaged honor.  He calls for a party in order to celebrate the return of his lost son.  When the older son gets angry and refuses to join the party for “this son of yours that wasted your money,” the father does his best to show love and understanding.  He says to his older son, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”


Jesus told the story, a parable.  I would like to think that Jesus is giving us some insight into his own character and heart.  Jesus loves us all equally.  He loves the prodigals and those who remain home.  He is always waiting for those of us who have strayed to come back home.  Every Sunday he throws a party.  He is here with outstretched arms.  He gives himself to us without reservation in the sacrament of his body and blood.  His love is unconditional, his love is eternal.