March 27, 2022
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, The Message or Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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When preparing to preach on this text, it is crucial to note that Verses 1 and 2 are not just an opening aside. In a few short words they lay out an issue that all communities struggle with:
- What are our standards?
- How do we respond to those who break our standards?
It is potentially OK that tax collectors and sinners were coming to listen to Jesus, if that meant they would repent of their ways, make the appropriate acts of reconciliation, and promise to live according to the accepted standards of the community.
But those in charge of policing the community's standards grumble, because Jesus, "welcomes sinners and eats with them!"
Malina and Rohrbaugh (page 288, see footnote below) comment:
To "welcome" sinners implies showing hospitality, playing host to them at a meal. To invite a person to a meal was an honor that implied acceptance, trust, peace.
Jesus' behaviour is a significant disruption of community standards: he is welcoming those who have been cast out; and honouring those who have been shamed.
And while the community doesn't show up until the final scene of the parable, we need to be aware of their presence throughout the story because it is to them - the Pharisees and scribes - that the parable is addressed.
The following comments about the historical context - how the parable would have been heard by those present - are all from Malina and Rohrbaugh, pages 290f.
From the point of view of Jesus' listeners, Malina and Rohrbaugh would have us title this parable:
A Foolish Father And His Two Greedy Sons Endanger The Community
Verse 12. To ask for his share of the father's estate while the father is still alive is the height of scandalous greed. The son is saying, in effect, "You are as good as dead as far as I am concerned."
But the scandal is escalated by the father agreeing! And not only the father. Even the eldest son accepts his share of the estate. (Note that the text does NOT say the father gave only the youngest son his share. It says, "he divided his property between THEM (his two sons).")
The father and the eldest son both had the duty to protect the honour of their family by refusing the request of the younger son. If anything, the youngest son should have been disinherited immediately.
Those listening to Jesus would have been stunned by the scenario he has just painted. The behaviour of this family would have been beyond belief. Completely shocking. Totally unacceptable. This whole family would have been shunned for their dangerous, unpredictable behaviour. Who could ever trust such a family?
But just in case they were thinking that the sons would at least settle down and be responsible - though disgraced - members of the community, Jesus ups the ante even more.
Verse 13. A few days later the younger son takes his personal belongings and leaves home (Gasp!), goes to a distant (i.e., foreign, unclean, alien, suspect) country (Shock!), and squanders his property so that foreigners now have possession of it. (Outrageous!)
It is this last act of squandering the property so that foreigners come to own it that transforms the story from one of merely individual reckless behaviour to a story that individual reckless behaviour endangers the whole community.
This is precisely why communities set standards and enforce them.
Community survival requires trust and carefully guarded balancing of all obligations and debts. All of which would be jeopardized by the presence of a foreigner owning property.
Jesus has set such an outrageous scene that even the tax collectors and sinners would be thinking, "This guy has gone too far!" Which is precisely the place where Jesus next takes the story.
Verses 14 to 19. Things go from bad to worse for the youngest son. (Which would raise in Jesus' listeners the conflicting emotions of, "Just as he deserves!" And, "How could he possibly bring even more shame to us all by behaving like that in the public eye of foreigners?")
But the young man "comes to himself" - comes to the opinion about himself that all of Jesus' listeners would have of him. He has sinned against heaven. That is, he has broken the standards of heaven, which the community also happens to believe are also the standards of the community.
He is indeed no longer worthy to be a member of the community. At best, he can be treated like one the daily wage labourers who survive on the edge of the community.
Verse 20. Without knowing why the younger son is returning, when the father sees him in the distance, he runs to greet him so that the villages wouldn't get to him first and drive him off.
However, the action of running is undignified for an elder and would only further confirm the public shame and dishonour of this dysfunctional family.
Verses 21 to 24. The younger son makes his confession. The father calls for a robe, ring, and sandals to signify that the he has restored the son as his son.
But the real question in this story now is: How will the community and elder son respond?
The father kills the fatted calf and invites the community. But what if they don't come? That would signal their disapproval and refusal to accept the younger son back into the community. After all, the property he squandered is still in the hands of foreigners. But the community accepts the offer of reconciliation and attends the feast.
What about the eldest son? By accepting his share of the estate, he has now become responsible for supporting his father and his father's household. He would now have to provide for his younger brother as well.
The father affirms the eldest son's position with him, and gives him the grounds for joining the party. (Note that the father refers to the younger son as "this brother of yours," emphasizing THEIR relationship, not his.)
The story ends without telling us how the eldest brother responds.
And without Luke telling us how Jesus' listeners respond.
In other words, the story ends with only our responses to it. We are the end of the story.
Imagine that after church today, you will be helping at a soup kitchen for the homeless. And imagine that one of them asks you what we talked about in church today. And you tell them. And they ask, "And how did the story end?" What will say? What IS the end of this story?
Note: Historical background information is primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pages 287-291; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. See link below.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (NRSV)
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3 So he told them this parable: 11b "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' 31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (The Message)
1 By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. 2 The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, "He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends." 3 Their grumbling triggered this story.
11b "There was once a man who had two sons. 12 The younger said to his father, 'Father, I want right now what's coming to me.'
"So the father divided the property between them. 13 It wasn't long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. 14 After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. 15 He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. 16 He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.
17 "That brought him to his senses. He said, 'All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. 18 I'm going back to my father. I'll say to him, Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; 19 I don't deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.' 20 He got right up and went home to his father.
"When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 The son started his speech: 'Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; I don't deserve to be called your son ever again.'
22 "But the father wasn't listening. He was calling to the servants, 'Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We're going to feast! We're going to have a wonderful time! 24 My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!' And they began to have a wonderful time.
25 "All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day's work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. 26 Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. 27 He told him, 'Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.'
28 "The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn't listen. 29 The son said, 'Look how many years I've stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? 30 Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!'
31 "His father said, 'Son, you don't understand. You're with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—32 but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he's alive! He was lost, and he's found!'"
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.