4th Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32;
Josh 5:9-12; 2 Cor. 5:16-21
The Moral of the Story: Life Is a Party . . . to Be Shared
‘We interrupt this regularly scheduled Lenten solemnity for . . . a party!’ A party? Yes, a party. In a very real way, that’s what this Parable of the Prodigal Son is all about. A party.
On Wednesday nights during Lent, we’ve been taking the more serious approach to this wonderful story. We’ve been putting ourselves in the place of each character in the story, delving into its rich meaning. Now, you may be thinking at this point, ‘Well, Pastor Paul has to stretch this thing out for the whole five weeks of Lent, and he’s finally run out of things to say about it. Party? Com’on.’ But I assure you, it’s nothing like that. It’s Sunday, our Christian party day, the day we have set apart to celebrate our Lord’s rising from the dead, and I think it appropriate to celebrate and lift up what could very well be the main theme of this incredible story.
Check it out for a minute. How does it come about in the first place that Jesus tells this story? What prompted him to launch into it? We read again the first two verses of chapter 15: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” In other words, they were grumbling, “This guy parties with the wrong people!” And so what do we find throughout this whole chapter? Jesus tells three parables, and each one ends with a party. First comes the parable of the lost sheep. We all know that one. We love the picture of the shepherd coming home with that lost sheep on his shoulders. But how does the story end? This way: “And when [the shepherd] comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'” A party!
Next comes the parable of the lost coin. Do you remember that one? A woman loses one of her ten silver coins, and she sweeps her entire house with a fine toothed comb until she finds it at last. And how does the story end? This way: “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.'” Yes, a party! From the sounds of it, she might have had to spend a couple of those silver coins in order to have a party for the one that was lost and found. What sense does that make? It makes sense if the point is the party in the first place.
And what about our wonderful parable of the prodigal son? How does it end? Yes, with a party. The overjoyed father interrupts his sons speech about being nothing more than a hired hand, and immediately calls for a party. He’ll have nothing to do with this hired hand business and instead calls for some new party clothes and has the fatted calf killed. In those days, you didn’t have refrigeration; you didn’t have a way to keep meat fresh when you slaughtered it. So you didn’t kill something unless you had enough people to eat it up and not waste it. Killing the fatted calf meant you were inviting the whole town. It meant the biggest of celebrations, a grand party. (A point not lost on the older son who grumbles that his father never killed even a skinny little goat for him.)
But that’s not quite the end of the story, of course. There is the older son still out in the fields, playing hard to get. The rest of the town already’s inside, singing and dancing and having a great time. But he plays dumb and asks one of the servants what’s going on. This parable ends with in the same way that this chapter began, with someone complaining about who’s partying with whom. It began with “the Pharisees and the scribes … grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” And it ends with the older son, saying, “‘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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'”
Oops, not quite the end. There is the father’s response: “‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.'”
So what is the moral of this story? I think we wouldn’t be too far off track if we began by saying that the moral of this story is: Life is a party. We’ve already seen the prominence of parties in this chapter of Luke. We now need to do a quick word study to see the prominence of life in this chapter. Take a look again at your Bibles; it’s page 78 in the New Testament. Look at verses 12 and 13. Do you see the word property there? It appears three times in those two verses. It also appears again in verse 30, where the older son tells his father how the prodigal son devoured his property. Well, it’s helpful to know that the actual Greek words for property behind these four words are not the typical Greek words for property [which would be, for example, oikia, Mt. 12:29; hyparchonta, Mt. 25:14; or ktema, Acts 5:1]. No, the first word translated as property in verse 12 is ousia, which was already a philosophical word used to talk about one’s very substance or Being. The only place in the new testament that this philosophical word is used is right here in verses 12 and 13. The son basically says to his father: “Give me the piece of your Being that will belong to me.”
Then, guess what? The second instance of property in verse 12 is the Greek word bios, “life.” It should read: “So the father divided his life between them.” And in verse 30, the older son tells his father, ‘But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your life with prostitutes, you through a party for him!’ Yes, the subject of life is prominent in this parable, too, and I want to suggest to you that its point begins with nothing less than, ‘Life is a party.’
Now, obviously, that’s not the whole point of the story, because the younger son proves himself to be a good partier. But it’s the wrong kind of partying, one in which he squanders his Being on reckless living. He’s not partying in the right way; he’s not living the right way. He spends his whole substance in a way that gets him nowhere with other people, so that, when he finds his living spent, there is not a soul to help him out. No one gave him anything. He covets the food that the pigs eat.
But . . . but he’s apparently closer to the truth of living life as a party than his older brother. Jesus tells us that he finally came to himself and figured out that he needed to go back to the source of his life in the first place, his father. He goes back and finds his father eager to throw a party for him — so eager that he doesn’t even wait in the house for the son’s confession, like a proper stern middle eastern father, but instead runs out to greet him and cuts him off in the middle of his confession with instructions for a party. The father shows him what parties are about: to share life with others. This is the whole moral of the story: life is a party to be shared with others. The father, from beginning to end, is willing to share his life with his sons.
The older son’s lostness and deadness are tougher nuts to crack. He can’t see it, because compared to his brother he sees himself as right, as righteous. He can’t see that his self-righteousness means that he, too, cuts himself off from the source of his life. He can’t see that without his Father he is still basically dead.
Jesus comes as the perfect Son who gets it right, but it is never a self-righteousness. His ministry begins with the blessing of his heavenly Father: the dove descends on him at baptism with the words of blessing, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.” And so all throughout his ministry Jesus proclaims himself to be doing his Father’s desire, not his own. Down to the last moment before his arrest and passion, he prays, “Not my will be done, but thy will be done.” And he takes the blessing of his life, lets himself be broken on the cross, and gives himself away to us, all in the faith that his Father is a never-ending source of life.
And that is the amazing part of this parable. It begins with Father dividing his life between his two sons. In essence, they treat him as dead. When else does someone get their inheritance than when the person dies? Yes, the parable begins with the seeming death of the father. He divides his life between the sons. Yet when the younger son returns home, he finds a continuing and abundant source of life. He finds an extravagant celebration of life.
This is the decision of faith that you and I face each day as children of baptism in Jesus Christ. We can live life as a trust in God’s never-ending source of life, faith in “eternal life.” Yes, there is still much brokenness in this world for the sons and daughters who follow the path of the younger prodigal son or the older self-righteous son. Some days we are even those sons and daughters who leave the home of our heavenly father and find ourselves broken and dead. So the Son also came that we might know that the door is always open. We are forever welcomed home in the house of his heavenly father. We can choose each day to live as Jesus did in faith of a God who is a source of never-ending life. We can live without fear of the brokenness in our lives and in the lives of those around us, giving ourselves to others in love. We can live our lives as a celebration of life to be shared with all of God’s children. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Zion Lutheran,
Racine, WI, March 25, 2001