Our New Testament lesson this morning is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible. Through much of church history, it’s been referred to as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” and it’s another one of those teachings by Jesus that people know even if they have very little exposure to Christianity as a whole: the repentant younger son who returns, the jealous older son who was always there, the gracious father who loves them both. It’s been the subject of countless works of art: the younger son kneeling at his father’s feet, who envelopes him in a hug; the older son standing off to the side, looking on in disdain and disgust. It has shaped innumerable stories since then, some consciously, and some perhaps unconsciously.
The central character of Shakespeare’s best cycle of English history plays is a rather obvious stand-in for the prodigal son. He appears first as Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 1, the heir to the king in a time of civil war. But Hal is squandering that lofty inheritance away from both court and battlefield to spend his time in seedy taverns with disreputable people, especially a great pig of a man named Falstaff. But when the rebels threaten his father, Hal returns and is welcomed back into the good graces of the king, going on to win a key battle, and as the cycle goes on, he eventually breaks fully with Falstaff when his father dies and he is crowned, rejecting him dramatically by saying, “I know thee not, old man…presume not that I am the thing I was. For God doth know – so shall the world perceive – that I have turned away my former self.” And then Hal goes on to become Henry V, arguably the greatest of Shakespeare’s kingly characters.
More recently, the main character of the first six Star Wars films, Anakin Skywalker, can be read as a take on the Prodigal Son story. Anakin is born as a slave boy on a backwater planet of the galaxy with very unusual powers. When several Jedi, the warrior monks of the Star Wars universe who can harness the mystical power of the Force, visit Anakin’s planet, they recognize that he has been bequeathed an astonishing inheritance of power from the Force. They decide he is the prophesied Chosen One who will bring balance to the eternal conflict in the Force between light and darkness, and so they take him far away to be trained.
But Anakin squanders his inheritance and falls into dissolute living by apprenticing himself to the Dark Lord, losing both his name and identity and becoming known as Darth Vader by the third film. In the fourth and fifth films, he seems beyond hope for redemption. In the sixth film, though, we see a reversal of the Prodigal Son structure when it is Vader’s son rather than his father that inspires him to come to himself, repent, and reclaim his identity as Anakin Skywalker once again. And at the very end of the sixth film, the son has a vision of Anakin again clothed as a Jedi and seated next to his own two great father-figures at a celebratory banquet; the one who was lost now is found.
Now we could spend the rest of the sermon and then some delving into these kinds of examples because there are so many of them, but you get the point, and can probably come up with plenty of other examples yourself. Here’s the thing, though: the standard interpretation of this passage misses something important: the phrase “prodigal son” appears absolutely nowhere in the passage. It started appearing as a section heading in editions of Scripture as early as the late 4th century; if you look in your pew Bible, you’ll see the same thing in italics at the top of the passage. But that phrase is not anywhere in the actual Biblical text. So why does it matter if it’s a heading? Because it invites a particular understanding of the story that isn’t actually in the text; the heading itself is an outside interpretation, not the words of Jesus.
By calling this passage the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Church has basically told people throughout the ages that the central character is the younger son, and his central character trait is prodigality, which means extravagant wastefulness. But why? Well, he’s the one that initiates the conflict, giving his father the highly unusual and highly inappropriate request to divide the family property while the father is still alive and give him his share. And then he goes far from home and spends up his inheritance in “dissolute living,” only to find himself starving in the midst of a famine with the rest of the land he’s in, finally ending up as a pigkeeper. It’s hard to imagine a much worse fate for a young Jewish man to find himself in than that, given the Jewish perspective on pigs; it’s hard to imagine him being further from home. But he finally realizes that even the day laborers that work for his father can do better than that, and so he’ll go back to his father, confess that he has sinned against him and forfeited his inheritance, and ask for a place as a hired hand.
Which is exactly what he does. Or at least tries to. But he fails, because his father sees him while he is still far from home. And seeing him, the father is overcome with emotion as he races out to meet his son. Now in that culture, men of status did not run anywhere; it was undignified, inappropriate, even shameful to do so. If we were depicting it in our culture, it would be a bit like the father seeing him out the bathroom window while showering and then running outside and down the street to meet him, clutching only a small towel around his waist with soap still lathered all over him, except worse. But before the son can even get to the part in his rehearsed speech about being treated as a hired hand, his father interrupts him and orders his servants to treat him like a great dignitary instead, with a fancy robe and jewelry and an extravagant feast.
This reaction has caused some to say that this passage should be known as the prodigal father, not the prodigal son. It’s actually the father who seems to be wasting the resources they have left on this ne’er do well son. Which is precisely the point the older son makes. He’s out in the field, working, hears the commotion, and comes in to find out what’s going on. When a servant tells him, he’s so angry he says outside the house, so the father again has to come out of his house to meet one of his sons. The older son explodes at him: “All of these years I’ve been working like a slave for you…but when this son of yours came back…you killed the fatted calf for him!”
The father responds, again with compassion and generosity: “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; was lost and has been found.” Shakespeare could not have written better or more dramatic dialogue. The father is being very compassionate, because the truth is, the elder son is not always with him. All of these years he’s been working at the house, and yet he, too, has actually been far from home. As it turns out, the elder son has been even more wasteful than the younger one, because he’s wasted his inheritance as the father’s son. The younger son might hope to work as a hired hand upon his return, but the elder brother sees himself not as a son, not even as a hired hand, but as a slave this whole time. What a waste of his life, his work, his sense of responsibility.
Both sons are truly prodigal; both sons are utterly wasteful of their inheritance, exiling themselves far from home: one out of a desire for adventure, one out of a desire for approval. And both utterly misread their father. Because no matter how prodigal they have been, no matter how much they have wasted, they are both welcomed back with extravagant, even prodigal grace from the father all the same.
I think the real reason this story is so timelessly popular is that most of us can find ourselves in each of these characters at different times in our lives. There are times we have gotten lost in far-away situations, finally coming to ourselves and trying to make our way back home, even while doubting if there is a place for us. There are times we have gotten lost right in the midst of all our responsibilities, deeply resenting the burden of our reliability while others are celebrated just for not messing up more. And there even are times we are like the father, when our hearts overflow with love for those who stubbornly stand apart from us, go away from us; those for whom we constantly peer at the horizon for signs of their familiar silhouette coming back, and those who sit right next to us in our houses but who might as well be on the other side of the world for all their closeness.
And so the good news in Jesus’ story is for all of us, regardless of where we are or have been, regardless of who we are or have been: younger or older; prodigal children or prodigal parents. The good news is that neither you nor I am capable of using up the inheritance of God’s grace that Christ has given us, of wasting it so that it is gone and no more. The good news is that regardless of where we are or have been, regardless of who we are or have been, we can always go home again. And when we do, whether we’ve been standing sullenly just outside in the yard or we are at the end of a long and bitter road back, Jesus comes out to meet us while we are still far from home, to assure us of God’s love, and to welcome us back inside to take our place at the feast.