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Lent 4

Preaching Luke's Gospel
A Narrative Approach
We come now to the story in Luke in which the heart of the Christian faith is explicated in story form. Luke 15 is treated as a whole in Chapter 32. Please refer to this chapter for a discussion of the context of Luke 15 within Luke's Gospel. In Chapter 32 it is suggested that for Proper 19 it would be well to tell all three stories of the lost that are contained in Luke 15. The focus of such a sermon would be on the new understanding of repentance which these stories contain. You might determine that the repentance theme suggested there is appropriate for preaching during Lent. We reviewed the theme of repentance in Luke's Gospel in Chapter 4.

Homiletical Directions

Who was it that taught us that the sermon points that we might make on this parable are more important than the story itself? Why should we take this incredible story and turn it into lessons of our own devising? Our suggestion is that the sermon for this week be a retelling of the Prodigal Son story. The open-endedness of the story invites our hearers to participate in the parable by inviting each to provide his/her own ending to the story.

Kenneth E. Bailey has written a marvelous book in which he seeks to provide Middle Eastern insights into the understanding of this story. Bailey has worked in the Middle East most of his life. He understands its culture. He has a grasp of the languages so that he has access to "eastern" attempts at understanding this parable over the course of the church's life. His goal, he writes, is to rediscover the original cultural assumptions behind this story. Our task here is to share some of these insights in order to enhance your telling of the Prodigal Son story. The amplifications given here can simply be woven into your telling of the tale.1

There are three main characters in this story: the father, the elder son and the younger son. It is a surprise in a Middle Eastern story that the younger son speaks first. He is out of his place already! What he speaks is even more astonishing. He is basically telling his father to "drop dead." All Eastern commentators on this story acknowledge that the son's request is totally illegitimate. It is an unthinkable request. A father only gives the inheritance in death.

The father should explode with anger at such an inappropriate request. He does not explode. He grants a request that was completely unimaginable in his time. Such is the nature of the father in this story. This is a very unusual father! "He is willing to grant ultimate freedom; the freedom to reject the love offered to him (the Prodigal) by a compassionate father" (Bailey, p. 118). And the father did it. He divided his life with his sons.

The son promptly goes out and squanders his property in dissolute living. Eastern commentators do not take this to mean a necessarily immoral lifestyle on the part of the son. He is a spend-thrift to be sure. He spends money like it is going out of style. We often talk about the Prodigal as being engaged in all kinds of immoral activities. Eastern commentators do not read it that way. It is the Elder Brother who suggests that the Prodigal has spent his money on prostitutes (v. 30). The Elder Brother is not a very reliable source of information on the matter!

The younger son soon began to be in deep need. What to do? Returning home was not a likely option at this point. Such a return would bring great shame on his father, on his brother, and on his whole community. Shame was to be avoided at all costs in the culture of the time.

In his desperation the Prodigal attaches himself to a Gentile. We know he is a Gentile because he raises pigs. How desperate he was! He sought pleasure and found pain. He sought freedom and got bondage. The son must now do things with pigs that were unthinkable and deeply offensive to his family and community. Bailey suggests that what is broken here is relationships more than laws. It is the broken relationships with his family and community that have led him down the pathway to shame.

In verse 16 the Prodigal reaches the low point. He wishes he were a pig! At least the pigs had something to eat.

And then the young man "came to himself." We usually think of this as his moment of repentance. But that is not the meaning of repentance that these stories of the lost in Luke 15 convey. Repentance in these stories occurs when the lost is found. (See Chapter 32 for a discussion of repentance.) Bailey notes that Arabic translations of these words read that the Prodigal "got smart." He got smart in the sense that he now was ready to look out for himself. He had a plan. He knew that his father had many hired hands who had bread enough and to spare. He'll go back home. He knows he can't go back as a son. He won't go back as a slave. So he will go back as a hired hand. "He will not live at home, and not join the family. He will pay his own way. First he must convince his father to support the plan" (Bailey, p. 133). The Prodigal's plan, that is, is to earn his restored status. "Give me a second chance. I'll earn it back and repay you. I'm not now worthy to be called your son, but I will be if you give me a chance" (Bailey, p. 133).

It is hard to read this interpretation by Bailey and not think of Martin Luther's determination to earn his restored status with God. The Prodigal Son story would make a good Reformation Sunday story!

In Chapter 32 we set forth Bailey's suggestion that the three elements of rabbinic repentance were: 1) Confession of sin. 2) Compensation for the evil done. 3) Sincerity in keeping the law previously broken. The Prodigal's plan fits the norms of traditional repentance. The Prodigal will fulfill the law of repentance and be restored. He will, that is, if the father will be satisfied with the son's proposal to enter a master-craftsman relationship with his son. Will the father accept this plan? NO! The father has been watching the distant road as it approaches the village where the people lived. People went forth from the village each day to work in their fields. The father watches that road. He knows that if the son returns the village will treat him with contempt. He is determined to reach the boy first. "He alone can protect the boy from the hostility of the town" (Bailey, p. 143).

When the father sees the boy coming he has compassion and runs to meet him. He runs! No Middle Eastern gentleman would ever run in public. This is the only story of its kind in the Gospels where a man runs in public. In order to run, a man had to gather up his robe and expose his legs. This was a great shame in this culture. The father, therefore, exposes himself to shame. He dismisses the fact that this will dishonor his family. And he runs! Bailey notes that Arabic translations of this story refuse to translate this running! They avoid this because it is clear that the father here is acting as God acts towards prodigals. Running in public is too humiliating to attribute to a person who symbolizes God. "... in a humiliating public demonstration [the father] takes upon himself the form of a servant and runs down the village street to the boy ... he wants to reach the boy before the boy reaches the village" (Bailey, p. 146).

Bailey calls this a costly demonstration of unexpected love. He thinks of the father here as a suffering servant. He endures humility. His love is made visible in public. "I am convinced that at this point Jesus is talking about himself and about the meaning of his suffering" (Bailey, p. 148).

We have the image here of the Running God. God running in public. How humiliating! This image goes on in its development The father kisses his son. In public! A mother might do this. A father „ never! Jesus portrays God here as a mother in the manner of Isaiah 66:10-14.

The God symbolized in this story is clearly a God of powerless love.

... this almighty father has no power at all. He has decided once and for all in favor of love and knows that if he acted in this fashion, he would have lost his sons forever ... Within five minutes, in Jesus' parable, the father is standing outside in the dark, where he could catch pneumonia, facing his elder son with no means but words to express what is in his burning heart. In Jesus' narrative the kingdom of God becomes real. But a few weeks or months later he will hang on the cross, equally powerless, mocked by all....2

The son accepts what the father offers. He omits his plan from his well rehearsed speech. In verse 18 the son is talking about being treated as a hired hand. That's the speech he practiced. The speech he delivered (v. 21) omits this plan altogether. He won't have to earn his way back to a restored status of sonship. The father simply gives him back his sonship as an act of grace. The son accepts. He repents: he accepts being found!

A change of clothes is called for by the father. The son had come home in rags. The father wants no one to see him dressed so poorly. Rather, the Prodigal gets the best robe, the father's robe! The son is thus honored. He receives a ring as a symbol that he is trusted. He puts on sandals and with them his self-respect. A mighty reversal has taken place. "God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly ..." (Luke 1:52).

The father proceeds to throw a banquet as an act of formal reconciliation that involves the whole village. They kill the fatted calf for the occasion. Since fatted calves are killed only for those with greatest respect, Bailey concludes that the banquet is in honor of the father and the reconciliation that has been achieved. Just as the shepherd's party was not in honor of the sheep nor the woman's party in honor of the coin, so this party is in honor of the One who finds!

Finally, there is the matter of the Elder Brother. This series of stories began in reply to the words of the Pharisees and scribes: "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them" (15:2). The Elder Brother now speaks on their behalf. See especially verses 29-30. The Elder Brother now brings shame on his father by refusing to attend the banquet of reconciliation. It is probably the public nature of this reconciliation that affronts the Elder Brother. He prefers the righteousness of the Law. "I have never disobeyed your command" (v. 29). He sounds just like the Pharisee praying in the temple (Luke 18:11-12).

Bailey lists many similarities between Prodigal Son and Elder Brother. The key realities are that both sons insult their father and break the relationship. Each seeks to manipulate his father. Each finds a primary community apart from home. The Prodigal looks for community in the far country, the Elder Brother with his "friends" (v. 29). Yet for each son the father makes a public and costly demonstration of unexpected love. In the father's eyes both sons are equally welcome at the banquet. The one who broke the law and the one who kept the law are welcome only by the grace of the father.

Bailey points out structural similarities between the story of the Prodigal and the story of the Brother. The most important structural similarity is that the father's speech to each brother concludes with the same words: "This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!" (v. 24). "This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found" (v. 32). There is one momentous difference, however. After the father's words in verse 24 we hear, "They began to celebrate." We know how this story ends. In verse 32, however, the story just stops. But it does not stop! Everyone awaits the response of the Elder Brother.

In other words, the story of the Prodigal Son is open-ended. The audience must finish the story! How do we respond to the father's invitation? The scribes and Pharisees end this story by killing Jesus. What shall we do with Jesus? The sermon can end just there. Challenge those who hear the story to finish it them-selves!

God says to each and every one of us through this story: "You were dead and now you are alive. You were lost and now you are found. You were alienated, now you are invited to the reconciliation banquet. This God of powerless love awaits the honor of your reply."


1.aKenneth E. Bailey, Finding The Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1992). Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the story of the Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother.

2.aEduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Luke (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), p. 250.

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