The Lost Son

Luke 15:11-32
David A. Davis
March 3, 2024
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A new art exhibit is featured this Sunday in the conference room. The artist is Nassau’s own Ned Walthall. Ned’s medium is photography. His exhibit features portrait after portrait after portrait of people. Faces. Ned is leading adult education this morning as part of our Lenten series “Who is my Neighbor”. One doesn’t have to spend much time standing before his artwork to understand the relevance of the question to Ned’s art, the inspiration of his art, and the beauty of his art. Ned’s work on display started me thinking about the many images of the parable of the Lost Son that we all must have somewhere deep within. Portraits, snapshots, scene depictions all far beyond words. The oh so familiar parable that has a kind of universality to it. So readily imaginable, understandable, and relatable. For some of us, as the parable is read, it is not just pictures from the parable itself that scroll. It’s images from life, from our lives, from our memories, from our relationships, from our family. That is part of the unique power of the parable of the Lost Son. The parable of the Samaritan traveler and the man in the ditch left for dead is just as familiar to us but it doesn’t have the resonance with our lives. The parable of the workers in the field who all get paid the same at the end of the day has a similar upending conclusion but is rather far removed from our day to day experience. It’s remarkable how real life rushes in as soon as someone begins to read the words “There was a man who had two sons…”.

Luke 15:11-32

That opening scene, when the young, overly ambitious, and predictably irresponsibly younger son thinks he is more grown up than he really is. He announces a far from unique desire to take a gap year and see the world. He stands before his father, before his family, before God and everyone and declares it is time for him to receive his fair share. Not all that far-fetched, really.

Swipe to the final scene. A father and an oldest son standing outside away from the crowd and music and the celebration. Standing over in the shadows. Even if an observer couldn’t hear what they were saying, they would know it was tense. It was a really hard conversation. A father pleading not just with words but with his whole self. His son standing up so straight, so tense that his arms are folded on his chest like they are tied in a knot. Every now and then the son can be seen shaking his head in the negative. Anyone could guess right then what he was saying. Everyone has heard it so many times. Everyone has said it so many times. “It’s just not fair!” It’s not right!” The father’s shoulders slump more and more. Its not hard to know what happens next. To know it before the parable ends. The father turns to go back into the party and the oldest son stands at attention with a back to the door saluting his own not wrong understanding of how things are supposed to be as his own robe of unconditional love and unmerited grace and undeserved forgiveness lies in a rolled-up heap at his feet. The image is an unsettling and lasting reminder of the insidious realty of human nature that resents absolutely anyone else getting something they don’t deserve. Anyone else but me. Yes…not all that hard to imagine, really.

In between the opening and closing scene there is the one with the pigs. It is an image that just shouts “he squandered his property in dissolute living” in all caps. How he lost everything. How he spent it all. How he tossed it all away on a binge of loose living. The kid went from helping to run the family business to thinking he was king of the world to working as something less than a servant for a guy who owned a pig farm. A Jewish kid up to his eyeballs in pig slop. If it is not the epitome of hitting rock bottom it is a definition of whatever is opposite of being ritually clean and whole and healthy. The harder part to imagine is the look on his face when as the bible says “he came to himself”. He found himself. He found his senses. He named his desperation.

What might be the easiest image to conjure up, the easier countenance and reaction to fathom is the one displayed by the elder son after a long days work on the farm. It is the parables timeless slice of life. He was still a ways form the house when he heard the music and the dancing; when he heard what he thought was a raucous. It was really just joy. The closer he got he could smell the calf being roasted. He heard the music. He saw all the cars lining the street. Someone was having a party at his own house and he wasn’t invited. Maybe just for a minute, right before asked someone, maybe he thought it was a surprise party for him! But that’s not what he found out. “It’s your brother! Your long lost scoundrel of a brother!” Of course it was. That’s how it always is. That’s how it always is when you’re the oldest child.

Few things are more hurtful (no matter how young or old you are) than finding out your friends are having a party and you weren’t invited. Few things more hurtful except finding out your family is having a party and you are not invited. It wasn’t that the party just started without him. He wasn’t invited. No one told him. His father never sent someone to get him. So he gets angry and refuses to go in. Like the first grader who won’t go out to recess to play kickball because it is someone else’s turn to pitch. Like the middle schooler who won’t go to the dance because the classmate said “yes” to someone else. Like the student in college who freaks out because they always used to be the smartest person in class and they now in bio chemistry they are not. Like the co-worker who stops talking to you and you don’t even know why, or the sibling who won’t call, or the uncle who won’t come to picnic, or the niece who is mad, or the cousin who is holding a grudge or the oldest child who stands outside angry and refuses to go in because the party is for “that son of yours!”.  Imagine. Just imagine. Oh, we can all imagine.

But of all the photographs of Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Son, the one not to forget, the one never to forget is the photo of the tear-filled embrace. That might be a better title for the tradition to name. It’s certainly better than “Prodigal Son” whatever that means. In the structure of the parable, this image falls right in the middle, right at the center. The tear-filled embrace both in place and meaning is the very core of the parable. The younger child was “still far off” when their parent saw them.. They were still worlds apart. Maybe it wasn’t as far as the east is from the west to use the expression of the psalmist, but this embrace, this kiss, it happened long before the child came home. They were “still far off”, still in their own slopped up world when their parent saw them, when their parent had compassion , when their parent started to run. Some translations say sympathy or pity. That doesn’t feel right to me. Compassion. Love. Mercy. One paraphrase describes it as the parent sees the lost son from way far away and their heart starts pounding.

The parent started to run, run toward the lost child. They ran away from their own home, their own family, their own turf, their own rules, their own boundaries, their own border, their own everything. The still far off lost child’s parent ran toward them; toward the land of the child’s wandering, the land of the child’s squandering. The parent ran toward the lost child’s own self destruction, toward the young child’s own uncleanliness. The parent crossed every boundary one could imagine because the youngest lost child was still far off.

Before that child could say a word, before they could spit out the lines now over rehearsed, before the child could apologize, confess, repent, or say I’m sorry or I was wrong or I love you, or I want to come home, or just I am hungry…. before they could say anything, the parent flings their arms around their child and kissed them. You know the parent cried. You know there had to be tears. You know there was weeping. “This child of mine who was lost, who was dead, is now alive!”   Right then, right there, along the way somewhere, still far off, all the way out there, the party started. Before the fatted calf, before the fancy robe, before a ring on the finger, the party started with that tear-filled embrace. The party started with compassion, with love, with extravagant grace. The party started right then.

The robe must have been a party robe. The best party robe for the best party. A party for the lost child now found. A party not just for the younger child but for the extravagance of compassion, mercy, and love shown. Like the party the shepherd threw when he found that one sheep. Like the party the woman had when she found that coin. Like the party already started. The celebration that started long before us and yet it is a party for us. The party celebrating God’s extravagant grace. The party God throws for us. A celebration for each of God’s children; even more of a celebration of God’s love revealed. A celebration of an encounter with God’s compassion, God’s love, God’s grace. God’s extravagant grace. God’s extravagant compassion, love, and grace made known in Jesus Christ. God’s own tear-filled embrace of us. For us. A party that never stops. It’s like a party in your heart. A celebration of the experience, the taste, the wonder of Christ’s embrace of you and me despite our own slopped up world, an embrace that comes no matter how far off we may be.

As for that crumpled up robe of robe of unconditional love and unmerited grace and undeserved forgiveness that lies at everyone’s feet including ours; that resentment of absolutely anyone else getting something they don’t deserve. A resentment so pervasive in the world, in everybody include you and me.  Maybe the only way to lose the resentment, to get better when it comes to someone else’s unexpected, maybe even undeserved receipt of something positive, something good, something that helps, something makes a difference for good in their life, someone receiving a bit of compassion or love or mercy, maybe the best way to go with less resentment and better neighboring when it comes to family, friends, and strangers is to remember to pick up that best party robe and put it on again and again and again.