Prodigal Son

March 18, 2007

Luke 15:11-32


The following message was heard over a police radio not long ago in Lynnwood, Washington: “White male, running, no pants, in handcuffs.” The suspect, a youth named Jason, had been arrested after allegedly trying to access a bank account that was not his. He had been handcuffed, but he twisted free and made a break for it. Unfortunately for Jason, he favored low-slung, baggy britches and that became a problem for him.

You have seen these kids at the mall and in other public places dressed in such trousers. They are usually regular pants, though often they seem several sizes too large for the wearer.

Instead of pulling them all the way up, the youngsters wear them four to six inches below their waistline, often without benefit of a belt. Typically, they have on a pair of colorful boxer shorts underneath the sagging pants, and, gratefully, these are worn at the standard height.

Thus, those of us who see these youngsters are treated to what seems like a billboard-sized view of their posterior swathed in plaid or paisley underwear. Mercifully, some of these young people have now added long, loose-fitting shirts to their ensembles, which cover some of the undershorts, but we can still tell that they are wearing their pants at half-mast because the crotch of the trousers is between their knees, and the cuffs are piled in several layers on their shoes.

Now personally I am not outraged or astonished by this particular fashion statement. When I was a teenager, I wore a black motorcycle jacket, and slicked my hair back with greasy hair jel, and carried a switchblade knife. I thought that made me look tough, and it horrified most adults, which was what I wanted. There is an old saying that should be given to every parent: The quickest way to get your teenager to stop wearing something is to approve of it.

But back to the baggy pants. There is one question that has occurred to all of us with regard to this particular teenage attire: How do they keep their pants from falling down? Well, as it turns out, they don’t.

That’s what led to the downfall—no pun intended--of Jason. After he wriggled out of the police officer’s grasp, he headed west at a run, but at the same time, his pants headed south. His pants ended up around his ankles, sending Jason tumbling onto the payment. He then wiggled out of his trousers, got up, and ran toward a nearby mall. There, a 61-year-old grandmother grabbed him by his shirt collar and hung on until the police caught up.

Police all over the country say that it is getting easier to catch young, male suspects when in foot pursuit because in many cases, the suspects’ pants fall down.

Consider the case of Noah Donell Brown of Hendersonville, North Carolina, right next to our denominational campground, Bonclarken. Noah Brown tried to leap over the counter of a sandwich shop while attempting to rob the place, but thanks to his bebop-baggy pants, he stumbled and fell.

At that point, Mr. Brown gave up on the robbery idea and fled the store. Police did not have much difficulty catching up with him. He tried to climb over someone’s fence, but his loose Levi’s got hung up on the pickets. When police arrived, they found Brown dangling upside down, his dungarees around his ankles, binding him to the fence.

The Hendersonville police chief commented, “He was wearing underwear, thank goodness.” [see Ng, Serena. “Perpetrator problem: It’s hard to run away in falling trousers.” The Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2006, A1]

The fad of wearing pants big and low has been around for only a decade or so, but even the Bible has a story that fits into the same genre as the accounts of boys whose pants fell down while trying to escape. It’s one of Jesus’ parables, the parable of the prodigal son. Let me tell you the parable in my own words:

We read in Luke 15:1-2: “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him, And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”

Jesus responded to their complaints by telling them three parables: the parable of the lost sheep (15:4-7), the lost coin (15:8-10), and the prodigal son (15:11-32). The first two parables end with the explanation that heavenly joy erupts over one sinner who is found through repentance, and that is the theme of the last parable also, but the third parable is a more powerful story and consequently is more effective in calling us both to repentance and to rejoice over those who repent.

There was a man who had two sons. And the younger son said to his father, “Give me the share of property that is coming to me.”

The literature of the time suggests that normally the inheritance would have been given to the son near to or after the father’s death, but it was not completely unusual to give the inheritance early. So, the father gives both sons their inheritance (15:12).

Very soon, the younger son leaves to begin his life in a distant country. The audience might think that being the younger son, he wants to puts some distance between himself and his family, while he makes good on his own. We might have thought that but clearly that is not what happened. The KJV says, he “took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living” (13). He was prodigal in his spending and his living. He wasted his inheritance on wine, women, and song. Not only did he waste his money, he wasted his time. He is the symbol of the unredeemed person. He is totally lost, but he does not know it.

Soon, this way of living comes to its expected conclusion: He spent all his money. He loses everything, including his pants. He is not equipped to get any kind of a job; He is not trained for anything, and in the first century AD, there are no social programs, so he begins to starve. In desperation, he takes whatever job he can find, and all he can find is a job feeding pigs for a Gentile. Jews despised pigs. They would not eat them or raise them or have anything to do with them if they could help it. But, in Galilee, there was a Gentile population mixed in with the Jews, and Gentiles had no problem at all with pork chops. So, the prodigal winds up doing the most degrading job possible for a Jew—feeding Gentile pigs. But apparently his employer had not paid him anything yet, because he was still starving, and he was to the point that he was thinking about eating the pig’s food. At this low point, he came to his senses and realized that even the slaves in his father’s household were much better off than he was. He realized his condition. He knew that he was lost. So, he formulated a plan. He would go back home. He even worked out what he would say to his father. He did not expect any kind of restoration. He was prepared to settle for the position of a slave in the household.

In the two other parables in chapter 15, the lost sheep and the lost coin, the main character has gone out to find what was missing, but here, the father remains at his own residence and the thing that is lost, the son, returns. Nevertheless, the language used by Luke clearly conveys that the father had not forgotten about the son. While the son is yet a far distance away, the father sees him coming. The implication is that the father has been watching for and anticipating the return of his son. The father could have been watching out of anger, but Jesus’ description rules out this motivation. The father, moved by compassion, runs to his son, falls upon him in excitement, and kisses him.

Now this was unexpected behavior. This is a child who has totally screwed up his life. In a modern context, he has been a drunk and a druggie and he has tried every kind of sex, and here he comes staggering back home to lick his wounds. We would expect some anger from the father, we would expect judgment and chastisement and rebuke and scolding. But instead, we have only love.

The son was probably as surprised by this reception as anyone, but he was not distracted from his planned speech. He repeats it just as he had planned, saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But he is cut off before he can speak his last line, which was “Treat me like one of your slaves.”

His father cuts him off because he cannot bear to hear his son’s groveling. The father has heard him confess his sin, but when the son suggests that he is no longer worthy to be called his father’s son, the father interrupts him and charges his servants to cloth him and to prepare a feast. The father’s reason for the celebration uses language that recalls the other parables: That which was lost is now found. Or in the language of this parable, that which was being destroyed by hunger and despair in a far country, has been restored. The father says that his son who was dead is now alive again. Upon this triumphant declaration, the celebration begins.

But now another character in the parable appears. The older son has been in the field and notices something unusual as he returned home. Although he, too, was given his inheritance, he has chosen to remain with the father and to be a hard worker. He does not go in and ask the father directly why he is having a party, but he asks one of the servants. When he learns the reason and the extravagance of the party—the father has killed “the fatted calf”—the eldest son goes ballistic. He is invited to go in, but he refuses. Finally the father comes out to talk to him. Yet again, the father has left his place to attend to one of his sons. The older son reminds the father of his faithfulness, which has never been rewarded like this. The father never had a party for him. Instead, the father rewarded this son who squandered his wealth, and the eldest son is consumed with resentment.

Henri Nouwen, writing on this parable, [From Fear to Love: Lenten Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, (Fenton, Missouri: Creative Communications for the Parish, 1998), 13-14] says, “Did you ever notice how lost you are when you are resentful? It’s a very deep lostness. The younger son gets lost in a much more spectacular way — giving in to his lust and his greed, using women, playing poker, and losing his money. His wrongdoing is very clear-cut. He knows it and everybody else does, too. Because of it he can come back, and he can be forgiven. The problem with resentment is that it is not so clear-cut: It’s not spectacular . And it is not overt, and it can be covered by the appearance of a holy life. Resentment is so pernicious because it sits very deep in you, in your heart, in your bones, and in your flesh, and often you don’t even know it is there. You think you’re so good. But in fact you are lost in a very profound way.”

The father reminds the older son that he always had his reward. He says, in effect, you have always had everything. Your brother has had nothing and has been restored. To put it in other words, the older brother has always been alive and in the presence of the father. The younger brother has been dead, and has now returned to life, and that is something we should all rejoice about.

The application here is pretty obvious. The father is God. We are all the prodigal son, or the eldest son. We are all lost in one way or another. Jesus calls us to come to our senses in the depths of our lostness and return to God. If we do that, we do not have to spend a lot of time grovelling, God lifts us up and embraces us and lovingly accepts us as his children. Amen.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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