The following sermon was preached at St George’s Transcona’s service for Sunday March 27, 2022. You can learn more about St George’s and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here.  Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash 


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

If you’re only listening to today’s gospel passage and not reading it for yourself, it’s reasonable that you’d think that this was a single story.  But that’s not actually the case.

We began with “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.”  So he told them this parable:” (1-3)

But then instead of giving us the parable Jesus tells, the lectionary skips seven verses and not one, but two stories and launches into a third story, a story commonly referred to as the Prodigal Son.

All three of these stories, the ones we skipped and the one we read today are stories of loss.  The first one is about a lost sheep, the second a lost coin, and then today’s story could be described as a story of a lost son or perhaps of lost relationships.

Titles are supposed to be helpful. They’re supposed to give us a brief sense of what to expect. They can help us decide if we want to listen or read any further.

But titles can also be misleading. The title “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” was added to the story a long time after Jesus told it by the people who compiled and edited the writings that became our holy scriptures. The earliest reference we have to any title for this story comes from one of the church father’s, Jerome (347-420) who refers to this parable as a story about “prudent and prodigal sons.”

Amy-Jill Levine[1] explains that Jerome’s description is more accurate than simply calling this the story of the prodigal son, especially if you know what the word prodigal means. To our modern ears, ears that are probably familiar with both the story and the title, prodigal has at least a somewhat positive connotation. We may thing of a prodigal as someone who is “daring” or “ambitious.” A loveable scamp who messes up from time to time but who is generally harmless and will make good in the end.

When Jerome was writing, however, “prodigal” was a completely negative term, used to describe a selfish and wasteful person.  Someone who “lack[s] self restraint” and “[has] many vices simultaneously.”

There is nothing positive or redeeming about being a prodigal.   But to be prudent? That is a compliment, something to strive for.

But we’re not used to thinking of this story as one of prudent and prodigal sons. We’re used to thinking mostly about the prodigal son, largely because we’ve been conditioned to do so by the title.

So what if we gave it a different title altogether?

Imagine how the story might change for you if it was called the Parable of the Loving Father, or the Parable of the Loyal Older Son?  How would that change what we noticed in the story?

What if it was called “The Parable of the Absent or Silent Mother?”

Or what if we tried to find a name that would tie this story in with the other two Jesus just finished telling? I mean, surely there is a reason these three stories are grouped together in the gospel?   The first two are about something that was lost and then found.

What is lost and what is found in this parable? As we explore the parable I will be relying heavily on the work of Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine and her book “Short Stories by Jesus.”

The story begins, “There was a man who had two sons.” (11). Anyone who was familiar with the stories in the Hebrew scriptures, as many of the people listening to Jesus would have been know that they should probably pay attention and identify with the younger son because the Hebrew scriptures are filled with stories than trained them to do exactly that.

Cain and Abel. Ishmael and Isaac. Esau and Jacob.  Joseph was one of Jacob’s younger sons, and also his favourite.  David is a younger son, as is Solomon. Levine explains that, “first-century biblically literate listeners were in for a surprise, when the younger son turns out not to be the righteous Abel, faithful Isaac, clever Jacob, strategic David or wise Solomon. He turns out to be an irresponsible, self-indulgent, and probably indulged child who I would not, despite his being Jewish, be pleased to have my daughter date.” (51)

The younger son asks to receive his inheritance and the father agrees.  I have often heard this request interpreted as an unusual one, even a sinful one. I have heard it described as the equivalent of saying that this younger son wishes his father was dead but Levine and other Jewish scholars she cites disagree.

If this was an offensive or sinful request, for example, then the father should have declined to honour the request and perhaps also reprimanded his son for making such an insulting request.

But the father agrees and gives his youngest son half of all he has.

That seems fair right? Two sons, each should inherit half.  But not accordingly to Jewish law at the time.  At that time, the firstborn son should have inherited a double portion, so two-thirds of the estate.  The younger son was only entitled to a third of the estate not half.

Why is the father giving the younger son more than his fair share? It’s a mystery. The parable doesn’t explain the father’s actions.

Levine notes that, “Up to this point, no one in this family is behaving well. That first-century Jewish audience, already discomforted by their inability to identify with the overgratified son, finds itself increasingly distanced from him, even as the son increasingly distances himself for him father and his land.” (53)

Verse 13 tells us that “A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.”

I wonder what those few days were like before the younger son left home. Those few days when the older son likely learned what had happened, and likely had a lot of thoughts and feelings about it. The father would probably have had to spend at least some of this time re-structuring his finances, perhaps selling off some of his property in order to give the younger son what he had asked for.  I wonder if the younger son left as soon as he received his money in order to avoid the conflicts his request had created.

Whatever his reason for leaving, he does not make wise choices with his money and winds up with nothing, hungry, alone, and working on a pig farm where the pigs were fed better than he was. (14-17)

This detail about the pigs is interesting. It tells us that this younger son is not living in a Jewish area where pigs would be prohibited. He is not living in a place or a culture that are familiar to him. I imagine that must make him feel particularly alone.

He decides to go home, seek his father’s forgiveness and ask to be treated not as a son, but as a hired hand.  As he practices what he will say to his father he settles on “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called you son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” (18-19)

He sets out for home and his father, seeing him in the distance, is “filled with compassion” and runs out to meet his son. He embraces and kisses him.  The younger son blurts out his prepared speech but his father has a different plan:

“Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.” (23-24)

One thing to notice in this exchange is that the father is not struggling financially – even after having given the younger son half of all he had. He still has material wealth that he can use to clothe his son and throw a party.

The father also seems to be uninterested in his son’s actions or even his apologies. He cuts his son off before he can even finish his speech.  The father is simply happy to see the son he likely thought he would never see again – he describes his son as one who was “dead and is alive again” after all. (24) He is making decisions based solely on how he feels in the moment which is “moved by compassion.”

Levine wonders if at this point in the story the father and also the people who are listening to Jesus tell this story have lost count.  The father has two sons. Does anyone remember that at this point?

Well the older son probably does.  But so far in this story he has been silent. Or silenced?

Levine points out that the older brother is so forgotten in the story that no one remembers to even tell him that there’s a party going on.  The elder son has finished a day of work in the fields and hears music and dancing as he approaches the house. He asks an enslaved person what is going on and is informed that his younger brother has returned home and his father has thrown a party.

The older son does exactly what I expect I would do. We’re told he, “became angry and refused to go in.” (28).  Just imagine it, you have been the good kid all your life. You’re done as you were told, worked hard, followed the rules. You stayed and continued to care for and work for you father after your brother left home.  Work the two of you could have, should have shared, you have had to do all alone.

I would be hurt and angry as well.

Just like when the father saw his younger son in the distance and went out to meet him, the father also leaves the party to go speak to his older son.

He listens as his son vents his hurt and frustration and pleads with him to join the party. (28-31). The father says, “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 he has been found.” (32)

The father listens, reassures this son that his inheritance is secure, “all that is mine is yours,” and asks him to consider that the point at this particular moment is not what is fair. The point is that someone who was lost has been found.

I have such a hard time with this story and with this response, but that’s because the details feel so close to my own life without providing me with a conclusion that validates my own behaviour.

I am the older son, the prudent one, the loyal one. I am the one who quietly keeps everything going while other people behave like that younger son.

I have been abandoned by people who should be sharing the workload with me and so I do more than I should. My work, my overwork, often goes unnoticed and unappreciated, and no one throws me a party.

I wish that this story ended with a promise that the older son would get a party too. But it doesn’t.

It’s helpful for me to be honest and honour those feelings. It’s also helpful for me to remember that this is a story. A story that is included in a series of stories about being lost and found.   There are many stories about how important it is to be faithful and loyal. To work hard. To honour your parents.  This isn’t one of those stories.

There is a reason that we don’t all love a hymn called “Amazing Fairness.”  We love a hymn called “Amazing Grace.”[2] This is a story of grace. A story about the joy that can and should be experienced when someone we have been missing is restored to us.  A story that makes it clear that in this instance the correct and natural response is to throw a party.

And I hope the older son gets a party of his own, but I also hope he is able to set aside his own sense of being unfairly treated and join in this feast.

I hope he won’t hurt himself and his community by being so trapped in his hurt and his sense of fairness that he’ll miss the party.

I hope he’ll put those feelings aside for another day and another conversation with his father and go in and celebrate.

Because it would be a shame to miss a party.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.





[1] Short Stories by Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine.

[2] Thanks to the folks at Pulpit Fiction for this insight.