Every Family’s Story – Setting the Stage

“Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. Then Jesus told this parable . . .  .

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them” Luke 15: 1-3 and 12 -20).

The story of “the man with two sons” is the essence of the Christian gospel.  It is a simple story, really, replayed throughout history and replicated every day in urban centers, small towns, and rural areas. A father is raising two sons. The elder son is responsible, obedient, and hardworking. The younger son longs long to leave home and explore the freedom in the world “out there.” The father loves both sons, even though they both sorely try his patience.

This story is often called the story of the “prodigal” son, but as Tim Keller has famously shown us in the book The Prodigal God, it is really the story of the “Prodigal father – a man whose love is big enough to encompass the failings of both sons.

The story Jesus tells in Luke 15 is a family story set in the Middle East, with all the cultural realities of the time.  Doug Greenwold of Preserving Bible Times, points out that issues of “family shame and family honor” are up front and center in this story. No “good son” would ever do anything to shame the family and dishonor its name.  “That would be the ‘unforgivable cultural sin,” says Greenwold. So not only is this story about a family, it is a story about a family being observed by many families. It has something to say to every culture and time.

Jesus packs this story full of surprising and shameful scenes. Those who first heard it must have been horrified by the rules this story breaks

The elder son has the birthright which entitles him to two-thirds of the father’s estate after the father’s death. Because the younger son demands his share of the estate NOW, he is essentially saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.”  Why would a son say something so shameful to his father, knowing that it would reflect badly on him and his father to the closely knit village community?  Why did he want to leave home that badly?

♦ As part of his birthright responsibilities, the older son is required to intercede in disputes between his siblings and his father. He is silent. His refusal to step in to mediate the situation is scandalous in its own right.  Why does he shirk his responsibility?

♦ Why did the father give the younger son an inheritance to which he was not yet entitled? Why did he let the young man leave the family and his responsibilities?  What did he say to the elder brother to make it seem all right?  How did he explain this shameful situation to his neighbors?

This Biblical parable could be the plot of a 2017 TV movie:  a selfish son is tempted by  a lifestyle repudiated by his family; an angry brother seethes about the unfairness of his father’s decisions; a father is torn between his two sons; a neighborhood is titillated with gossip about the family’s distress. 

The plot of the Biblical passage focuses on the scene that brings everything to a head:  the son comes home in misery. He has no where else to turn, His inheritance has been spent, he has wallowed in unspeakable sin.  His pride is destroyed, his heart is sick, his very posture reflects his guilt. 

What can he say to  redeem himself to his father?  How will his father respond?  What will the older brother think?  How will the neighbors react? What does this parable have to say about our relationship to God  Stay tuned!  This series of  five posts will continue on Wednesdays.


Check out more information on  Margaret Adams Parker’s Sculpture Reconciliation (photo above) which is located on the campus of Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

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