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Tell Us a Story: Thanksgiving Homecoming

November 19, 2006

Luke 15:11-32

I heard a story about a husband and wife who lived in Phoenix, Arizona. They had been married for forty-five years. The husband called their only son in New York City and said, “Your mother and I have had it. We cannot stand each other anymore, and we are not going to continue putting up with each other. We have decided to get a divorce, and I don’t want to talk about it. You just call your sister in Chicago and tell her about it.” With that, the father hung up the telephone. The son, of course, immediately called his sister. Within ten minutes, the daughter had called Phoenix, asking her father, “What is this I hear about you and Mom getting a divorce? You have been married forty-five years!” The father explained, “Yes, but we have had enough of this. We are tired of each other, and we both want a divorce.” The daughter answered, “Don’t you two do anything until I get there! My brother and I will get there as soon as we can.” After hanging up the phone, the man turned to his wife and said, “Honey, the children are both coming home for Thanksgiving. And they are going to pay for the trip.”

Thanksgiving is a time we associate with homecoming, a time when we think about people returning to be with family. A homecoming prompts our thanksgiving.

The parable before us, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is really about a thanksgiving homecoming. We all know the story well. Some of you have heard me preach several sermons about it. When we think about the parable, we identify it by the younger son, but we really need to consider four characters in the story.

Let us begin with the younger son, who clearly has a clear streak of rebellion. He is tired of living under the influence of his father and wants to cut ties with his family and run. He makes an unusual request, actually a demand: “Give me my share of the inheritance.” In those days, of course, the older son would have gotten about two-thirds of the estate. The younger would have gotten the other third. Neither son would have been entitled to anything until the father died. This youngest son’s insistence actually says to his father, “Drop dead.” It is an insult to a man who has worked hard to provide for his family. We do not know the father’s net worth; but apparently, he has accumulated a good inheritance. Now this son, in an affront to the father, demands his portion. Scripture says that a few days go by before the father responds to his son’s demands. Can you imagine the tension and stress among the members of that household?

Once the younger son receives his share of the inheritance, he leaves home and travels, the Bible says, to a far country. I have no idea how far away his journey takes him geographically, but I can tell you that he goes a far distance away from the values of his father. There he squanders all of the hard-earned wealth his father had given him in a short time. He wastes it in riotous living, “wild living” the NIV says. Once destitute, he knows to get a job. His father has taught him well how to work. He finds a very hard, one that requires menial labor. His job, slopping pigs for a Gentile farmer, is degrading to him, just as it would be for any self-respecting Jewish boy.

One day he finds himself so hungry that he thinks of eating the food provided for the pigs. Something happens at that point. Jesus, in telling this parable, says “He came to his senses.” Every parent and every grandparent prays, “Lord, bring my child (or grandchild) to his senses.” Once the son realizes his error in demanding his inheritance and deserting his family, he starts rehearsing a speech, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy for you to call me your son. Take me back as one of your hired servants.” He sets out for home, ready to face the consequences of his actions.

Consider the father. The Bible says that he sees and recognizes the younger son still in the distance. He probably does not recognize his face, but he does recognize his gait and posture. He runs to his son, embracing and kissing him. When the boy begins reciting the rehearsed speech, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you,” his father cuts him off right there, saying, “Bring a robe! Bring a ring! Bring sandals!” He will not even hear this talk about assuming the role of a servant. The father immediately restores him to his place in the family with these three items that were marks of sonship. Then the father adds, “Bring the fatted calf, the one we have been saving for a special occasion, the one that won the Blue Ribbon at the county fair. We will slaughter it and have a party. My son was lost, and now he is found.” The wayward son is surely grateful for his father’s loving acceptance.

We also need to consider the older son, not so accepting of his brother who has returned following much foolishness. The older sibling is the kind of person who always does everything right. He has been the good boy, the dependable one, the obedient one. If he has a streak of rebellion, he keeps it hidden. He tries to be compliant, and he is proud of his exemplary behavior. He may even sing on occasion, “Little Jack Horner sat in the corner, eating his Christmas pie. He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said, ‘What a good boy am I!’”

I know something about being an older son since I am the oldest of eight children. I know what it takes for an older child to break in a set of parents and get them ready for the other seven that follow. I know something of the burden that goes with being the oldest child. The oldest child often feels that life is not fair.

One year when we lived on Lucerne Drive, we added a room on our house. After the workers dug the basement, a hard rain filled the hole with water. One Sunday morning before church, I walked outside and stood on the rim of that hole. I eyed the two-by-twelve going down into the hole and the little island of dirt right in the middle of that water. I told my younger brothers right behind me, “You stay here while I see about that island.” My brothers lined up on the bank. As I walked down the board and stepped onto the island, I heard screams and laughter. I turned around and saw my three younger brothers, dressed in their Sunday clothes, sliding down the muddy bank into the water. Suddenly, my dad appeared at the top of the hole. He had clearly told us earlier that morning not to go near that hole. He took us all to the garage and had a “word of prayer” with us. We actually missed church that Sunday. Guess who got the licking. The oldest did because he had misled the younger ones.

The older brother in today’s parable probably wishes his brother good riddance when he leaves because of the family experiencing so much agony over the insolent behavior. When he comes in from the field and sees a party occurring, he asks, “What is this celebration all about?” A servant reveals, “Your younger brother has returned, and your father has killed the fatted calf. There is a party.” The oldest brother becomes outraged. He fusses, “It is not fair! I have done the right thing all of these years, and I have never had a party, not even a goat! I have fed and cared for that fatted calf all these months! My younger brother now benefits from this! My father must have lost his mind.” He has tried his best to maintain his father’s approval over the years. He obviously disapproves of the father’s display of favoritism to his brother, whom he considers a scoundrel. Even when the father leaves the party to soothe his child’s anger, to deal with that sibling rivalry, he remains angry. He is so disturbed that he probably never participates in the homecoming celebration.

Jesus never mentions the mother of the two sons. She may be deceased. It is not like Luke or Jesus to omit the mother in a story. Both would have been inclusive. Let us just imagine a mother is behind the scenes, watching all that is happening with the three men in her life. Can you imagine her broken heart? Can you imagine her prayer life? The younger son’s leaving, the older son’s grumbling, and the father’s dividing of the estate certainly would have troubled her heart.

Some individuals want to think of God as both father and mother. They say it is inappropriate to think of God only as Father. They would prefer that God be a divine parent without gender. The best commentary I have heard on that view came from my wife, Clare, who said, “I know for sure God is not a woman. If God were female, She would have done a better job with everything. She would have taken better care of children. She would have been more attentive, more vigilant, more protective. She would not be so lax as to let Her children get into so much trouble.”

You might wonder about the identity of the fourth person we need to consider. Is it the Gentile farmer? Is it a friend who was so eager to help this younger boy spend all of his inheritance?” When Jesus begins telling the parable, he does not say, “Let me tell you a story about a man who had a father and an older brother.” He does not say, “Let me tell you a story about a man who had a father and a younger brother.” The focus was not on either of the two sons, though we most often focus on the younger son. We even call this parable the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The tale really focuses on the father. Scripture says, “A certain man had two sons.”

The father is quite remarkable. He is certainly a good provider who has worked hard to accumulate quite a substantial inheritance for these two sons. When the younger son demands his inheritance, the father probably waits a little while, allowing some time to elapse as he weighs this decision. He is not an impulsive man who makes snap decisions. In his wisdom, he decides that relationships are more important than money. He is generous to a fault, however. He certainly must know this younger son will squander everything. Even against his better judgment, his better financial judgment, the father gives his son his portion of the inheritance.

The father’s decision is not about money. It is about helping his son learning a hard lesson in life. Though this younger son has broken his heart, he permits him to leave unhindered. If Amber Alerts had existed in those days, he would not have sounded the alarm. The son was older than that, I know. The point is that the father lets the son travel a path that was surely difficult, unwise, and expensive. He allows him to experience the consequences of his own behavior.

Then the father simply waits. How long, I do not know. I am certain he prays each day that his child is gone. When the son returns, you see just how remarkable this father really is. He does not say, “Yes, I knew it would turn out like this. I tried to tell you, but see what you have done?” He does not say, “You will have to go to your room and think about this.” He does not say, “You are going to have to work extra time.” No, as soon as he sees his son, he runs to him. He embraces him and kisses him, demonstrating unconditional love. He does not even wait for his son to say, “I am sorry, Dad.” He just loves him and restores him to his place in the family with a robe, a ring, and a pair of sandals. He rejoices at this homecoming.

The father of this parable is impartial. He loves both sons equally. He knows each son has a different need: the younger son needs to know he is loved unconditionally, and the older son needs to know how to love others unconditionally. When the older son reacts to the celebration with a tantrum, the father leaves the party to take care of the older son. You know how that works. Just about the time you think one of your children is fixed, another one breaks down and needs your attention. The father tries to calm this son by telling him that he is aware of his devotion and obedience.

If you reflect on this parable, you will find yourself somewhere in it. You may find yourself as the younger son or the older son. Mothers, you perhaps find yourself in the role of a person never mentioned in the story. If you identify with the father, if one of your children has ever hurt you, here is a model about how to deal with that heartache.

Jesus told the parable because he wants us to know that our Father in heaven loves us unconditionally. He does not say, “Let’s take a look at all the bad things you have done in the past. You must set those sins right.” He just says, “Welcome home. You are my child.” That, dear friends, is reason for thanksgiving. It is a thanksgiving homecoming. “Coming home, coming home, Lord, I’m coming home. Open wide Thine arms of love, Lord, I’m coming home.” The Lord Jesus gives that thanksgiving homecoming invitation to every one of us.

If you have never made a decision to accept Christ, we invite you to come home to be a part of God’s family. Maybe you have gone to a far away country, and you know it is time to come back. I can promise that your loving heavenly Father will welcome you warmly. God is ready to receive you. You may be looking for a church home. God wants to help you become a part of His family, perhaps His family in the place called Morningside. We extend these invitations to you as we stand together and sing a beautiful hymn, “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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