The Expectation-Breaking Father
Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As different as everyone can be, there are simply some social conventions that almost everyone—except for the a few extreme outliers—can agree to. There are certain ways to behave and respond in social situations are simply appropriate or inappropriate. For instance, in the World War monument in Indianapolis, there’s a room at the very top of the building. Light streams in through stained-glass windows. There are relief sculptures on the walls and inscriptions remembering those who gave their lives in that war. As I was in that space, I noticed that everyone there was quiet, even if they had been talking in the other parts of the museum and monument. Any talking at all, and there was very little of that, was at a very low whisper. No one moved quickly. No one giggled or laughed. Everyone simply knew that this was the way to behave in this particular setting. The same goes for everyday life too. We know, at an subconscious level, what is expected of us in certain situations. So when someone breaks that convention it stands out to us. It makes us raise our eyebrows. There had better be a very good reason for this breach in decorum.
This is what we’re confronted with in our parable from Jesus today. This parable is perhaps best known as the parable of the prodigal son. Because of that, most of our attention is on the younger son in it—the one who demands his half of the inheritance and squanders it before returning home. But many have noticed that the one who has the most shocking break of social convention and expectation in this parable is not the prodigal son. It’s the father.
Really think about it. The father in our parable, at almost every turn, does something that we would think is unexpected, or even incorrect. When confronted with his younger son’s completely unreasonable and evil demands—wishing more for the property than to have the father with him—the father does the unthinkable and actually gives it to him. His son has just told him, through his request, that he would rather his father was dead so that he could have the stuff right now, so why shouldn’t he just go ahead and give him his share of the inheritance so that he can leave his father and everyone behind to enjoy those possessions. And then, in addition to giving his younger son his request, he divided the property. At this point it was the father’s entirely. He could have divided it any way he wanted, or not at all. He could have legitimately said that the older brother would inherit all of it, so the younger son shouldn’t expect anything. He could have at least tried to keep more of his property by willing the lion’s share to the son that was staying. But he doesn’t. He divides the inheritance and lives on significantly less than he would have had.
At this point most of us would consider the bridge burned. Someone tells you that they’d rather have your stuff than have you around. Then when you give them what they want, they run off somewhere far away and never write, never call, never send word about how they’re doing. Most people would simply write this off as a loss. But not the father in the parable. Notice that when the son burns through his inheritance and returns home, the father sees him a long way off and goes out to meet him. That means that the father was waiting and watching for this disrespectful, reckless, and hurtful son to return. And again, when he sees the son, the father runs to him.
Now this is where we need a little social context to understand how shocking this running part actually is. Men of this status did not run. We’re used to pants with separate legs that make running possible, even if we choose not to. But at this time, men would have worn long tunics. That means to run, they would have to hitch up their tunics to give their legs the room to stretch out for running. The father would have been baring his legs from the thighs down. It would have looked ridiculous—the way it would look if I bundled up my robes here in order to run, holding them bunched up at my hips in my hands. And in a culture where body modesty is very high, this kind of exposure is shocking. It lowers his status in someone else’s eyes. The father could have sent one of his workers, who would have been appropriately dressed for running, but no—he hitches up his robes and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. He runs to this impetuous brat of his.
When he reaches his son, the father again surprises us by calling for his own best robe and his ring—which, by the way, was likely a signet ring, a sign of his being the master of the estate—to be put on his son, who’s covered in the filth of pigs, which were—and still are—unclean and untouchable in Hebrew culture. He then calls for the fattened calf to be slaughtered, an animal reserved for when royalty or other dignitaries visited, so that the entire estate could throw the party of the century.
And in one final eyebrow raising surprise, when the older son refuses to go in to the party to celebrate the return of his own brother, when he is hateful to the father and his own brother (just listen to how the older brother talks, “When this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes”—not “my brother;” but “this son of yours,”), when the older son acts like the younger, the father goes out to beg him to come in to the party. He speaks compassionately and invites him in.
Now if the father in the parable acted the way we would expect him to—saying no to an unreasonable request, cutting ties, keeping a suspicious or watchful eye on his son for a while, telling the older brother bluntly to grow up—this parable would make a lot more sense to us. It would fit in with what we would expect, what we’re familiar with. We’ve all been burned by someone at some point, and we know that this is not how that kind of behavior is rewarded. It’s unreasonable for the father to act this way. It’s foolish. It’s dangerous. We have certain expectations for how we would act in that situation that just make sense to us. That’s what’s expected.
And although we would be hesitant to admit it, we expect God to act by our conventions too. We want a God who’s always powerful, who does things that make sense to us. We want a God who’s glorious, not weak, not resistible, and who certainly doesn’t embarrass us. We want a God who throws thunderbolts at His enemies—who we assume happen to be our enemies too. We expect God to reward the good with all this stuff, to reward us, to give a little extra to the older brother who actually tries. We want a God who tells prodigals that they’re going to have to shape up first if they’re going to get the robe and ring. We want a God who holds sinners in a probationary period, making sure they’re bright and shiny and presentable before any fattened calves get cooked up.
But God is not like that. He doesn’t hold us in suspicion. He doesn’t tell us to get our act together before He’ll forgive us or bless us. He doesn’t cut us off when we make the most unreasonable requests of Him. He doesn’t cast us out when we’re secretly more concerned with stuff and comfort than we are with being close to Him. He doesn’t slam and lock the door when we refuse to come in to His house. For you have been both the prodigal and the older brother. You’ve run away, you’ve clung to the stuff your heavenly Father has given you more than you’ve clung to Him. You’ve made yourself distant from Him in thought, word, and deed. And you’ve also thought yourself better and more deserving of your Father’s gifts and good graces than others.
But no matter who you’ve been, your heavenly Father has run to you. He’s come out of the house and invited you in. He doesn’t care how undignified He may seem, how weak or small or vulnerable. He doesn’t care how ridiculous the world, or even you, might think He is, hitching up His robes and running to you. That’s why He doesn’t mind being born of a virgin, living a life of poverty and mockery, being tortured and made fun of by the soldiers, being betrayed and abandoned by those closest to Him. He doesn’t even mind being crucified, dying on a cross in a death reserved only for the worst public criminals, if it means that He gets to have you back. As the author of Hebrews says, “For the joy that was set before Him, He endured the cross, despising the shame.” He’s not ashamed or embarrassed to claim you—and all the other sinners—as His own, to put His robe of baptismal perfection over you. He’s not nervous about having you unwashed and unclean sitting at His table for His holy feast. He invites you in.
So come. We’re getting closer to Holy Week, when our God will break every convention and expectation. He’ll scorn every shame. He’ll look weak and vulnerable. He who is sinless, who knew no sin, will become sin for us. He will embody everything that we’ve done wrong, every smudge of the pig sin pen, every hurtful word we’ve muttered or dared not even to formulate, every misplaced love for His possessions above Him. He’ll become those things for us so that we’re clean, we’re holy, we’re pure, we’re welcomed home. He’ll break the greatest expectation and the immortal, eternal God will die on the cross. And then He’ll defy expectations again as He rises from death to be with you. This is all for you, to welcome you home. So come home. The table is set. The celebration is about to begin. In the name of Jesus, who comes to redeem us and bring us home, Amen.