Read: Luke 15:11-32 and Luke 19:28-40
Back many years ago, a New Testament professor of mine suggested that whenever you think you know what a parable of Jesus is about: turn it on its head, rearrange the characters, or somehow look at it differently.
These stories, like all symbols and metaphors, are layered with potential meaning. As part of our Christian scriptures, parables such as the Prodigal Son are not simply ancient morality lessons; through the ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these words speak old truths in new ways, addressing the heart of each reader and generation.
To that end, I found myself wondering: What if we read the story of Jesus and the Palm Sunday story through the lens of the parable of the Prodigal Son?
A Prodigal Jesus?
So……what if Jesus is the prodigal? Even considering such a thing, we are obviously looking from a limited human perspective instead of the omniscient perspective of God (which we too often pretend is our own). So from our human perspective—in scriptures and in our lives:
How has Jesus appeared to be prodigal—extravagantly wasteful?
Reading the parable, it’s easy to see that the older brother believes the prodigal son has wasted two things: time and resources.
How does it appear Jesus wastes time?
How does it appear Jesus wastes resources?
I took to the Bible to see what kinds of criticisms were launched at Jesus. And, in the way such things go, something immediately connected. Most of attacks Jesus suffered were at the hands of the Pharisees, who fit the role of the older brother in the parable pretty well.
They, like he, are the the ones who are steadfast, dependable,
They are the good, religious, got-it-all-together kind of people.
But they are also the ones of whom Jesus says: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20)
All this makes the Pharisees a pretty good fit for the older brother in the parable. And what is their frequent criticism of Jesus? It is that Jesus wastes time with the wrong kind of people.
In multiple places, you can find the Pharisees asking Jesus or his disciples “Why does he eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mk 2:16). They see Jesus—much as does the older brother in the parable—as frittering away time and resources on intangibles like food and drink and parties instead of more sound and respectable choices.
But to that criticism, Jesus responds directly—albeit with a bit of sarcasm:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17 ESV).
The “well ones”, the “righteous”—in other words, the older brothers, the Pharisees—see the way Jesus spends his time as a dereliction of duty—he should spend his time with us (they believe, and sometimes we do too), or at least doing the things we think are most important.
Maybe (once this is obvious to us) the identification of the “father” in the parable then becomes clear. Perhaps the father—the one who welcomes the prodigal messiah with open arms—is precisely those who are “sick” in sin. Maybe those awful sinners that we avoid at church and the supermarket—perhaps they are the ones who are most likely to welcome this messiah with open arms. Perhaps they are the father, to our filling the older brother’s shoes.
Palm Sunday Story
Using the parable of the Prodigal Son as a backdrop for the story of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we see things continue to line up.
On Sunday, the crowds expected Jesus to be/act/do things a certain way. Yes, they honored him; but that honor was conditional. In honoring him, they entrusted him with certain hopes and expectations. Perhaps they expected him to advance their cause—to overthrow Rome, to reestablish a nation of Israel, to enforce their interpretation of the Law onto those who dissented……
But instead of using that trust and those resources to advance their cause, they witnessed Jesus piddling them away in the gutter, spending his time with prostitutes and tax collectors, people who were believed to be unfit to worship in God’s house, and sinners of the highest order.
So, as we might then expect, the crowds turned against this prodigal Jesus on Good Friday, just as the older brother turns against the prodigal. Shouts change from “Hosanna!” to “crucify him!”; and before Pilate they ask for the release of another man, Barabbas.
While our biblical text does not make this explicit, it is quite possible that Barabbas was yet another person claiming to be the messiah and attempting be precisely the right kind of messiah—the kind that promised to overthrow Rome. The crowd (it is clear) would much prefer such a military messiah to this prodigal Jesus, so they turn against him—just as does the older brother against the younger in the parable.
When power and money and what-I-deserve is at risk, the older brother does not see how love comes into play. He does not welcome this messiah—whoever he may be or however he may be. He can only extend welcome on his own terms……to achieve his own ends……at any cost.
Back to Us
These stories and verses demand that we reevaluate our own practices of welcome and hospitality. They force us to ask what “the church” is supposed to be? They remind us that if our care/our ministry/our attention is focused on those who are well, then we are likely following the wrong messiah. If that is the case:
Perhaps even, when Jesus comes again, we too will stand by disappointed when the prodigal messiah returns.
Perhaps we too will be angry and frustrated at the undermining of our ideas of who and how Jesus should be and love.
Perhaps we too will be left standing outside, wondering what all this means for us and our positions of respect/authority/and power?
From the perspective of the Jews, the Messiah was a prodigal—who knows who, doing who knows what; but clearly not where and who we need him now. There are a lot of people who feel that way today.
But the biblical texts remind us that when the Messiah did come, he was not as expected. No triumphant arrival of the now-rich, now-powerful. No glory and pomp and circumstance.
Quite the opposite: the Messiah came as a servant. Instead of running to him and embracing him, the Messiah’s own family (the Jews) turned against him. And so their rejected prodigal became our loving Savior.
That loving Savior meets us where we are and how we are. He defies our expectations, but he loves us as we are. He forgives without cause, embraces without hesitation, and chases even the darkest shadows away.
Hallelujah! What a savior!
Transition to Hymn
There’s a hymn called “Lead Me to Calvary.” The last stanza is a kind of prayer:
May I be willing, Lord, to bear
Daily my cross for Thee;
Even Thy cup of grief to share,
Thou hast borne all for me.
Lest I forget Gethsemane;
Lest I forget Thine agony;
Lest I forget Thy love for me,
Lead me to Calvary.
We celebrate today Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem for the Passover. But we cannot forget the trajectory of today’s events—for in them, Jesus was pointed squarely at the cross.
If we are to be his followers, that too will be the direction of our own lives. In the eyes of the world, it may look like we have become prodigals ourselves, when we follow the biblical teachings that instruct us to share what we have; to take care of aliens, widows, and the fatherless; to visit the sick and those in prison; and to live as a servant of all.
But such is the path of Jesus. If we are going to follow that path, we need to know more about it. And I’d encourage you to consider participating in some of the various opportunities here at First Baptist to do just that. I would be happy to talk with you more about advancing your walk with Jesus through the small groups we have here.
But also, James reminds us in the second chapter of his letter that faith and belief alone is not enough. Being saved is not about knowing the right things. It’s about following Jesus. We must, like James suggests, “show [our] faith by [our] works.” And to that end, I’d like to encourage you to consider how or whether your faith is lived out in your life—through your relationships, your Facebook feed, your political discourse, your time management, your parenting strategies, your attentiveness at work and school……all of it.
Because if we are disciples of Jesus……if we are working to follow his path—a path that points toward the cross—then that identity will permeate every part of our being. After all, if Jesus’ disciples do not proclaim his gospel of love and life, then these very stones will cry out.