By Dr. Jeffrey K. London
As children we all heard the same things over and over again:
“Don’t run with scissors!”
“Don’t leave the refrigerator door open!”
“Don’t put your brother’s head in the toilet!”
“Always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.'”
“Look both ways before crossing the street.”
“Eat all your vegetables.”
“Do your homework first.”
“Don’t put the cat in the dryer.”
And, as children, our tendency was to respond with a “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve heard it all before.” But there’s a reason why some things are said over and over again; a reason why some things must be said over and over again — It’s because we need to hear these important things! We need to hear them over and over again because we don’t always “get it” the first ten times we heard them.
And what are the important things we need to hear over and over again? Anything connected to God’s love for us and our love for God and one another bears repeating. Put simply, some things cannot be said or heard enough, like the words, “I love you.” Such words are packed so chock full of life-giving-meaning that they call out to be heard over and over again…70×7
This is the case with the parable of the Prodigal Son. Sure, we’ve heard it before. We may even think we know all about it, but that doesn’t change the fact that the parable of the Prodigal Son is one of those all-important things we need to hear over and over and over again. Just like the words, “I love you,” the parable of the Prodigal Son is an unapologetic expression of God’s radical, sacrificial, extravagant love for you and me and the whole of the world. So, we’re going to hear it again because we need to.
Only this time, we’re going to tell the same story in a bit more contemporary fashion.
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There was a man who had two children, the eldest was a girl, the youngest a boy. The man owned a car dealership in Tulsa, Oklahoma and was out on the lot one day when his young son came to him and said, “Dad, I want a new Mercedes convertible and my share of the family fortune and I’ll get out of your hair. I’m going off to conquer the world! You’ll never hear from me again!”
So the father regretfully divided up the money and got his young son a Mercedes convertible and waved goodbye. A few days later the young son found himself at a blackjack table in Las Vegas, Sin City. It didn’t take long for the young son to lose everything — all the money, the car, everything was gone.
And with nothing left, and after having been kicked out of a comped room at the casino, the young son found himself alone, completely and utterly alone. With no where to go and no money left, the young son was forced to hire himself out as a pool boy to Celine Dion. It proved to be a horrible existence.
But then one day the young son came to his senses. He looked around at what had become of his life and proclaimed out loud, “How many of my Dad’s employees have it better than this! Here I am with nothing, barely existing as a pool boy, and I can’t get that Titanic song out my head! I know what I’ll do. I’ll go to my Dad and say to him, ‘Dad, I really messed up. I mean, I really, really messed up. I…well… I…I sinned. I sinned against you and I sinned against God. I squandered everything, it’s all gone, so I don’t even have a peace offering to lay before you. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll consider taking me back as one of your employees?”
So the young son set off for home. When his Dad saw him coming down Memorial, he jumped for joy and ran out into busy traffic and put his arms around his son and gave him…a nuggie. Then the young son said to him, “Dad, really blew it, I messed up big time. I’m a loser. I sinned against you and God. I lost everything. Can I have a job?”
But his Dad said, “Nonsense!” And then his Dad proceeded to tell one of his employees, “Run up to Saks Fifth Avenue and get the best suit and shoes they have; and get him an I-Phone, the newest verison available. And then call the caterer because we’re going to have a party, for my young son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And then the party began.
But the elder daughter was in the lot selling cars when suddenly she heard that Titanic song blaring over the loud speakers and lots of laughing coming from the showroom. So the elder daughter called one of the employees and asked what was going on. She was told that her loser brother had returned and their Dad was throwing a party for him.
Well that made her mad, really mad. So mad that she locked herself in a mini van and refused to come out. Her Dad came out and pleaded with her to come join the party, but she refused. Eventually she rolled down the window and said to her Dad, “Listen, I’ve been working myself to the bone all these years! You never threw a party for me and my friends! You never called the caterer for me! I’ve done everything you’ve told me to do and then some! You’d think I would be the one you were proud of and
grateful for, not ‘Doofus’ over there! He comes home after carousing with prostitutes and losing everything and you treat him like he’s something special! What about me? Remember me? I’m the faithful one! Where’s the justice? Have I been good all these years for nothing? I want to belong too! I want to be loved too! Will somebody please tell me how to earn your love?”
Then her Dad said to her, “Daughter, you are always with me. Everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and throw a party, because your brother was…your brother was Celine Dion’s pool boy! And now he’s back with us; he was dead and now he’s alive; he was lost and now he’s found.”
You see, it doesn’t matter how you tell the story, what language you use, the message remains the same. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard it before or how many different ways you’ve heard it told, the message remains as timeless as it is priceless.
But just what is the message? Is there just one message, just one point to be made? What is it that Jesus wants us to hear and understand? Why does the parable not have an ending? What is the Good News?
Well, we’ve been calling this parable the “Prodigal Son.” But what exactly does the word “prodigal” mean? Does it mean lost, wayward, rebellious. Or does it mean excessive, extravagant, lavish, unrestrained, wasteful?
It means all of the above which tells us the Father is a prodigal in a positive sense: he is excessive, extravagant, lavish, unrestrained, lovingly wasteful. And the two siblings are prodigals in a negative sense: they are lost, wayward, and rebellious…each in their own way. So maybe what we have is a family of prodigals; maybe what we have is the church.
If that’s the case then we’re supposed to find ourselves in the parable. Who are you? Which character are you most like? Maybe you’re a complex person and not limited to just one character. Maybe you see a little Father in you, a little younger brother, a little elder sister. Maybe when we hear the parable and include ourselves we discover that love and justice are given according to what is needed, not according to what is perceived to be deserved.
Maybe one of the messages of the parable is that God the Father claims His children in unconditional love, a love that is extravagant, excessive, lavish, unrestrained, seemingly foolish and wasteful — a love we call Jesus Christ. Maybe we need to hear that more often. Maybe we need to hear that over and over again until we really believe it with the whole of our being.
Jesus leaves us with a parable that has no ending. What will happen to this dysfunctional family is left up to us. Do we recognize our own lostness? Do we embody the love of God in all we say and do? Are we reconciled one to another?
Would you like to hear it again?
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2013, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.