"The Gift"
Scripture – Luke 15:11-32
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, March 6, 2016

Who are you in this parable? Generally, when we hear a story, we consciously or subconsciously identify with one of its characters. Three prominent individuals dominate the story – the younger brother, the older brother and the father. A good way to profit from this parable is to associate with one of its characters.

If you had a period in your life when you rebelled against your parents' expectations, you may feel a kindred spirit with the younger son. Perhaps you rejected their rules and vetoed their values.

They said, "We want you to learn how to play the piano." You said, "I'm going to play football." They hoped you would be part of the youth group. You wanted to smoke pot with your friends. They said, "We want you to go to a college near home." You said, "I'm going to California to join a rock band."

Your parents wanted you to conform to their conventional way of doing things, but you chose James Dean or Janis Joplin as your idol. You declared your independence from your parents and drove them to the point that they considered disowning you.

This describes the young man in today's parable. With blunt and callous words, he says, "Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me."

New Testament scholar, Ken Bailey, elucidates the severity of the son's request. Bailey lived in the Middle East most of his life and many times he asked people about the implications of a son asking his father for his share of the inheritance while the father is still living. Each time he received the same answer. Bailey described his conversations like this:

"Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?"
"If anyone ever did, what would happen?"
"His father would beat him, of course."
"Because the request means he is eager for his father to die."

The son's request is a cruel rejection of his father. But, according to the parable, the father neither explodes in rage, nor attempts to talk the son out of his ill-conceived plan. He simply grants the rebel's request. Perhaps the father knew that giving advice was useless. This son learned only one way – the hard way.

The father divided the property between his two sons, and the younger son sold his portion of the family farm. "When he did, the family rift became public knowledge and the family was shamed before the entire community."1

The defiant one packed his bags, cut his ties, and headed to a distant country where he was determined to taste everything his father had forbidden. Living for nothing but the moment, he burned through his cash. Just as he wasted his last shekel and the good times ground to a flaming halt, a famine took hold. Hungry and penniless, he took the only job he could find – feeding pigs.

Addicts do not usually reach out for help until they have hit bottom. Lying in the mud with pigs and starving to death, the belligerent son finally admits he needs help. From his vantage point, his father's servants look like royalty, so he decides to take one final roll of the dice. He will go home, face his father's justified wrath, and hope that, after he is punished for his foolishness, his father will have a smidgen of pity and let him work as a servant.

The parable says he rehearses the speech he hopes will soften his old man. "Father, I have come to my senses!" No, that sounds too brazen. "Father, I have disappointed you!" No, too mild. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Could you just find it in your heart to treat me as one of your hired hands?"

Finally, with the right words, a contrite heart, and a healthy dose of fear, he heads for home. But, it turns out that he did not really know his father. Because his father was not seething with anger over being humiliated; he was worrying himself sick. Like parents who begin to imagine the worst when their child is long overdue, the father wonders if he will ever see his son again. Each day – several times a day – he peers down the road in hopes of spotting his lost boy.

Then, one day, he cannot believe what he sees. In the distance, he sees a form that resembles his son. Bursting with hope and anticipation, the father hikes up his robe and dashes down the road. As the son sees his father rushing toward him, he ramps up his courage for his well-rehearsed speech, but before he can get out a single word, his father in all his euphoria practically tackles him. He kisses his son and the stunned young man blurts out his line about becoming a servant.

It appears that dad does not hear a single word the son mutters. He's too busy shouting. "Someone get a robe, and not just any robe, the best one in the house." He says, "Put a ring on his finger and bring sandals, start preparing a feast because we are going to have a glorious celebration! I thought my son was dead, but he's alive. He was lost, but now he's found!

Each of us has some of that defiant son within us. Even if we were not the rebel who constantly rejected the ways of our parents, all of us can point to times when we have wandered away from God and made dreadful choices.

There is another brother in this story, isn't there? Typically, in a Presbyterian congregation, many identify with the older brother. Many of us did not go through a wholesale rebellion against our parents. For the most part, we followed the rules, we worked hard, and we did what was expected of us. However, I hope we do not identify too closely with the older brother, because it turns out he is not the ideal child he appears to be to the neighbors.

When the older brother gets word that his brother has returned and his father is ecstatic, the older sibling is incensed. He wants his father to grab the younger son by the ear, pull him to his feet and say, "Why can't you be like your older brother? He is hard-working, obedient and faithful."

The older brother wants the opportunity to say to the little brat, "I earned my standing in this family. I earned our father's trust. I earned my inheritance. I earned mine and you're going to have to earn yours!"

Tom Long tells of a luxury apartment building in an upscale district in Atlanta. The media reported "that some of the residents of this apartment building were actually on public assistance. When that news came out, the homeowners in that fashionable section of town were outraged. They were afraid their property values would plummet so they demanded a public hearing. The first person to go to the microphone was a young mother with a baby on her hip. She said that when she became pregnant, her boyfriend took the car and left her. Left her with nothing. After the baby was born she managed to get a job as a maid in one of the local motels and if she did not have the apartment she would not have the job. If she did not have the job, she could not feed her baby. She begged for the assistance to continue.

The next person to the microphone was a homeowner who said that he and his wife needed their investment protected. He turned and looked at the young mother with the baby and said, "I understand how you feel, but I earned mine and you're going to have to earn yours."2

However you envision God, it is important to remember that God is far more than we can ever conceive. In our attempts to grasp the character of God, we are reduced to similes and metaphors. The Scriptures provide a plethora of images. God is like a good shepherd, like light in the darkness, like a wind that blows where it will. Today's parable draws one of the most definitive pictures of God in all of Scripture. Jesus says God is like a loving parent who skips the "I told you so" lecture and the "You hurt me so badly" guilt trip, and the "I hope you've learned your lesson" harangue to express a love so lavish that it leaves us in shock. With his outpouring of grace, this father even heals the judgment the boy has declared upon himself, highlighted by a celebration their village will never forget.

While most of us might identify with one of the brothers, Jesus wants us to strive for the characteristics of the father. He wants us to see others not as the younger brother does – objects to be used; nor like the older brother – failures who need to be reformed. Rather, he wants us to develop a spirit for others that is exceptionally generous and abundantly overflowing with joy.


  1. Kenneth E. Bailey, "The Pursuing Father," Christianity Today, October 26, 1998.
  2. Thomas G. Long, "Amazing and Uncomfortable Grace," 30 Good Minutes, October 9, 2005.


The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving (Communion) ~ Sudie Niesen Thompson
Adapted from a Eucharistic Prayer from A Wee Worship Book (Wild Goose Publications, 1999)

Eternal God – God of Prodigal Grace – we praise you.
For when we were nothing, you made us something.
When we had no name and no faith and no future, you called us your children.
When we lost our way or turned away, you did not abandon us.
When we came back to you, your arms opened wide in welcome.

And look – you prepare a table for us:
Older brothers and prodigal sons,
Faithful followers and wanderers, alike.

You call all of us to the feast, so that we may be filled, forgiven, healed, blessed, and made new again. You are worthy of all our praise, O God!

So in gratitude, we join our voices with the heavenly choirs, and with the faithful of every time and place:

Holy, holy, holy Lord
God of power and might.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is [the one] who comes
In the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Eternal God – God of Prodigal Grace – we praise you,
For sending your son to dwell among us; for us you were born,
for us you healed, taught, and showed the way;
For us you went to the cross, died and rose again.

Lord Jesus, present with us now, for all that you have done,
and all that you have promised, what have we to offer?

Our hands are empty, our hearts are sometimes full of wrong things. We are prone to wander from your way. But with you is mercy, and the power to change us. So as we do in this place what you did in an upstairs room, send down your Holy Spirit upon us.

And upon these gifts of bread and cup that they may become for us your body: healing, forgiving and making us whole; and that we may become, for you, your body, loving, and caring in the world, until your Kingdom comes.

We lift this prayer in the name of your Son, the one who taught us to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name; Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.