A Case of Mistaken Identity

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

So, my son Owen’s new favorite thing in the world is to climb up on the couch and crawl across it until he gets to the end table, where Mommy and Daddy’s most prized possession – the remote control – awaits him. But in order to get to the remote, he has to stand up on the couch, which, as he knows, is a huge no-no. But, of course, being a toddler, he usually decides to do it anyway. And no matter how many times we tell him no, that he needs to sit on the couch, or how many times we put him in time out for it, he will inevitably climb right back onto the couch the first chance he gets. As many of you know, this is parenthood.

Now, I can’t get too frustrated with him; after all, he is just a toddler, not quite yet in control of his impulses. He’s still figuring out what his relationship is with Mommy and Daddy and testing how far he can push his limits. But even as he gets older and comes to understand more about why we follow rules and the fact that we get punished when we don’t follow the rules, I am sure he will continue to break them. He will continue to disobey me or do things that make me upset. He may pick a fight with someone at some point; he might even cause somebody serious harm. Kids, after all, are just as human as the rest of us, and are just as liable to make mistakes – even serious ones. Even as he enters into adulthood, there is always the possibility that he could mess up big-time, no matter how well Emily and I raise him. I suppose that’s at least one of every parent’s biggest fears. But, though I am young yet, and though parenthood is a relatively new thing for me, I have to say that I simply can’t imagine anything that Owen could do that would make me see him as anyone less than my beloved son. Oh, I could be disappointed in him, sure. Overwhelmed with grief and heartache over the consequences of his actions. Desperately longing for the days when he was sweet and innocent, running around and jumping on the couch without really knowing any better. But to stop loving him? View him as unworthy of being called my son? Never.

So, being a new parent has given me a new appreciation for our text this morning. Now, I suspect that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is quite well-known to you all. Many of us have heard or read it more than a few times, and I am sure we have already determined its meaning – we (the sinners) are the prodigal son, God is the father, and the Pharisees of the world are the elder brother. In fact, for those of us who have already made up our minds about this parable, it ceases to become a parable at all, because parables, by their nature, are supposed to subvert or upend our understanding of how the world works. So, as I have done with other texts in the course of my preaching here, I would like to invite us all to forget everything we think we know about this parable, and read it again together.

On its surface, this parable is simply about a father and two quite different sons. And let us not forget that these two sons are also brothers. The younger son asks his father for his portion of the inheritance, which, while perhaps unconventional, was not outside of his legal rights to do. He is not sinning by asking his father for the money. The father gives it to him, and it is at this point that the younger brother commits the sin – he leaves home and goes far away to a foreign country, and he spends it all. You see, as long as his father was still alive, he was allowed to invest his inheritance, but not to dispose of it. In leaving his home country and spending all of his money, he has effectively severed his relationship with his father. By all accounts of the day, he and his father were dead to each other.

Then, tragedy strikes. You see, the younger son would have been just fine if the famine hadn’t hit, but when it did, all of the sudden he was in a crisis. Being desperate for food, he hired himself out as a swineherd – to tend animals that were considered unclean from the perspective of his Jewish upbringing. So desperate was he that he even wished to eat the food they gave to the pigs! And it was at this moment, when he had hit rock bottom and there was no one else to turn to, that we are told “he came to himself”. Up until this moment, he had not even thought about his father. Up until this moment, he considers himself no more than a prodigal man. But here, for the first time since he left home, he remembers that he is not unattached. He remembers that he has a father; that he is somebody’s son.

This is the first lesson of the parable – the first case of mistaken identity. It happens when we forget who we are – whose we are – and choose instead to focus only on what we have done. Jesus calls us to come to ourselves in the midst of our brokenness, to remember that we have a Father, a Mother, who will take care of us in our time of greatest need. But this is not the only lesson that the parable has to offer, even though it is perhaps the one we are most familiar with. In fact, even though the prodigal son has remembered his father, we find out through his confession that he is still mistaken about his identity.

Now, if you have ever had any interactions with another human being – and I suspect that’s most of you – then you have probably had the experience that the younger son has after he decides to go back to his father. You have something you want to say to somebody, and you repeat it over and over in your head, working on it and trying to make sure you get every word exactly right. And a lot of the time you imagine what the other person is going to say, too, right? As if you could predict that. In fact, you orchestrate the whole conversation in your head over and over again until you either get the courage up to actually have the conversation, or you decide to just drop it and let it go. And if you do end up having the conversation, it never actually goes exactly the way you planned it in your head, does it?

Well, this is what happens to the prodigal son. He has this whole confession ready, admitting his sin and saying he is not worthy to be his father’s son, but would his father at least be willing to hire him on as a servant – and when he gets there, he doesn’t even get the whole thing out! I mean, if you play this scene out in your head, it’s actually quite hilarious. As soon as the son comes into view, the father goes running out toward him – and by the way, in this culture, grown men never ran; it was extremely unbecoming – but he goes running out toward him in his sandals and tunic and everything, and embraces him. And kisses him. And holds him like he’s never letting go of him again. And, perhaps taken aback by this display of affection, and not really knowing what else to do, the son starts in on his rehearsed apology. But the father, probably not even listening to him, interrupts him halfway through to call to his servants for a celebration in his honor – in honor of his son, who was lost but has now been found.

The father, you see, was never mistaken about his son’s identity – not one bit; not even while he was gone. To the father, his son could never be anything else in his eyes – not a sinner, a degenerate, a “bad kid”, a vagabond, a thief – none of these was an appropriate label for his son, whom he loved. In fact, the only thing that kept this father from having a relationship with his son was his son’s own choice to put some distance between them. But even that distance could not stop – or even diminish – the father’s love. He refused to identify his son by what he had done, recognizing him instead for who he was.

And this is the second lesson that the parable teaches us – that no matter what we have done; no matter how we see ourselves; no matter what other people call us or what we call ourselves, we, all of us, are the beloved children of God. We are all bearers of the image of God, and as human beings we all hold our value in that particular identity, and no other. This is, in fact, the radical message of the Gospel, and it is why the Gospel is supposed to be such a stumbling block. Because it says that even the people we dislike the most – even those who have done the most despicable things in human history – are loved and valued by God. That no matter what other labels we might reserve for those people, God rightly calls them “my children”. Let me be clear and direct: Adolf Hitler is a child of God. Joseph Stalin is a child of God. Augustus Caesar, King Herod, Nero – all children of God. All those who ever owned slaves are children of God. So are all of the members of ISIS. Donald Trump is a child of God. Barack Obama is a child of God. Those who have committed murder, rape, theft, torture, genocide – all of them are children of God. I am a child of God. You all are children of God. And this is not to say that the actions of a lot of those folks I just mentioned are not wrong – in fact, terribly wrong – or that those actions do not carry severe consequences, as they should. But the message of the Gospel is this – that no matter how monstrous or demonic a person’s actions may be, it does not make that person a monster or a demon. Your actions can never fundamentally transform who you are in relationship to God.

Of course, if you have any sense of justice at all, you’re probably having an extremely difficult time entertaining the suggestion that Hitler is a child of God. I’m sure any reasonable person might be fuming at the thought that God loves Hitler as much as them. I mean, tell me that makes you angry; because even just thinking about what he did makes me sick to my stomach myself. Which is why there is a third part to this parable. If you recall, Jesus is telling this parable to the scribes and Pharisees who are angry that he is hanging around with “sinners” – drug addicts, prostitutes, convicted felons, murderers, thieves, thugs, gangsters, corporatists, bigots, despots; basically, just all-around “bad people”. Their anger, perhaps like ours, would seem justifiable. We didn’t do all of those bad things. We didn’t break the rules. Sure, it’s not as though we’ve never sinned – we all do – but we are not as bad as those people. We worked hard to be morally upright, so we deserve to be the ones that Jesus hangs out with; we deserve to be more-loved by God than Hitler!

And this is precisely how the older son feels in the third part of the story – he worked hard! He never disobeyed his father; he served him his entire life – but he never got a celebration like the younger son did. The father’s grace is unfair; by all accounts, he should be the one to receive favor. We may not be able to recognize it, but this older son is also suffering from a case of mistaken identity. He believes himself to be a good servant – in fact, the word he uses is slave – to his father. But what he doesn’t realize is that his relationship with his father, like his brother’s, is not measured by the quality of his service, but simply by the reality of his sonship. Both he and his brother are his father’s sons – end of story.

Here, finally, we come to the end of the story, and we find that Jesus is calling out one of the most basic tendencies of human beings – the tendency to label one another according to our actions, instead of our divine parentage. We love to do this. If someone does something heroic, we call them a hero. If someone steals something, we call them a thief. We have convicts, felons, murderers, adulterers, criminals, prostitutes, addicts, etc. – these labels that we use over and over again until they come to define the people we apply them to, and they cease to even be people in our eyes. We place our own worth, and the worth of others, all in actions, and this is the very antithesis of the Gospel. It severs relationships, and makes reconciliation impossible. Which is why, when the older brother accosts his father over that son of yours, his father is quick to remind him that the very son of whom he speaks is his own brother. And it’s not that there are no consequences for the younger brother – he has already spent his portion of the inheritance, and “all that [the father] has” left belongs to the older brother – but, in the father’s words, “we have to celebrate”, because your brother – who has always been your brother, and nothing less, even when he was out and about committing his horrible crimes – was lost, and now is found.

In the breath of one parable, Jesus reminds us that no matter how lost we are, there is always a chance to be found, and that no matter how lost we think others are, they have that same chance. And that even though someone may be incredibly and almost irretrievably lost, they are still our brother or sister; they are still a child of God. They may break our hearts, yet shall we still love them. Always. Amen.