Scripture: Luke 15:11-32 (The Parable of the Prodigal Son)
Many years ago, a friend of mine was invited to give a speech at a conference that was being held at a grand old hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. At the conclusion of his presentation, he received a nice round of applause. Feeling good about how things had gone, he went up to his room and changed into casual clothes so he could take a stroll around the city and relax.
He took the elevator down to the lobby and, when the doors opened, he discovered that a large and highly energized crowd had assembled. To his astonishment, as he stepped forward people burst into cheers. Clearly, his speech had succeeded beyond his wildest expectations.
Then, glancing to his left, an unexpected sight came into view. It turned out that the door of the elevator next to his had opened at the same time. A long red carpet extended from that elevator and led to a magisterial fountain in the middle of the lobby. Waddling down the carpet, led by a beautifully outfitted bellman, was a line of ducks—dutifully marching their way toward the water.
The “duck march” has been a tradition at Memphis’s Peabody Hotel since 1933. Back then, several hunters who were staying there took some live birds that they had used as decoys (which was legal at the time) and put them into the fountain as a prank. A tradition was born, and the hotel now keeps a coterie of ducks in a swanky apartment on its roof.
Every day, a bellman who has been appointed “Duckmaster” leads them down to the fountain to the strains of a John Philip Sousa march. In the evening, the bellman plays drum major again and takes them back up. It’s a ceremony magnificent in its goofiness, and my friend had wandered into the middle of it.
What I love most about my friend’s story is the glee with which he tells it on himself. He sees the humor not just in a parade of ducks but in his mistake in thinking that he was the subject of so much adulation by strangers when they didn’t know he existed. He thought he was in the spotlight; they hadn’t even noticed he was on the stage. He thought he was the target of every eye in the room; he was invisible to them.
I suspect we’ve all had moments like this and, in a sense, it is completely understandable. After all, we reside at the center of our own existence, so it’s easy to fall into the error of thinking that we must hold the same position in the lives of others. When we catch ourselves in this mindset, it is often funny and always humbling.
In many cases, however, our invisibility as human beings gives rise to a completely different set of feelings. When others act as if we do not exist, we may feel disrespected, discarded, devalued, and dehumanized. And we may feel that way for a very good reason: it is how we are being treated. All of which brings us, perhaps unexpectedly, to the Parable of the Return of the Prodigal Son.
Over the years, I’ve heard countless sermons about this famous parable. I’ve preached a few myself. It has inspired works of art that mean a great deal to me, including Rembrandt’s masterful depiction of the moment when the father and the son are reunited.
So, over the years I have spent a lot of time with this parable. And yet, until recently, some of the most critical players in this drama remained invisible to me. I simply didn’t notice them, and I’ve come to think of this as an inexcusable lapse.
It’s their story I’d like to explore with you.
Let’s start here. Those who give sermons on this parable generally view themselves as having three choices in teasing out the meaning of the story. And this presents something of a problem, because all three choices are good ones.
Perhaps the most obvious choice is to focus on the figure of the prodigal son. This makes a lot of sense. After all, by tradition we refer to this as his story and we tend to view him as the star of the show. In that famous Rembrandt painting, he is the figure placed front and center. A core theme of the parable is the virtuous but hard work of repentance—and he embodies it.
The prodigal son does indeed have a powerful tale to tell. Greedy and overreaching, he squanders the inheritance he receives early from his father and loses everything. Then, in the depths of despair, “he comes to himself”—in my view, one of the most beautiful phrases in the entirety of the New Testament—and he returns home.
Rainer Maria Rilke concludes one of his poems with the stark line: “You must change your life.” The prodigal son has the same message for us. And his story says that we must affect that change by “coming to ourselves,” remembering who we are, and returning home to God.
Another perfectly good choice in thinking about the meaning of this parable is to focus on the father. The father is a key figure here, too. Another central theme of the story is forgiveness and the father’s exercise of it has important lessons for us all.
Perhaps the greatest lesson lies in the extravagance of the father’s forgiveness. The father doesn’t just tolerate his son’s return; he runs to him. He doesn’t just welcome him; he embraces him. He doesn’t just take him back; he throws him a big party. His son was lost, and now is found, and his father showers him with an amazing grace.
Some people think that this is what makes the father the most important figure in the parable. Without the father’s enthusiastic forgiveness—and it may be worth remembering that “enthusiasm” comes from roots meaning “filled with God”—there is no story worth telling. In Rembrandt’s painting, the prodigal son may be front and center; but it is the father who gives off the heavenly glow that bathes his child in light and illuminates the scene.
In exploring this parable, however, there is yet a third choice. Creative preachers have sometimes focused on the brother, who balks at his father’s generosity and who receives the news of the banquet with, well, a tantrum. This focus requires some ingenuity because many of us find the brother the least appealing figure in the narrative.
The brother may remind us of some people we’ve known—but may have occasionally wished we didn’t. Indeed, it’s tempting to read the story as if the brother has no role other than as a foil, a stark contrast to the humility exhibited by the prodigal son and the compassion exhibited by the father.
Sermons that pursue this theme sometimes suggest that most of us may have more in common with the brother than with anyone else in this story. The brother is important, the argument goes, not because he reminds us of other people but because he reminds us of ourselves. This idea may make us squirm a bit but it may also have some truth to it.
Think of it this way: Most of us don’t ascend to the dizzying moral heights of the father. But most of us also don’t descend to the impoverished moral depths of the prodigal son. We live somewhere in the middle: we’re bad enough to confirm that we’re human; we’re good enough to confirm that we’re trying; and we’re inclined toward pettiness and minor hissy fits whenever we think we might not be getting our fair share.
And there ends this week’s entry in my ongoing series, “Confessions from the Pulpit.”
In his painting, Rembrandt captures this idea by placing the brother to the side, where he stands passively while the father and son play out the drama of reunion and thankfulness. The image challenges us to reflect on how a life that occupies the comfortable middle can constrict our soul, suffocate our spirit, and relegate us to the sidelines of the heart. It may prompt us to wonder whether we, too, have been lured outside of the light of love by our selfish preoccupations and fussy resentments.
As I say, if you’re seeking the meaning of this parable, then these are three good ways to go about it. And they are not mutually exclusive. We can take all of these lessons from the parable without diminishing the importance of any of them.
And, yet, at least one more choice exists, because it turns out that there is another group of players that are central to this drama. In my view, however, we tend to read past them. We make them invisible. They appear in the Rembrandt painting. But you may not have noticed they were there.
These other players are described by the Greek word “doulos.” Some translations, like the New Revised Standard version, render this word as “slave.” But many others, like the New International Version and the New King James Version, render it as “servant.”
I am no expert in the Greek language, but I find the word “servant” more consistent with the messages and structure of this text. After all, in the parable the father represents a God of infinite love and grace. Such a God has people who serve him—ideally, we all strive to do just that. But God does not enslave people; just the opposite To our great and perpetual shame, slavery is an enterprise on which human beings hold the monopoly.
So, here is what I want you to notice. Now that we have made these servants visible, observe how critical they are to the drama that unfolds before us. They convey the news of the prodigal son’s return to the brother. They share in the father’s excitement over these developments.
The father counts on them to find the best robe and to wrap it around his beloved son. He counts on them to put a ring on his son’s finger and sandals on his feet. He counts on them to kill the fatted calf and to prepare the feast. He counts on them to join in the festivities and to make it a party. We can imagine them dancing at the feast; the parable does not even tell us whether the brother shows up to it.
And, although we may tend to miss the central role of the servants here, the father doesn’t. He says: “Let us eat and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.” The text adds: “And they began to celebrate.” Treating the servants like members of his family, the father invites them to share in the joy and revelry.
The presence of the servants offers another interesting insight into the respective characters of the brother and the prodigal son as well.
On learning of his father’s celebratory plans, the brother peevishly exclaims: “For all these years I have been working like a servant for you! And yet you never even gave me so much as a goat to eat with my friends!” Brimming with a sense of victimization and self-pity over his goat-dinner-deprived existence, the brother compares himself to his father’s servants, who the brother clearly sees as inferior beings.
In contrast, you’ll remember that when the prodigal son comes home he offers to work for his father as a day laborer. Again, the translation here poses some challenges, but this may carry a great deal of meaning. In the ancient Near East, such workers typically had a job for only one day. This offered them much less security than that held by regular household servants. In other words, the prodigal son sees himself as inferior to his father’s servants and as unworthy to hold their position in his home.
We can imagine the father looking a bit embarrassed when the brother compares himself to the servants, and looking utterly adoring when the prodigal son asks to work as a day laborer. If this idea sounds familiar to you, it should. We encounter it in the twelfth verse of the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus says: “And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
Notice how once we’ve seen the servants in the story, we can’t un-see them. Their critical roles in the narrative become obvious. And maybe we will never read the parable again in quite the same way.
That’s how it works in life, too. Consider how the pandemic forced us all to engage in a prolonged experiment in heightened consciousness, finally seeing people who may have been invisible to us before but who make our lives possible. Now we can’t un-see them. And we’ll never again see them in quite the same way.
As you may know, in the Zen Buddhist tradition practitioners study texts called “koans.” A koan is a story, a riddle, or a proposition that invites the student into the deep contemplation of possibilities. They’re often confusing and difficult, if not even unsolvable. The most famous of these is probably: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Let me know when you have that one figured out.
Now, a connection exists between koans and parables. Indeed, our word parable comes from the Greek word “parabole,” which translates the Hebrew word “mashal.” And, as theologian William R. Herzog observes, the “basic meaning” of mashal is “riddle.” In other words, parables, like koans, don’t come to us with one simple message; rather, they invite us to puzzle over their meaning—or meanings.
I think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son as one of the richest and most complex koans in all of sacred literature. It has so many meanings and messages; it offers so much insight and instruction; it glows with such poignancy and poetry. It rewards prolonged consideration and contemplation. As I say, there are lots of ways to think about this story, and all of them are good.
For my own part, I have come to believe that one of the parable’s subtlest but most important message is that in the great unfolding narrative of repentance, compassion, forgiveness, and grace, we must never allow anyone to become invisible. This is how Jesus conducted his life and ministry: everyone came into his sight and into his care. This is how the Living God does business: not a single soul escapes the attention of the One who marks the fall of even a sparrow.
This is why we’re invited to let our light shine: because it brings others out of the shadows. This is why the merciful, and the peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed: because no one is invisible to them. This is why the father and the brother in the parable both have something to teach us: because one sees a beloved son, while the other sees only himself.
This scripture summons us to work against invisibility in our own lives. Letting no one become invisible to us because they are poor, or imprisoned, or undocumented, or think differently than we do, or look differently than we do, or love differently than we do. Letting no one become invisible to us because of the mistakes they have made, or the words they have said, or the political party they have supported. Letting no one become invisible to us because of their economic bracket, or their employment or unemployment, or their physical or emotional challenges.
And this, too: letting no one become invisible to us because they are one of the “strong” people, one of the people on whom we may not expend our empathy and compassion because we don’t think they need it. Everyone needs it. Even, sometimes especially, the supposedly strongest among us.
To make progress here, we need to remain mindful of all the ways we make people invisible. Ignoring them. Dismissing them. Treating them like objects. Not bothering to learn their names, let alone their stories and their hopes and their worries and their dreams and their aspirations. Those are perhaps the obvious tools of invisibility.
But sometimes we make people invisible by projecting onto them our own prejudices, preconceptions, and predispositions. We use them like a blank screen. In Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man, the narrator—who, pointedly, is never given a name—describes his experience as a member of a racial minority in this country in these words:
“I am an invisible man …
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, [they see] everything and anything except me.”
It’s not fashionable to talk about sin these days and it’s not a word that gets a lot of airtime in my sermons or space in my theology. But I have come to believe that this is what sin does, whether it is societal or individual. It makes people invisible. And, if it sees them at all, it sees them for everything and anything except what they really are.
During the pandemic, Lisa and I read our way through many of the novels of Swedish author Fredrik Backman. One of those is a book called Bear Town. The story includes lots of characters, many of them members of a boy’s hockey team, but also a woman named Kira.
Kira is married to the general manager of the local hockey league, which is a big deal in the small town where the novel is set, and they have children. Early on in the novel, Backman tells us this story about Kira:
“When the members of her family are asleep, Kira still goes around the house and counts them. Her own mother always did that with her children, Kira and her five siblings, counting them every night. Her mother said she didn’t understand how anyone could have children and not do that, how anyone could live without being terrified of losing them at any moment. ‘One, two, three, four, five, six,’ Kira would hear her whisper through the house, and each child would lie there with his or her eyes closed and feel that they had been seen and acknowledged. It’s one of her most treasured childhood memories.”
They felt “that they had been seen and acknowledged.” And they treasured it.
One of the things about sharing sermons is that it puts you always on the lookout for parables, for koans that we can turn over and over in our thoughts, trying to figure out their deep significance and what they mean for how we live our lives. I think that Backman here gives us a very powerful parable, a koan to ponder, one that might inspire us to work even harder against invisibility.
For, in the end, what do any of us want, what do any of us desire, what do any of us need more than to know that we are seen? That we are visible. That we have been counted. That we count.
These koans ask us to puzzle over how we can share that gift with others. Even with others who seem to us different and distant and disconnected. Because, after all, how does the redemption of the prodigal son really begin? With his father seeing him—even from very far away.
And so it is with the One who sees us. And runs toward us. And calls out to us.
As we walk through the valley and seek the right path. As we make our way back home. As we labor always to see that which the world would make invisible.
And the people said: Amen.