Today we hear one of the most familiar and beloved stories in scripture. You may remember that this parable is the final one in a series of three, which Luke has grouped together: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons.
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.’”
The last time that I worked with this text, I was preparing to teach at a presbytery gathering in Asheville. I began with an exercise I won’t attempt today because of time constraints, but I do want to tell you about it.
I asked everyone in the room to find a partner. After reading through the passage together, one person in each pair re-told what he or she remembered from the story, while the other took notes. Then we came back together as a group and compared our versions. From the microphone, I listed a series of details from the story, asking the recorders to raise their hands when a particular detail had been mentioned by their partner. This gave us a sense of the collective memory in the room.
Virtually every recorder’s hand went up when I listed these details:
- there was a man who had two sons
- the younger son asked for his share of the inheritance
- that son went to a far off country
- where he wasted his inheritance
- where he went to work feeding pigs.
But when I noted that there was a famine in that country, hardly a hand went up in the large and crowded room.
Scholars who have worked with this passage in a variety of cultural contexts refer to this particular blindspot as “famine blindness.” We don’t remember the famine because we don’t believe it to be all that relevant to the story. To us, the story makes perfect sense without the famine.
Westerners tend to tell the story something like this:…the younger son gathered all that he had and traveled to a distant country. There he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything he had, he began to be in need… We skip over the famine.
Mark Powell is the researcher who first noticed this phenomenon. Of the 100 North American students he asked to recall the story, only 6 remembered the famine. They didn’t think it was an essential detail. The experience made Powell wonder if he would get the same results in another cultural context. In 2001 he had a chance to run the experiment in St Petersburg, Russia with a group of 50, and here’s what he found: 42 of the 50 Russians mentioned the famine.
It’s not hard to understand why. Powell explains: “In 1941, the German army laid siege to the city of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and subjected its inhabitants to what was in effect a 900-day famine. During that time 670,000 people died of starvation and exposure—about one fourth of the total population. Some of the current inhabitants of the city are survivors of that horror; more are descendants of survivors….To [the citizens of St Petersburg], the mention of famine is never an extraneous detail.”
If the Russians didn’t miss the famine, you may wonder what they did overlook. What the Russians tended to leave out was the squandering of the property—that was the detail that didn’t seem so essential to them. The story that they remembered tended to go like this: “the younger son gathered all that he had and traveled to a distant country.…a severe famine took place and he began to be in need.” When Powell pointed out the Russians’ oversight, though, they simply replied, “So what if he lost his inheritance? That just means that he’d be poor like everyone else.”
When Powell pressed further and said, but “Aren’t we supposed to think that the son did something wrong?”, they replied, “Of course…but the boy’s mistake was not how he spent his money…. His mistake was leaving his father’s house in the first place. His sin was placing a price tag on the value of family, thinking that money was all that he needed from them. Once he had his share of the family fortune, the family itself no longer mattered… [From the Russian perspective] his sin was wanting to be self-sufficient.”
Think about that for a minute. From the Russian perspective, “his sin was wanting to be self-sufficient.” You and I come from a culture that prizes self-sufficiency—that’s a hard interpretation for us to hear.
And it turns out that Westerners have translated the story in a way that reinforces our culture’s bias. If you look at verse 13, our translation asserts that the son spent his inheritance in “dissolute living”. But nothing in the Greek insists that the son made immoral choices in the way he spent his money. The Greek word, ἀσώτως, can be understood to mean simply that the younger son spent his money rather than saving it. In fact, that’s the way Syriac and Arabic works have translated the word for 1800 years.
So our Western translations have leaned a lot on the older brother’s accusation—later in the story—that the inheritance was spent on prostitutes. But Eastern interpreters almost universally read that accusation as slander, spoken by a brother who is enraged. After all, how would the older brother know?
In the end, Powell suggests that Westerners read the story as one of moral repentance and reformation, while Easterners tend to hear the story as an illustration of divine rescue. Westerners lean on the verse that speaks of the angels’ joy when a sinner repents; Easterners remind us of the two preceding parables, in which a sheep and a coin are lost and found through no fault or virtue of their own.
And our interpretation dilemma doesn’t stop here. There is a postscript to this story. The author tried the parable with one more international audience: a group of about 50 Tanzanians. In this case he read the parable and asked only one question. He asked “Why does the young man end up starving in the pigpen?”
Powell was curious to know how many would respond “because he wasted his money” and how many would say “because there was a famine”. As it turned out, the vast majority of responses ignored both of those possibilities in favor of a brand new alternative. The Tanzanians noticed the line in the story that says that the young man suffered “because no one gave him anything to eat.”
The Tanzanians remember that “the Bible commands us to care for the stranger and alien in our midst.” They read this story as a parable of the kingdom of God, in which the father’s house is contrasted with the far country: a shocking country that would let a stranger go hungry and not give him anything to eat. They hear this parable not as about the failure of an individual, but the failure of a society.
The older I get, the more I realize the power of the assumptions and projections I bring to every encounter I have, whether that encounter is with a living, breathing human being, or a story on a page. I don’t think I’m alone in that.
Were we to survey the literature on this text, we would find that some readers hear profound repentance in the younger son’s carefully rehearsed speech, while others are sure this is a calculated attempt to manipulate an indulgent parent.
Some describe the older son as loyal, hard-working, everything you would want a child to be—understandably disturbed by unequal treatment; while others see a heart that has hardened and is unable to receive love, to forgive, to celebrate.
I can’t help wondering how our interpretations are colored by our own experiences with parents and siblings and friends—our own wounds. And so this morning I want to let the passage have its way in your heart without confining it too tightly. I want to share one way I saw it come to life this week, knowing that the story you will tell must be your own. Here’s the background:
In the spring of 2016, I was serving a church in Florida when a member of the congregation came to me with an unusual request. Judy was almost 60, still married to her high school sweetheart, the mother of two grown sons. Judy had been adopted in infancy, and the adoptive mother who had loved her fiercely had died earlier that year. With both adoptive parents now gone, a desire quickened in Judy’s heart to know more about her birth parents, while there still might be time. With the full support of her family, Judy launched her search.
Her birth certificate was surprisingly easy to obtain; when asked, the Clerk of Court simply handed it over—and there was her mother’s name. A little sleuthing online turned up a Facebook match. In no time Judy could see smiling pictures of her mother with the children and grandchildren she had gone on to nurture. Judy was outside, looking in, at a family she had imagined her whole life.
It wasn’t much harder to turn up a phone number.
Judy came to me because she wondered if I would be willing to reach out to the woman. She knew of another instance in which a pastor had paved the way for conversation between a birth mother and a child long-ago adopted. So Judy and I talked and pondered and prayed. She tried to prepare her heart for every possible outcome.
In May, I drove to Judy’s house, then went alone into the backyard to place the call. I dreaded the thought of leaving a message, but the woman picked up right away and stayed on the phone with me. I explained that we didn’t know each other, but that I was a pastor calling from Florida about a personal matter concerning a member of my congregation. She listened as I explained who Judy was; she asked me to repeat some of what I said. There were significant pauses, and then she said that it was not a good time for her family—that she didn’t think this was the right time. I knew that the call had to be a shock. I asked if she would take my name and number in case she wanted to call back later. She wrote everything down and read it back to me, but kept saying that it wasn’t the right time. I assured her that Judy had no desire to intrude, that she was a healthy, financially stable woman with a beautiful family, who only wanted to talk when the time was right. I wondered aloud if Judy might write to her, suggesting that she could keep the letter until she felt ready to open it, but the woman on the other end of the line expressed no interest in further contact.
I left Florida in the early fall of 2016, and had only occasional contact with Judy after that. I knew that the void in her heart remained.
Then last weekend, I received a text from Judy, asking if we might talk. The call came on Sunday evening.
Early in her search, Judy had found a copy of her mother’s high school yearbook page. She knew that her mother had still been a teenager when she was born. In recent months, Judy had pursued an intriguing comment from that page. It had led to her father’s name. Her father was dead, but Judy learned that she had three half-brothers and a half-sister, who had been raised in Maine. And so she reached out to them.
Judy was calling to tell me the story—two of her brothers had flown to Florida within the last week. In the videos she shared with me, their lingering embraces make it clear that everyone is making up for lost time. They’d invited her to come to Maine for a 60th birthday party in April. Already, they were calling her “sis.” And there was more to the story. Her new siblings had reached out to a still-living aunt who remembered Judy’s mother. The aunt was certain that Judy’s father had never known of the pregnancy. “He would never have let you go,” they all insisted; “that’s just not who he was.”
Beloved of God, it’s perfect that we hear the story of these two lost sons on a day when we are baptizing two new daughters. We don’t wait to baptize until children are old enough to assent to all of our doctrines. We don’t wait to find out whether they are going to be wanderers or home-bodies. We just welcome them home, because membership in this family isn’t predicated on any of that.
Judy’s new siblings said of their father “He would never have let you go; that’s just not who he was,” but it was the nature of their welcome that proved their point. They didn’t wait to know who she was; they just opened their arms. They had learned well from their father.
Friends, we worship a God who doesn’t wait to hear our carefully crafted confessions—or for us to show up with our party hats on—before opening the door to us. We worship a God who runs to meet us, who seeks us out, who says that the party will never be complete until each lonely one of us comes in, from the wreckage of the famine or the resentment of the field.
To have tasted such love is to be joined to the search party.
May it be so, to the glory of God.
 Mark Allan Powell, What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit & Pew, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007, 17
 ibid., 15
 ibid., 15-16
 ibid., 17-18
 ibid., 18
 ibid., 21-22
 ibid., 23-25
 ibid., 26
 ibid., 27