Note: I preached a version of this sermon on March 10, 2013 (the fourth Sunday in Lent) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois–in a very rare attempt at a monologue in the voice of a Biblical figure.
I’m really tired of the nickname, honestly. Would you want to be remembered by one facet of your personality, by one period of your life? The binge-drinking son. The tardy son. The unemployed daughter. I do have a name. At least I did in Jesus’ mind. Levi, Levi son of Jonathan.
And, you know, the story isn’t even about me. Look at how Jesus starts: There was a man who had two sons. For centuries, though, I’ve just been the Prodigal Son, and the story has been told and retold about me. I’m only a character in a story that Jesus told. But the figments of Jesus’ imagination are real. So I just keep living on, watching what people do with my story.
Anyway, my name is Levi. And I’m definitely famous, in a way. I’m the bad boy. I’m popular. Everyone likes to think that they are me, or that they were me. I know, I know, y’all were some bad sinners back in the day. You sowed your wild oats, you skipped church, you kicked up your heels at God, so on and so forth. Every Christian seems to love having been a sinner. Having been me.
And Dad is even more popular, of course. So kind! So forgiving! He runs out to meet you before you even reach the gate! What a mensch! He’s supposed to be God, after all. But I’m here to tell you that it wasn’t like that, not exactly.
First of all, it’s hard having a God-figure for your dad. He was good and kind, yes. He was not too hard on us, as far as that goes. I didn’t leave because I hated him or anything. I know a lot of guys around us who had it worse, believe me. But growing up in the house of a holy man isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Dad was always known for his generosity and neighborliness. Everyone loved dad, but think about it. Do you want to inherit that reputation for saintliness? Do you want to live up to that? Especially when you’re the younger brother, the one who won’t get to run the farm and make the decisions. And you know, it’s not like the guy is a great businessman, either. You think a guy who would embarrass himself and go running up to his disgrace of a son and throw a huge party for his return for all the neighbors ran a real tight ship when it came to the family finances?
So basically, if I wanted to be anything but the stingy, mediocre second son of a great man, I needed to go live my own life. You folks can understand that, right? Just give me my share up front; cash me out. I’ll go somewhere else. I’ll be my own man and make my own name. God fed our ancestors in the wilderness with manna for forty years, and then the manna stopped and they got to the promised land and ate the parched grain and so forth. Would it have really been so bad for one of the Israelites to say, “God, please give me the cash value of my share of the manna and my piece of the promised land, I don’t really want to be part of this any more?”
Well, like it or not, that’s what I did. And I went away, as far away as I could. If you’re going to start over, start over, I say. I didn’t want to hear about the old man, I didn’t want to live by Jewish law, I didn’t want to live in anyone’s shadow.
As everyone in the whole wide world knows, it didn’t go so well. Everyone wants to speculate about the details of my dissolute living, starting with my big brother. But I’ll own it: I was too young and too foolish to have that kind of money. It’s not like I’m the first boy to leave the farm and go a little crazy with the freedom. I really did mean to set myself up. But I made some bad choices and I had some bad luck, and I had to basically indenture myself to the pig farmer.
That’s how I became the poster-boy for repentant sinners. I was feeding these pigs and I was so hungry–not hungry like missing a meal or hitting that afternoon slump hungry, I mean for real hungry, all day and all night. Just a word to the wise, folks, if your Plan B for your career is hiring yourself out to a subsistence farmer in a poor country 2,000 years ago, find another one. And, you know, people get very sentimental about this repentance business. But I’m going to be straight with you: I didn’t sit around lamenting all the dissolute living. Yes, I had regrets. But I wasn’t weeping over all that. I was hungry. And when I was honest with myself, I missed having a home. I once had a home! I didn’t like being the younger son of the great saintly farmer, but at least there I was somebody! I had a culture, as you’d say today. I had a religion. I wasn’t crazy about that religion, but at least it kept me out of the pig trough.
So I came up with a plan. I would go back home. I would apologize. I would throw myself on the old man’s mercy and see if I could at least become a hired hand. I didn’t really imagine being his son again–I had burned that bridge when I asked for my inheritance. But maybe, after giving me a good old-fashioned beating, he’d give me a place, any place, in the household.
What I didn’t expect was to see him running to meet me. It was kind of embarrassing, actually. Maybe even undignified. But there he was, welcoming me back. I expected to take a few lumps, literally. A father, even the father of a grown son, who only scolded and verbally abused a son like me back in those days would be seen as shameful. I had earned a pretty bad whooping, which I did not get. I had rehearsed my little speech, not expecting too much. But he doesn’t even really listen to it. He calls for the best robe, and for some sandals, and a ring. He calls for killing the fatted calf and having a big party to welcome me home.
My big brother, of course, was still out in the fields working. He didn’t think father had any right to do that, to just let me back into the family and have a big party to boot. Now my relationship with my big brother is not the best, as you have seen. But I think he had a point there. What right did father have to deny me my punishment? What right did he have to just clean the slate like that? I had treated him like garbage, and he was just going to let it go!
And, you know, of course my brother was out in the fields working. Where else would he be? The worst part of coming home–worse than his disapproval, worse than being so embarrassed by father’s behavior–was seeing the old place, what had happened to it after I left and the famine hit. I hadn’t really thought about it, honestly–what it would mean for me to ask father to sell a third of the land and give me the money. What it would mean to run the farm without my labor. I left a well-to-do family. I returned to a struggling one. My brother had aged, just as my father had. There was no high living for him. There was no finding himself, no adventures in the wide world. I can’t really blame him for being bitter. “This son of yours,” he calls me to our father; he imagines these prostitutes–that whole business. You want repentance, forget the pigs and the dissolute living. I repented right then and there, when I saw what my decisions had done to my family.
But our father is our father. It’s not easy being me–the bad boy, the failure, the scapegrace. The cautionary tale. It’s definitely not easy being my brother–the hard worker, the obedient and responsible one. But it’s probably hardest of all to be our father. He endured very bad treatment from both of us. He was probably mocked and laughed at by the neighbors for his chaotic home life. He endured the trial of my departure and the trial of my return. Forgiveness is hard for everyone involved. Family is hard for everyone involved.
But that’s ultimately what he wanted. He wanted to be a family again, and nothing else mattered. That’s why he threw the big feast. You can be embarrassed, you can be angry, you can be bitter, but when there’s rich food and clear wine and dancing and singing, you have to just get over it. That’s why father answered my brother the way he did: “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life.”
Not that I’m the expert on this, but you may as well hear me out since this story is literally my life. I think Jesus invented me, and my father, and my brother, in order to explain why we need to eat together and have parties. It’s not about the inheritance or the dissolute living or the pigs or admitting that we’ve sinned. It’s about eating together. That’s what he did, after all–he ate with people who were scapegraces, bad boys, failures, cautionary tales. He shared their tables and he drank their wine. That’s how he decided to start putting the broken world back together–by eating with people. That’s why he left his disciples the command to have a meal and to bless and thank God in remembrance of him.
He was honest about how broken people are and how badly people treat each other. But he knew that around a table, around food and drink and music, the human race becomes a family again. When we share a meal, we come back to ourselves again. We discover again that we belong to each other. And we come home.