The Parable of the Rule Breaking Family

Pastor Joe Skogmo

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Lowry, MN

Lent 4 | 03.31.2016 | Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Today’s is one of Jesus’ most famous parables, commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

There’s always a danger in labeling Jesus’ parables. For instance, The Prodigal Son means the reckless or wasteful or lost son, which no doubt is a main theme in the parable!—but there is much more to this story than just the younger reckless son. First of all, the parable opens up with the fact that there are TWO sons (Luke 15:11). Sometimes I wonder why we only emphasize the younger son? The older son has a major role in the story. What if Jesus wanted us to emphasize the older son? What if the main point was about the older son’s confusion in the face of undeserving grace bestowed by the father? Perhaps then we would name the parable—The Lament of the Responsible Son. Or maybe Jesus wants us to emphasize the father. Perhaps then we would name the parable—The Parable of a Loving Dad. This is your scriptural PSA of the day—when parables are given titles, they push us to emphasize certain elements of the story…and that’s fine! We just have to be aware of it.

In fact, I’m going to do it today. For today’s sermon, I want to offer a title that carries a certain emphasis: let’s think of today’s famous story as The Parable of the Rule Breaking Family.

With that label in mind, let’s recap:

There are two sons—one younger and one older—and their father. The younger son told his father to give him his share of the inheritance. This is a breaking of the rules. As was ancient custom, in “Jewish families, sons inherited goods and property from their fathers… [and often] an inheritance was divided up only after a father’s death, so the younger son’s request is unusual,”[1] if not downright insensitive and greedy.

Equally as odd…the father allows this to happen!—more rule-breaking. The father is not supposed to be this lenient or gracious. In one ancient text, the Book of Sirach, it says that fathers are not to give their property up before they die. From the Book of Sirach:

20To son or wife, to brother or friend,
…do not give your property to another…

23 Excel in all that you do;
bring no stain upon your honor.
24 …in the hour of death, [then] distribute your inheritance.

-Sirach 33:20, 23-24

What we are witnessing in the parable is a father who is willing to break some rules in order to provide for and love his son.

So, the younger son takes the inheritance and blows it on what the passage calls, “dissolute living” (15:13), or a selfish lifestyle. Having blown all his money, this younger son picks up a job in the fields feeding pigs (v. 15)—they may seem a harmless detail, but the younger son’s choice in occupation is in fact another moment of rule-breaking.

In ancient Jewish custom the pig was considered unclean. This was not an honorable occupation. So, in doing this, the younger son commits to an even more unclean and disgraceful lifestyle.[2]

I think Jesus is intentionally creating a deeply loathsome character in the younger son. He dishonors his father by demanding his inheritance before his father dies- greedy, insensitive. He blows all the money on himself and a high-octane superficial lifestyle – narcissistic and reckless. Then he gets a job working with pigs – dishonors Jewish heritage, rejects his family religion. Jesus is creatively constructing not just a flawed character, but a character with multi-layered screw up that would have been despised by his audience.

Having hit rock bottom and virtually starving due to famine and poverty, he decides to disgracefully return to his father and plead with him (v. 18). He gets to the outskirts of his father’s property and begins rehearsing his apology and plea for mercy. And we have no indication that he’s even being sincere. But before he can even give this confession (a key detail!—BEFORE he even gives a confession or has the chance to actually repent and clean up his act) the father sees him and is “filled with compassion”, runs, and “and put his arms around him and kissed him” (v. 20).

More rule-breaking! First of all, you’d think for the father to show compassion he would first like an apology and for the son to “make it right” (cf. Ezekiel 18:32). But no! The father embraces his reckless son without even an apology, without condition.

Furthermore, the text says the father ran to embrace him. I remember one of my New Testament professors (Arland Hultgren) explaining that, according to ancient Jewish norms, esteemed men did not run.[3] That’s what foolish, undisciplined, undignified men did. Original audiences of this parable might have thought, “Jeez, guy, show some restraint!” Yet, the father, without the younger son’s repentance, runs like a lunatic to his loathsome son, embraces him, kisses him…and then…throws him a lavish party.

Meanwhile, the older son has got to feel like he is in the twilight zone. The text says, understandably, that “he became angry” and scolded 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 [a party] with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you [throw him a party]” (vv. 28-30) are you kidding me!?

This is more than understandable! But what should have happened next, according the rules, is the father should have scolded the older son—“Don’t be jealous! What is the matter with you! Thou shalt not covet…you should be ashamed of yourself!

But no, as one scholar puts beautifully, what happens next in the text is perhaps the most touching moment of the story:

…when the son makes his case, the father does not disagree or belittle…‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours’ (v. 31). The generosity lavished on the son who was lost outside the household is now extended also to the son who is lost within the household. The father’s love knows no limitations.[4]

The Parable of the Rule Breaking Family.

Brothers and sisters, think about what all this truly means for you.

No matter with whom you identify in the story…this parable reveals a God who is, by most worldly and religious standards, offensively gracious, who breaks rules in order to love those of us who break the rules.

Perhaps we sometimes identify with the younger son, that we’ve broken too many rules and therefore we’ve got a lot of work to do in order to be acceptable again, or to be accepted by God. But here Jesus has constructed a deeply disdainful and broken character in the younger son, and yet tells a story where the father without hesitation breaks all the normative rules of behavior to love without condition.

When we identify with the older son, when we want to point out the flaws of others, plead our self-righteousness over people we don’t like, or make our case for our superiority over others, or are envious that seemingly less deserving people receive what we think the should not receive—God says, “I love them. I love you, too.”

Whether we are undeserving or jealously self-righteous, a point of this parable is that the Father runs to his wayward with compassion and comforts his envious with promise. God loves us all the same. That may not always be logical by our standards, perhaps even offensive, but, hey, this is the parable of the rule-breaking family. Amen.

     [1] Richard W. Swanson, “Luke,” in Lutheran Study Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 1731. (*emphasis mine).

     [2] Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, Jr., James D. Newsome, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 226.

     [3] Cf. David Lose, “Lent 4 C: The Prodigal God,” In the Meantime,–“…the landowner in Jesus’ parable does something landowners never do. He runs out to meet his wayward son the minute he spies him coming from afar.”

     [4] Cousar, Gaventa, McCann, Jr., Newsome, Texts for Preaching, 227.


  1. Karen Kaehler on April 14, 2019 at 5:24 pm

    Thanks Joe for reminding me of Gods pure love for me. Good to “hear” you again! We are heading home via California. Hope to be back by May 1.

    • Joe Skogmo on April 16, 2019 at 3:36 pm

      Thanks, Karen! Good to hear from you. Safe travels!

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