(a sermon for March 31, 2019, the 4th Sunday in Lent, based on Luke 15:1-32)
Tell me the truth now; when you heard this morning’s scripture reading, didn’t you think to yourselves, Oh, I know this story; I know where this is headed!
Actually, I’d be really surprised if you didn’t have that thought; after all, not only is it safe to say that this story of “The Prodigal Son” is among the most beloved of Jesus’ parables, quite honestly it’s probably logged more pulpit time than nearly anything else in the gospels!
I know I’ve preached on this passage several times over the years and no doubt you’ve heard it more times than that; and from every possible perspective, from that of the rebellious younger son who runs off and squanders his father’s money only to end up feeding pigs in a far off land, to the elder “good” son who stayed home to run the family farm; and of course, from the point of view of the waiting father who welcomes his once-presumed-dead prodigal son home with great rejoicing!
It is a wonderful parable about sin and redemption, grace and joy and our very human tendency to stubbornly refuse those things! Which is wonderful; the trouble is, however, this is one of those biblical stories so familiar to our ears that it’s pretty much become like one of Aesop’s Fables, in which we can skip right ahead to the moral; which in the case of this story would be, “No matter how badly you have messed up in your life, pick yourself up, wipe the pig slop off your clothes (!) and go home; because there’s love and forgiveness waiting for you there, and once you’ve been welcomed home you can start over where you left off…
…oh, and if you happen to be the older son in this parable… stop your pouting, and go to the party already!”
That would be the moral of the story as we’ve always known it. Not that this is wrong, mind you; it’s just not wholly what Jesus was getting at when he told the story! You see, one of the problems with the over-familiarity we have with stories like this one is that they’ve lost, shall we say, their “shock and awe” value! When Jesus told this parable, he intended it to be surprising, shocking, even in a way offensive to the ears hearing it; not as the warm and fuzzy bit of self-help advice that we so often glean from it. And the key to understanding that comes in knowing that Jesus offered up these parables not so much for the benefit of the inner circle of his followers and well-wishers, nor were they even directed primarily to the crowds of the curious that surrounded them, but rather they were for “powers that be;” that is, the Pharisees and scribes who were, as Luke succinctly puts it, “grumbling,” and complaining that Jesus was spending altogether too much time in the company of sinners and lowlifes.
Actually, in this instance, Jesus tells three parables which when told together culminate in that story of the prodigal son. The first is about a lost sheep, or more accurately, about the shepherd so passionate about finding that missing member of the flock that he’ll leave the other 99 behind while he beats the bushes in the search. And, wouldn’t you do that? Oh, and while I’m on the subject, Jesus goes on to say, who among you, if you lost a coin – even if was only one coin out of ten – isn’t it true that you’d fairly well tear the house apart trying to find that one single coin? And once you’ve found it – the sheep or the coin, don’t you just want just call all your neighbors and friends to celebrate that that which was lost is now found!
So… given all that, how about that rebellious younger son? I mean, yes, he essentially tells his father to drop dead – whatever I’m getting in the inheritance, give it to me now because, Pop, I am out of here (!) – but tell the truth, which one of you wouldn’t do that for your son, to give everything you ever had and worked for to this obnoxious, ungrateful rebel kid of yours? And then, once he’s left and he’s wasted all your money on parties and gambling and women, and then comes home looking like “the wreck of the Hesperus” and smelling of a pigsty, who among you wouldn’t welcome him back home with a hug and a kiss, not to mention the biggest homecoming celebration anybody’s ever seen? Who among you wouldn’t do that?
Cut to the faces of the scribes and Pharisees, and of course, their scowls say it all: No… nobody would do that…ever!
I mean, lost sheep and missing coins, that’s one thing; but feasts and fatted calves for lazy, irresponsible prodigals, that’s just crazy talk! Actions have consequences, Jesus, and bad behavior results in punishment, that’s just the way it is; it’s what our sacred law says and that’s how we’ve always matters such as this, so why would you even suggest such a thing, Jesus!
And that’s when Jesus lets the shock give way to awe: oh… excuse me, did you think I was talking about your behavior? These aren’t stories about what you do; these are stories about what God does, about how God behaves. Don’t you get it? God is the seeking shepherd who will sacrifice nearly everything in order to bring the lost one home; God is that woman who is relentless in her search for one little lost coin amongst many.
And yes, God is that waiting father, who when he sees his son “while he was still far off,” doesn’t even consider what’s gone on in the past; just that his beloved son who he believed to be dead and gone from his life forever was home! And so he ran – of course, he ran (!) – he literally sprinted across that field to embrace him and welcome him and celebrate his return. Because “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine persons who need no repentance.”
Or to put it another way, forgiveness is ours to receive and that forgiveness comes from God.
Last week, you’ll remember that we talked a lot about the importance of and need for repentance: that crucial opportunity that you and I have to change and turn around and do what needs to be done to bear fruit before God; and the need for and the receiving of forgiveness is all wrapped up in that. But that gives rise to a question, one that is very much a part of this parable and, for that matter, one that’s been debated across the ages: what comes first, the repentance or the forgiveness? Asked another way, in order to be forgiven do we first need to come clean for all your sins and start a new life, or is the new life the result of being forgiven? Truth is, we can make a case for both points of view in this story. Quite honestly, our human attitude – not to mention the way we do confession in the church – it tends to side with the idea that repentance is required for forgiveness. But that’s what makes the story that Jesus is telling about this sinful, “prodigal” son so radical.
I love what the late author and Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon wrote about this: he maintained that even when the younger son “[comes] to himself” there in the pigsty, there is no real repentance. “This is just one more dumb plan for his life,” he said. Yes, he does confess the sin. “That’s true. He got that one right. ‘And I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ Score two. He gets that one right” too. But then he gets it dead wrong: he starts to negotiate; he tries to rationalize out what his best bargaining points are. Maybe I can work as a hired hand, or whatever; honestly, this is not unlike a kid coming to confess his or her transgression and then adding, well, at least I’m being honest about this so that maybe it’ll reduce my time of being grounded?
Ultimately, wrote Capon, “this is not a real repentance; it’s just a plan for a life. [But] what it is, is enough to get him started going home, and consequently, when he goes home, what happens next is an absolutely fascinating kind of thing.”
It’s God. God is what happens! Did you notice in this story that the father never actually says anything to the son? There’s no effort to extract a confession from him, no “what have you got to say for yourself, young man?” There’s just this loving embrace and the kiss, this incredibly emotional welcome home. It’s only after all this that the son manages to get the confession out of his mouth; and even then the father’s already busy calling the servants to get this party started!
It’s amazing, isn’t it? The scribes and the Pharisees, and yes, even you and I, we tend to think that in order to receive the forgiveness and restoration we’ve been seeking we’ve got to do everything properly and in good order; but here’s God who just up and forgives, not because all the dots have been connected but simply out of love! And it’s all because of this relentless desire of God that his children should be welcomed home; that’s the source of this amazing and unending joy “in the presence of angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
And don’t misunderstand here, the prodigal does repent; it’s just that as Jesus tells the story, the real confession and the true repentance comes about in celebration of the forgiveness that he got for nothing! None of us, you see, can earn forgiveness; there was nothing that the prodigal son received in his homecoming that he actually deserved. For all practical purposes, he was indeed dead; he had ceased to be his father’s son. And yet in his father’s arms he rises from the dead and he’s able to take his place again at his father’s side.
And yes, I totally get the anger and frustration of the older son – don’t you? I mean, doggone it, he was the “good” son! He’s done everything right, and we can understand how he isn’t about to sit down at the same table with what Barbara Brown Taylor has beautifully described as this “self-centered, pig-loving, sin-sick brother who has cost his family so much grief.” sThe older son represents every one of us who have strived to do the right thing and follow all the rules and yet feel like we’ve never gotten the credit we deserve for doing so. It’s a telling tale that even when the father makes his case for forgiveness, we’re never told whether or not the “good son” ever buys his father’s argument. And we do understand that kind of reluctance; for just like the older son, we do like to know who’s right and who’s wrong, and it does feel kind of good if you’re the one vindicated in the process!
But at the end of the day, you see, it’s not about what we do. Yes, it is good that we’re living the life of faith as we should, great that we’re “walking the walk” more than merely “talking the talk.” But ultimately, it’s what God does that matters. And here’s the thing: this old, familiar story serves as a fresh reminder to all of us that what God is doing in Jesus Christ, what’s soon to happen on the cross – indeed, what’s already happened on the cross – is all about God’s utterly indefatigable determination to welcome each and every one of us home from wherever we have been, no matter how far off.
There is deep within each and every one of us a want, a need, a deep yearning for home. It might be found in a physical structure, it could be with a family or a circle of friends, and it so often finds its expression in our gathering together as the people of God in this sacred place… a place, a people, a life where we feel truly welcomed home. Well, the very good news is that God wants to welcome us home… the question is, what will we do about it?
To quote Barbara Brown Taylor again, while all this is going on with the father and the older son, “there is a banquet going on. You can hear the music and the dancing even out in the yard, and there is plenty left to eat. Your father won’t make you go in the house. He’ll just stand in the yard with you to protect you, the same way he protected your brother.”
But, here’s the thing you need to remember: he does want you to come to the party and to come as you are! This is a true celebration; it is a gift to be forgiven and to be welcomed home. All you need to do is say yes… accept the gift that’s offered you and come inside! And when you do, if you do, then nothing’s ever going to be the same; life… new life is yours.
So come on in, because the celebration is on…
… and thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry