The Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 31, 2019)
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
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:
Then Jesus said, “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.’”
[Note: this sermon was written so that it could be more easily translated into Spanish]
We discussed this story at Midweek Manna, our Wednesday morning gathering in the chapel. What we normally do on Wednesday mornings is read the passage aloud and discuss it. But this time I told the people who were there, “Don’t read it just yet. Just tell me the story as you remember it.”
Somebody asked, “Can we take turns telling parts of the story?” “Of course,” I said. So we went around the circle and retold the story in sequence. They remembered the plot, each of the characters, and most of the details. I was impressed!
It made me wonder, why is this story so easy to remember?
Maybe that’s because we’ve heard it before. It’s familiar. Many artists have painted the scene of the son being embraced again by the father (Rembrandt, most famously). Many songs have been inspired by this story. And there’s that saying, “The prodigal has returned,” which some of us heard growing up when we returned home and too much time had passed since our last visit. It’s one of the most famous stories Jesus told and it stands out because it touches our hearts… or hits a nerve.
Who hasn’t had the experience of making a huge mistake and being forgiven later? Who hasn’t known the pain of estrangement, of being separated, and then the joy of reconciliation? If you are a parent, you might know that deep feeling of relief when a son or daughter returns home safely. Or, as a son or daughter, you might know that feeling of relief when you expect anger or disappointment from your mother or father after messing up and you receive grace instead.
I think one reason this story is so easy to remember because it’s about a family. And family conflict, that’s something we can all relate to. Frankly, this story is a therapist’s dream! There’s enough to discuss in several sessions. The reckless behavior of the younger son. The father enabling that behavior by giving him half the family inheritance and then not holding him accountable once he returned home after wasting it all. And then there’s the bitter resentment of the older son. How long had that been simmering?
I asked a question of the people in our Wednesday morning gathering, and it’s something to ponder for all of us: which of these three people do you identify with—the father, the younger son, or the older son?
Some people picked one character. Other people said, “I’m like all three of them.” Others said, “It depends on what period of my life we’re talking about here. I was like the younger son once.”
If I honest with myself, I identify mostly with the older brother. He’s the responsible one. He’s loyal to the family. He’s done everything right. And here comes the younger brother who had squandered everything his father gave him, half the family inheritance, after insulting his father. He basically says straight to his father’s face, “You are dead to me. Give me what I am owed!”
The father forgives him. And not only that, he basically throws him a homecoming parade when he crawls back home. It doesn’t computer! The father’s forgiveness defies common sense. It breaks the rules. It ignores boundaries.
The story is traditionally called “The Prodigal Son”—prodigal as in wasteful, extravagant, lavish, excessive. “Prodigal” because of how wasteful the younger son is with his inheritance. But it should be called “The Prodigal Father” because what’s really excessive is his love, mercy, compassion, and the grace he extends to his son.
Jesus told this story in response to the Pharisees and Scribes complaints that he, Jesus, was too radical, too permissive in welcoming people to his table. All the parables in chapter 15 are about the lost being found. And what Jesus is trying to do in each of these parables is to tell us all about who God is and what God is like.
And here’s a fundamental truth at the core: God’s love, mercy, compassion, and grace can’t be weighed on a scale. They can’t be entered onto a spreadsheet. They overflow beyond measure. There is no metric for the joy in the heart of God when the lost are found and when the estranged are reconciled. That’s why the father tries so hard to get the older son to share his joy when the younger son comes back home—he was reminding them that they were still brothers. None of this “this son of yours” but “your brother.”
It’s true that we’re called to emulate the father, to reflect the lavish generosity of God. It’s also true that there are times in life we simply can’t. Maybe we shouldn’t, for very legitimate reasons. Some things are hard to forgive. We have our limits. Sometimes our own mercy or even our own love isn’t enough. Sometimes, like the older brother, we just don’t have it in us.
A pastor and mentor of mine who was very wise said to me once, “Sometimes I can’t love people. I just can’t. So I have to love them with God’s love, not my own.”
Sometimes, many tims, we can’t muster it. But there’s always enough with God, so much so that it can seem like too much in some cases. The point isn’t that we can’t reach a love like this, the point is that this love reaches for us. The love of God is an abundant, overflowing, never-ending well for us to draw from when we don’t have enough of our own. It’s always there, in all of its excessive glory, waiting for all God’s children to come home.