The Prodigal God

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32,  4th Lent, Year C , March 3, 2013

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:

“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

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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 Prodigal God

My middle-school friends and I used to love to tell scary stories late at night.  From the very introduction, you could get goose-bumps.  They would start with scenes like this: “Late at night, a young couple is in a car that has broken down on a lonely road in the middle of a dense woods.  It’s very quiet.  He says to her, “Stay in the car no matter what: I’ve got to go out and look under the hood…”.

Jesus does the same thing as he introduces this parable with these words:

“There was a man who had two sons.”

“Oh, no.  Something awful is going to happen”  is exactly what his first audience would be thinking.  They knew too many stories of a man who had two sons.  Adam had two sons, Cain and Able – and that story had a bad ending.  Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac.  Bad news for Ishmael.  Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau.  Esau, the elder brother, despised his inheritance and the younger Jacob ended up with it.

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In fact the story of a man with two sons also sounds like the story of Israel itself: God had called Israel his son – but the nation had split into two.  Only one, the younger, Judah, survived the exile – although most everyone believed that they were still enduring exile, with the pagan Romans ruling their land.

Three feasts in a row?

So, right away, a story about a man with two sons sounds ominous – probably a bad ending is coming.  Now this story is the final one, in a set of three.  All three are stories of lostness – first Jesus told of a lost sheep, then a lost coin.  They both had happy endings: the shepherd found the sheep, the lady found the coin – and so both stories end with a party of celebration: feasting.  So how will this third story end?

Well, we know: this story also ends with a joyous celebration; a feast.  But a shadow falls over the party lights.  The camera has to follow the joyful father out of the banquet hall into the darkness of the evening outside.  There is the older son, he his angry, and miserable.  This story does not look like it’s going to have a happy ending.

How does it go from the joy of a lost son being found by his father, to a story of a son at odds with his father?  How does it go from joyful feast to stone-cold silence – for we never do hear how this story ends, do we?

The Bizarre Keeps Happening

This story not only begins in a way that gets everyone’s attention, all through the story bizarre things keep happening that must have left the first audience with their heads spinning.03

In a community of people for whom a family’s inheritance of land was a sacred trust, to be treasured and protected with one’s life, this story is about a reckless son who despises his inheritance, just as their ancestor Esau had done.

In a community of people with strict laws about morality, and strict codes of honor and shame, this is a story of a son who violates all the moral rules, and so shames himself, his entire family, especially his father, his culture, his country and his religion.

In a world in which honoring parents was a supreme value, he has requested his inheritance, which could only come from his father’s death.  He has cashed-in what is irreplaceable for no more than a bowl of porridge.   In a world of kosher purity, he has gone off  into the pig-pen of a pagan foreign land. And found himself at the mercy of a gentile.

But what makes this story the most bizarre is what the father does and does not do.  At the start, he would have been expected to beat a son who made such an insulting, dishonoring request, not grant it!  The father would have defended his ancestral land, not let the son sell it.

And then, having been so despised and shamed, that father would not have been  looking down the road for his son to return.  The very thought that a father would wait and watch and long for his return, and then run – run! with no Middle Eastern male dignity at all, and embrace him in all of his pig-pen impurity!

No confession-speech, however well rehearsed, could ever be expected to undo the permanent damage that son had done.  And then, to restore him to full family status, robe, ring, sandals and all!  This is utter recklessness.  This is the story of the prodigal father!04

Act II; the Older Son

But this is the story of a man with two sons.  If the younger son’s initial request was an act which brought shame on his father, so the older son’s refusal to join the party is no less insulting.

And if the father  abandoned his dignity by running to greet the younger son,  so he looses it again as he gets up from the party, in full view of all the guests, and goes outside, as if summoned by a superior.

In this most bizarre tale, the father allows himself to be humiliated not just once, but twice.  If anything, the second is worse than the first because as father meets son, there is no humble repentance and reconciliation, but rather accusation and smug self-righteousness.

The elder son is like Jonah, angry at God that has forgiven the repentant people of Nineveh.  He has heard the often repeated self-description of God as:

“a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Ex. 34:6; Jonah 4:2 and many other places)

But he has not internalized it.  Compassion is something God has; not something he has any desire to show.05

Which Son Are We?

There is a trick in this parable.  Who do we sympathize with?  Well, as the third in a set of three parables of lostness and being found, we naturally want to see ourselves as those lost sheep who have been scooped up by a good shepherd before the wolf got to us.  We want to be the coin that is liberated from the dark corner of the room and celebrated by all the neighbors.  We can imagine ourselves as a son who has been bad, but who has come to his senses and returned.  We were lost, but now we have been found.  Now God is OK with us.

But that son disappears from the story, as the elder brother demands his hearing.  Now we are left to ask ourselves – am I like him?  Are there people I would not welcome to the party?  Are there any, about whom I feel morally superior?  Is there anyone whose presence at the table would make me want to stay outside?

Who gets the banquet and who gets shut out, in this story?  The only reason for anyone being outside the circle of joy around that table is their exclusion of others.   The only one who ends without joy is the one who cannot embrace compassion.06

A Good Start, But then…

In the early days of the church, this parable of the prodigal God of reckless compassion made an impression.   The church that began among the children of Abraham was willing to welcome to its table gentiles, and learned to call them brother and sister; members of one family.

In those early days, slaves and free people shared from a common loaf of bread.  Men and women together, rich and poor, people met together in homes, sharing a common cup in a radical departure from anything before.

But, when the Roman emperor Constantine converted and Christianity became associated with power and privilege, things changed.  Eventually the church got the idea that she was somehow the gatekeeper of God’s banquet.

The church that  had once conceived of itself as the festival of lost souls who had been found  became the supper of the superior who had the right to judge.  And judging has been what we have been best known for, for centuries.

So how does the story end?  The story that Jesus told is open-ended.  We never hear how  the older brother responded to his father’s pleas.  This gives us hope.  Our story is not over.  We have a past, it is true, but we also have a future that has not been foreclosed.

A New Day, A Summons to Heed07

I believe that in many circles, there is a new day dawning for the church.  We have finally discovered that we are not a white person’s club.  We are not a rich person’s club.  We are not an able-bodied-only club or a smart people’s club.  We are not a straight persons’ club nor a  clean person’s club.  We are people like everybody – people with a past, people with scars, people with a dark side that is still dark and with habits we have not been able yet to break.

But many of us have come to the conclusion that the reason we are here, around the table at all, is not even our well rehearsed repentance speech – which the father wasn’t interested in anyway.  No, the reason we are here at all is because our God is prodigally:

“a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

So if that is the basis for our presence at the table, what basis could there ever be for excluding anyone else?  This story is a summons to us: a call to do unto others what has been done for us.  We are called by a bizarrely compassionate Father to bear the family’s genetic traits into our generation.  We are called to be compassionately open and welcoming to all lost souls, just as we have been welcomed.

There was a man who had two sons.  One was feasting at his table with joy because he was lost but had been found.   He was dead but now lives.  The other had the key in his had to banquet hall with a lavish table, set and ready, in Gulf Shores.  What did he do with it?

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