4th Sunday in Lent
March 6, 2016
15: 1-3, 11-32
How many of you have heard this story before?
It’s one of the most famous tales of the Bible. Even people who never go to church have heard this story. That means we think we know it pretty well, so you can just snooze through the sermon and it’ll be all good. Right? But maybe there is something here for us 21st Century Christians after all, something from this illustration in another culture and another world that has something to say to us.
“All the tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear Jesus,” Luke tells us. Just the kind of people that the good ‘church people’ want to steer clear of. They were grumbling about this crowd, Luke says. These are not the people church people hang out with, they are simply not good enough. As he hears their grouching, Jesus tells a story.
We are used to calling this story “The Prodigal Son.” Titles can skew the way you hear a story, so I’d like you to consider an alternative title as we pull this story apart. What else would you call it? What would you focus on as you consider the actions of the three characters in this story?
So this story goes like this:
The bratty, spoiled little brother cons his Dad out of his portion of the family farm, possibly at a loss to the father and big brother who work this farm business. He goes off to live out his fantasies about the good life until everything falls apart. His money is gone, his friends don’t care, and he’s left with a demeaning job and there’s no food, even if he could afford it. Ever the clever one, he realizes that everyone is eating at his Dad’s, even the slaves. So he works up his repentance speech and heads for home. But before he even has a chance to use it, his father runs to greet him and celebrate his return. We don’t know if the kid is really sorry or not, but while he kneels at his father’s feet to give his speech, his father is ordering up a feast and restoring him to his previous status as darling son with the clothes and jewelry that go with it. “My son was lost, and now he is found!”
Who here is the oldest child? Yeah, me too. The responsible one who ended up taking Mom and Dad to doctor’s appointments as they aged, while all the other siblings had moved away. The one who followed all the rules, and no one ever cut you any slack. Everyone, including you, just expected this, it was who you were in the family. And the day comes when you realize that you feel taken advantage of, unappreciated for all your efforts, and left out of love that seems to overflow for others who haven’t worked so hard, haven’t earned it. It’s enough to make you mad.
“What about me?” How does the love get through that resentment, that feeling of being used and abused while others get off so easily? How is it possible to share in the joy of restoration and healing if you feel that those slackers who are celebrated don’t deserve it?
In this story of being lost and being found, Jesus’ question is, what if you don’t recognize that you have lost yourself? It’s clear that those who have lost their bearings can come to their senses and that God celebrates their change of heart. God’s forgiveness and love are always inviting us into celebration and joy in life. There is nothing that God is not willing to forgive in order to welcome us into God’s love and care. When we turn and come back, we will find that God is already there with open arms, and it doesn’t seem that anything we do or don’t do can keep God from such a joyous welcome. But what if are too proud, too judgmental to accept God’s generosity?
Who do you identify with in this story? What would you title it as an alternative to what the church fathers chose to emphasize?
Especially in Luke’s Gospel, there are lots of feasts and parties and dinners. We are told over and over that the doors are open, and we are welcome to join the celebration. In this story we see that it’s possible to cut yourself off from the joy of living life in Christ by trying to earn God’s love and being judgmental of those who don’t try as hard. Grace is hard for us to accept, we would much rather get credit for believing the right things and doing the right things. But the truth is that what God wants for us is to embrace our status as Beloved, to enjoy the forgiveness we already have and the love that God wants to lavish on us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. The truth is that God wants that Beloved-ness we enjoy to change our hearts into loving each other and all those who haven’t already heard the good news of God’s forgiving love. God wants us to share in the joy of seeing the lost being found, and realizing that God’s love has found us too. And then to party with God and all God’s people. Amen.