The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 14, 2010
Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.
I think it says a lot about the church and our Western culture that this magnificent parable
of forgiveness, restoration, and celebration
has been narrowly and unfortunately named, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” …
as if it were only a story of a morally-lax, wayward boy.
There’s so much more to this story
than just the wide-eyed wanderlust of a disrespectful son …
but too often we can do little more with this story
than wag our finger at the younger son in grand self-righteous fashion.
This story is one of three in a row found in Luke chapter 15
that Jesus tells about finding things that were lost –
a shepherd who lost but later found one of his sheep,
a woman who lost but later found one of her silver coins,
and in this parable, a father who lost but later found one of his children.
And in each story, finding the lost results in some over-the-top celebration.
When the shepherd finds his lost sheep he gathers his friends and neighbors and says,
“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”
When the woman finds her silver coin, she calls her friends and neighbors and says,
“Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
When the father finds his son, he orders his servants to prepare a massive feast, saying,
“Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again;
he was lost and is found!”
In the way we name these stories we have emphasized the condition of being lost –
the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin,
the parable of the prodigal, that is, the morally lost son, we say.
But all this talk about being lost misses a terribly important point.
We’re so stuck on the first part of the story that we hardly allow ourselves to keep reading,
to get to God’s exuberant celebration when the lost is found,
the broken made whole,
the separated brought together.
That is, there’s something in us that really wants to dwell on the loss,
or on the countless sins of the son,
that we’re hardly capable of sharing in God’s joy.
Yet that’s what these stories are about – God’s joy.
No, Father, I’m not coming to the party.
Listen. I’ve been good. I’ve busted my tail. I’ve done right by you and by God.
I’ve never asked for my inheritance,
I’ve never asked for anything!
Heck, I’ve never even asked for a measly little calf
so my buddies and I could have a little party.
I’ve been the good child,
working hard, honoring you, doing the right thing.
Yet your youngest son here asked you for his inheritance – for his inheritance!
That’s like asking for you to die so he can get his hands on your stuff.
That’s dishonorable, that’s rude, that’s selfish.
I would have never done such a thing.
But he did. And you know what’s more?
After you gave it to him he went out and squandered it
– on prostitutes, father. Prostitutes!
I mean, how many commandments has he broken by this point –
he surely hasn’t honored his father and his mother;
then there’s the one about adultery;
he dishonored God by making a god out of his own selfish desires;
and the pigs? C’mon, Father, this son of yours is despicable.
And then he comes back here and you throw him this party?
What, is this some sort of reward for being a reckless and dishonorable son?
I work hard and get nothing.
He disrespects his father, his God, his own self … and this is his punishment? A party?
How does that teach him anything?
I think we’re a lot like the older son,
eager to complain when our efforts don’t seem to be appreciated,
more than willing to assert our own rights,
and all too ready to wag a finger.
But celebrate another’s good fortune,
be that the good fortune of the younger son who is no longer at the depths of misery,
or the good fortune of the father who is overjoyed at the return of his lost son?
That is hard to do.
There’s an old fable that tells of a farmer to whom God gave three wishes,
but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for him
would be given double to his neighbor.
So for his first wish the farmer asked for a hundred head of cattle,
and he was overjoyed ….
until he saw that his neighbor suddenly had two hundred cattle.
Then he wished for one hundred acres of land, and he was overjoyed …
until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land.
Unable to handle the joy felt by his neighbor,
unable to celebrate his neighbor’s good fortune,
for his final wish the farmer asked to be made blind in one eye.
You see, the farmer had a good thing going with God,
But his neighbor also had a good thing, a better thing, perhaps,
and that just ate him up.
He couldn’t share in his neighbor’s joy.*
Too often in America we speak about our relationship with God
as if it were entirely a personal thing, between me and God in heaven.
Who needs the church telling me what to believe,
or suggesting that perhaps I’m getting it wrong in part,
or weighing me down with things like offerings or activities
or relationships with a bunch of people I may not even like that much
or care to associate with?
It’s just about me and my relationship with God, right?
That’s kind of what the older son was arguing to his Father,
telling how he had been so loyal and dutiful to him,
serving him faithfully, not asking for anything beyond the pale,
doing everything right by his father.
But what the elder son didn’t seem to understand is that
being a son required him to be a brother, too …
even a brother to a reckless, irresponsible, and disrespectful kid.*
So too for each of us:
being a child of God involves also being a sister or brother to God’s other children.
That is, our calling in the church is not only to get things right between us and God,
but between us and our siblings within the human family.
The Good News is that at any given time on any given day,
somewhere across God’s good creation,
we can be assured that God is throwing a party
for some undeserving, wretched sinner,
a family reunion unlike any other.
Are we going to ho-hum it,
cross our arms and refuse to raise our glass?
Or are we going to seek out God’s holy party,
breaking bread and drinking wine with sinners of his great banquet feast?
Dear sisters and brothers, the party has already started,
2000 years ago in fact, on a cross, of all places.
For when the blood of the lamb was shed,
a new era in the Father’s relationship with the lost child –
with us lost children – began.
The relationship was restored, a new Kingdom dawned,
and the Father reached out his arms, ran to us, and embraced us.
* Thanks to R. Allan Culpepper and his commentary on Luke 15 in The New Interpreters Bible vol 11, for the tale about the farmer (page 298) and for the insight on being a son and brother (page 304).