March 6, 2016 – The Fourth Sunday in Lent
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
I don’t know about you, but I struggle to imagine a character less admirable than the prodigal son. That’s because I’m wired in the exact opposite way. I like following the rules. Before playing a board game, I make everyone sit down and listen as I read the rules out loud just so we can all be clear on how the game is supposed to be played. And I hate wasting money. If you come over to our house for a visit on a cold day, you should probably bring a sweater or maybe even a heavy coat. Why would we turn the heat up above 64 if you can stay perfectly warm sitting on the couch under a blanket while wearing a parka? And there is nothing in this world that I crave more than the approval of people in positions of authority over me. Whether it’s my boss or my teacher or my parents, I live to please them. The thought of letting down someone like that makes me break out in a cold sweat. But that’s just who I am. I’m an oldest child. I’m a type-A tight-wad. I still have the Student of the Month certificate I received in kindergarten. And that’s why I have little sympathy for the prodigal son.
“I’ll take my inheritance now, if you please,” the younger son said to his father. As the younger of two boys, the prodigal son would have stood to inherit one third of his father’s estate, but, since his father wasn’t dead yet, demanding his inheritance up front would have meant selling a third of his father’s land to another person who would take possession of it whenever his dad finally died. Imagine liquidating your relationship with your parents, cashing out on the family name when you were barely out of grade school. Then imagine taking all that you had and wasting it on alcohol and drugs and prostitutes, playing life hard and fast until it all ran out. And then what would you have to show for it? No money. No family. No friends. Just an empty wallet and an empty belly. Imagine how bad things must be if you were willing to eat the leftovers from the pig trough.
But then, in that place of complete emptiness, the tiniest ray of light and hope shone down upon the lost son. “My father is a good man,” he thought to himself. “I cannot be his son anymore, but maybe he will let me have a job on the farm. Then at least I will not starve to death.” It was a crazy idea. What sort of man would let someone spit in his face and then give him a job? Perhaps a loving man would. The only way the lost son could ever imagine getting a job from his father is because he knew that his father had the capacity for mercy. Even though by demanding his inheritance he had essentially wished that his father were already dead, the son still believed that his father would not let him starve to death. Indeed, it is only the father’s mercy that enabled the son to come to his senses and dream up the unlikely scenario in which he would receive a job back on the family farm. But, even then, he still underestimated his father’s love.
While he was still far off, the father saw his long-lost son and ran out to meet him. That suggests to me that the father had not given up hope either. Even years after his son had left, he was still looking down the road, hoping that his boy would come back. And, before the emaciated son could give his well-rehearsed speech about being “unworthy to be called your son,” the father wrapped his arms around him, sobbing and kissing him through tears. Finally, the son got the words out: “I have sinned against heaven and before you…” but the father wasn’t listening. He didn’t care. He only cared about one thing: the son whom he had lost had returned home. At last, his broken heart had been healed. Finally, everything was right. “Get a robe—the best one—and place it on my son,” the father ordered. “And put a ring on his finger. And get the fatted calf and kill it. Tonight we must celebrate because my son who was dead has come back to me. My son who was lost has been found.”
Even though I might not have a lot of sympathy for the prodigal son, I must admit that the father’s love warms even my heart. How could anyone not admire the forgiveness that the father bestows upon his son? How could anyone not feel a tug at the thought of a father weeping over the return of his lost boy? I don’t know. Maybe we should ask the older brother.
We call this parable the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but that doesn’t really do it justice, does it? If you think about it, this story is about a lot more than the younger brother. In his book Stories with Intent, theologian and author Klyne Snodgrass calls this passage “the Parable of the Loving Father and the Two Lost Sons,” and I like that much better because it lets us know that the father’s love is at the center of this story, and it also reminds us that both brothers are equally lost.
“What’s with the music and dancing?” the older brother asked when he had come in from working the fields on his father’s farm. Dutiful, honorable, hard-working, consistent, faithful. There’s not much we can say that’s bad about this older son—except, perhaps, unforgiving. This son had always done everything right. Not once had he let his father down. But his younger brother, who had brought a scandal upon his family and trashed his father’s good name and wasted everything that his father had worked so hard to get for him, this paragon of faithlessness and betrayal was being celebrated. “I’ll be damned if I’m going in,” the older son said to himself. “My brother doesn’t deserve this. I won’t honor his selfishness.”
And what does the loving father say to this angry son of his? “Please, my son, I’m begging you to come in and join us. Everything I have is yours. But your brother, who was dead, has come back to life. He was lost and has been found. We had to celebrate and rejoice.” For the merciful father, it wasn’t even a choice. He was compelled to celebrate because his nature is to love and to forgive. And now his older son’s hardened heart threatened to stand in the way of that. “I have forgiven your brother,” the father said to his dutiful son. “Can’t you understand that? Can’t you forgive him, too? I got my lost son back. Don’t let me lose the other one.”
What’s more difficult for you to believe: that God loves a sinner like you or that God loves all the other sinners—the prostitutes and tax collectors, the drug dealers and loan sharks, the wife abusers and pedophiles, the jihadi terrorists and mass murderers—just as much as he loves you? Don’t forget whom Jesus was speaking to when he told this parable of lostness. He wasn’t speaking to sinners like the prodigal son. He told this parable to the Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling because Jesus was having dinner with the notorious sinners of his day. This parable is directed at church-going, do-right older brothers like you and me. These words are a warning to us—that we must accept the wideness of God’s mercy or else we’ll find ourselves unable to hear the loving voice of our merciful father.
Whether you’re lost in the pigsty or lost in your judgmentalism, it is the father’s mercy that calls out to you. It is God’s love that makes forgiveness possible. Will you come to your senses? If you’re the prodigal son, will you take that first step back toward home, trusting that a merciful father is waiting to wrap his loving arms around you? If you’re the older brother, will you come into the forgiveness banquet that is being thrown for the long-lost sinner who has returned? Will you trust that God’s love for them is the same as it is for you? Whether it’s for you or for someone else, God is throwing a party, and you’re invited. Will you come? Will you believe that forgiveness is always possible?