(Lent 4, Luke 15.11-32)
March 18, 20047
The father said, “Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15.23-24)
I want begin this morning with a brief look back at the first part of our Old Testament reading from Joshua. I love to quote this particular passage, because of the visual image that it gives us of how our religious stories have been passed down to us from generation to generation.
After being enslaved in Egypt; after forty years in the wilderness; and after countless other tests of faith, the Israelites finally crossed the Jordan River into the land that God had promised to them through Abraham. And the Lord tells Joshua to have one member from each tribe take a stone from the Jordan for remembrance of that day.
And so as they camp the next day at Gilgal, Joshua took the twelve stones and placed them in a permanent place of worship. And he instructs the Israelites to use them as a reminder – as a kind-of picture book of the past. A reminder of who they are and of how they got to this place. And most importantly, a reminder of the God of Israel who delivered them.
And the stones were to stay in that prominent place, and when future generations of children ask about them, the elders are to take the stones and let the children touch them and look at them.
And as they studied them, the children would imagine what it must have been like to cross a body of water like the Red Sea that was made so dry so as to allow their ancestors to walk across it.
And how their priests had crossed the Jordan with the ark of the covenant without their feet getting wet. And the older ones would recount how God chose the Israelites to be his children, and how God had delivered them to this land as promised in the covenant that God made with Abraham and renewed again with Moses.
And so the children would begin to understand how they were part of a story that had begun long before. The rocks would symbolize how they are part of a narrative that began many, many generations earlier.
Today’s gospel reading of the Prodigal Son is much like one of those stones of Israel for us Christians. Because the parable is so familiar, we can pick it up again and again and look at it and hold it and retell the story to ourselves and to others.
This is a story that Jesus uses to define the new covenant that he came to declare. It is a story that helps us better know what it means to be a follower of Christ. It is an important part of our Christian narrative that we need to pick up and turn over a few times and look at together – in order to understand more about the God who we worship.
So let’s look at this fascinating parable again and see what we remember and what we can maybe learn about our Christian story.
Jesus begins by saying, “There was a man who had two sons.” Immediately we notice that the subject of the parable is the parent – the father, not the sons. I suppose the Prodigal Son sounds like a more interesting story than ‘the forgiving parent’ does, so the parable was named it after the flamboyant younger son who wanted to live life to the fullest.
And as we know, that is exactly what he did. He asked for his inheritance in advance, so that he could be independent from his father – could make his own life decisions. And his father granted his wish.
The father surely knew that it was a big mistake, but he allowed his son to make the choice anyway.
And is it ever a big mistake. The young son forgets everything that we assume his parents taught him, and spends his money like there is no tomorrow. Traveling here and there. Eating and drinking to excess. So much so, that he manages to go through his entire inheritance in very short order. And so when he is broke and on the verge of starving, he takes a job slopping pigs. The worst of all jobs.
And it is there, at the very bottom of life – at the point that he would rather be one of those pigs than to continue in his present state. It is there that he finally begins to sort a few things out.
Finally begins to understand that his former life was not so bad after all. That while life might have been dull, at least it provided him with regular meals, and he was with people that really cared about him, and not just about his money.
Funny, isn’t it, how often we have to really mess things up – really be on the bottom of life – before we can see clearly what is really important?
While I may be too old now to identify with the Prodigal’s desire for adventure, I do still find that I continue to learn some of life’s lessons the hard way. I can still get too self-absorbed; too intent on getting ahead, that I neglect the things of lasting value like family and God. So often we don’t realize what we have, until we lose it, do we? A sad fact of life. I wish that I could say that we eventually outgrow our prodigal nature, but I don’t know that it is ever behind us for good.
So in his desperation, the young son comes up with a plan to return to his home and get his father to take him back. He even rehearses what he is going to say; determined to convince his father to take him back, if even as one of the hired hands.
But he never has to use a single one of his practiced lines. All of that time walking home and imagining the conversation with his father. Imagining how hard he would have to argue to convince him to let him come home. All of that anxiety how his father would respond. All unnecessary.
Because, before he even gets to the gate, his father sees him coming and runs out to greet him – to hug him and to let him know that things would be O.K.
In the verses that immediately precede this reading, Jesus tells the gathered crowd about the parable of the lost sheep. He concludes that lesson with the line, ‘there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ So there is a similar joy in the father when he sees his lost son coming up the lane. And he makes sure that his joy is not hidden: he declares it in every way he can – with the best robe, a ring for his finger, and sandals for his feet, and a big feast. No questions asked. No retribution demanded. No promise of changed behavior required. Instead, there is only unconditional forgiveness.
Unconditional forgiveness. And if Jesus had ended the story here, we would probably just sit back with a hint of a tear in our eye and be warm and content about the happy ending.
But he never leaves us that easily. Instead, we are told about the reaction of the older son. The one that stayed home all along; who worked every day in the fields with his father. And for whom the father has never given a big party and never killed the fatted calf.
So the older son refuses to join in the celebration; refuses to be part of this mockery of fairness. It is not right, he says that the one who has devoured your property is the one for whom you rejoice. What about me?
I have been with you all along – why have you never so much as given me a young goat to enjoy with my friends? And no matter what his father says, no matter how much the father professes his love for him also - he is blinded by jealousy and by his own sense of what is fair. And he is unable to be part of the party.
When Jesus tells this parable, he intends for the Pharisees and scribes in his audience to understand that they are the jealous older brother. Because they are so intent on making and following the purity laws in order to earn God’s favor. And they are overly concerned with keeping score on who deserves it and who doesn’t.
Back at the beginning of Chapter 15, we are told that the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about Jesus and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”.
Isn’t that exactly the same complaint as that of the older brother?
The sin of pride – that’s the one that gets us every time isn’t it? Just when we start to congratulate ourselves on living such an upstanding Christian life, we are knocked down by the sin of thinking we are better than others – or thinking that we can earn God’s favor. Or thinking that we deserve better and are somehow cheated in this life. We never really put the characteristics of the older brother behind us for good either, do we?
But the father loves both of his sons for who they are. Or maybe I should say, he loves both of his sons in spite of who they are.
The father’s love does not spare the sons the scars of life. The consequences of life are still the consequences of life. But the sons can both find strength and courage from that supporting love, if they are willing to accept it and respond to it.
Obviously, Jesus’ description of the father is the same as his description of the kingdom of God. Jesus brings us news of a God who is always forgiving – who forgives us before we even get the confession out of our mouths. A God who loves us in spite of our sinfulness and whose forgiveness stands waiting for our asking. It is a love from which we can get much strength and courage if WE are willing to accept it and respond to it.
The idea of unconditional forgiveness reminds me of John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace. Remember that he was first a slave trader; literally selling thousands of Africans into slavery. But on a voyage in 1748, a violent storm occurred, and Newton was certain that he would surely die. And although he was as far from a godly man as you could imagine, he fell to his knees and prayed. He prayed a prayer of desperation; a prayer to just live to see another day.
When the storm abated and dawn came the next day, Newton was overwhelmed by the certain sense that there must be a God who hears and answers prayers – EVEN THOSE OF THE WORST OF MEN.
So Newton quit slave trading, and eventually became an Anglican priest and hymn writer. And it was in that second life that he also became a friend and mentor to William Wilberforce, the young Member of Parliament who worked tenaciously for the abolition of slavery in Britain.
All of which is the subject of a new movie (that you need to go see), Amazing Grace. There is a scene in the movie, that takes place late in John Newton’s life. Newton is played by Albert Finney, a great actor. In the scene, Newton is old and worn out, and his health is failing as he talks to Wilberforce about his experiences and why slavery must end.
And Newton says this: “Although my memory is fading I remember two things very clearly. I am a great sinner. And Christ is a great savior.”
I am a great sinner. And Christ is a great savior
That is the message of this morning’s parable. Jesus’ story is about the father in heaven whose unconditional grace and forgiveness exceeds our ability to sin. It is a story about the celebration party in heaven that awaits us. Your invitation is already written; Christ himself has delivered it; and is up to you to accept or refuse.
In our BCP (p. 450), there is a rite of reconciliation; a private confession that is done with a priest. And the concluding statement that the Priest reads after having declared the absolution of the penitent’s sins is this:
Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.
Go in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.