Sunday 31 March 2019
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Today, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, we turn to one of the best known and best loved of Jesus’s parables, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It appears only in the gospel of Luke, and is the third of three parables about things lost and found.
At the beginning of today’s gospel lesson, we hear the circumstances under which Jesus told these three parables. Jesus is attracting crowds of all kinds of people to listen to his liberating gospel. And among those who are coming to hear Jesus preach are many tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors, of course, were despised by most Judeans, because they collected money to support the Roman Empire who controlled their nation and occupied their land. So these sinners and collaborators were coming to hear Jesus.
But this is not pleasing to everyone. Specifically, we are told, some Pharisees and religious scholars are scandalized that Jesus not only welcomed these sinners to come and listen to him, but more importantly that he shared meals with them.
And sensing the disdain that these very religious people have for the way Jesus is conducting his ministry, Jesus tells three parables and how God cares more for sinners than for those who are already close to God. The first is the parable of lost sheep. If a shepherd has a hundred sheep and realize that he has lost one, he will leave the other ninety-nine in the wilderness and go searching for the one that is lost. And once he finds it, he will through a party to celebrate that he has found his lost sheep. Likewise, if a woman has ten coins and she loses one, she search the whole house until she finds it, and when she does she will invite her friends and throw a party because she has found the coin that she had lost. God is like that shepherd. God is like the woman. When someone who was lost in sin is found and brought home to God, God throws a party with the angels to celebrate that the one who was lost is found.
And then Jesus begins to tell a third story, the one we read this morning, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A father has two sons. It’s a relatively wealthy family, wealthy enough, anyway, to have both slaves and hired hands. The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. This is, of course, highly irregular. This son is wishing that his father was dead. In the honor-conscious culture of the ancient Middle East, this would have been absolutely unthinkable. It would have been incredibly shameful. And it would be equally shameful for the father to grant his request. The father divides the estate between the two brothers. You’ll notice that the older brother doesn’t complain about it, either. He seems content to treat his father as if he were dead as well.
The younger son takes his fortune with him to a far-away country. Before long, he has spent it all. Notice what the parable does not say, here, though. It does not say anything about prostitutes. The son simply spends too much too quickly. There is no indication that he used the money for anything immoral. It’s his older brother who makes up the story about him spending the money on prostitutes. As with many people who come upon a great deal of money for the first time, he spent it without thinking much about what was coming next.
But it isn’t just spending his money that gets the younger son into trouble. He doesn’t run into real trouble until the famine comes. That’s when he has to find a job working with pigs. For a good, kosher Jew, this would have been an especially shameful kind of job, taking care of an unclean animal. And despite his work, he finds himself eating worse than the pigs do. He is without any family, without any means of support. He is on his own and desperate.
It’s at this moment that he comes to himself and decides to return home. He has nothing where he is, but if he returns home, he knows that even as a hired hand for his father he would be better off than he currently is. He practices his speech, what he is going to say to his father when he returns in shame. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands” He has sinned against heaven by violating the fifth commandment; he has not honored his father and mother. He no longer deserves to be called son because he has treated his father as if he were dead. He is going to ask to be a hired hand, which is the lowest place in his father’s household. You might think that it is worse to be a slave, and it’s true that a slave may have had a lower social standing. But a slave had a guaranteed place in the household. A hired peasant had no land of their own and no guarantee of work from their employer. Among men who were able to work, this would have been one of the most perilous places in society.
Having practiced his lines, the son begins the long journey home. But while he is still a long way off, his father sees him coming. It’s not one of the servants or slaves who sees him. It’s the father himself, which seems to imply that every day the father is looking, searching, waiting for his son to come home. Immediately, the father is moved with compassion. There is no sense of bitterness or judgment. There is immediate forgiveness, immediate compassion. And at this point, the father doesn’t know anything about his younger son’s circumstances. He doesn’t know anything about what he has done with his inheritance. All he knows is that his son is coming home.
And the father runs out to meet his son. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, this is a shameful act. It should be beneath the father’s dignity to run for any reason. It would certainly be beneath his dignity to run after the son who has treated him as if he were dead. But despite the risk to his honor, he runs out to his wayward son, hugs him, and kisses him.
The son launches into his prepared speech, but before he can finish it, his father interrupts. He never gets the chance to ask to be a hired hand. Instead, his father welcomes him home with a completely over-the-top display. The best robe, a ring for his finger, new sandals for his feet, a huge party, because, he says, “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!” Again, it is completely unwarranted. This son has acted shamefully. He has treated the father as if he were dead. He has endangered the survival of his family by taking half of their possessions and frittering them away. But the father acts with no attention at all to propriety. He makes a fool of himself in his ridiculous welcome to his ill-behaved son.
And that is precisely the point, because that is the nature of God’s grace. God cares for us more than God’s own honor. We see it again and again in the story of Jesus, God acting shamefully, acting beneath God’s dignity, in an effort to reach out to us in love. God shamefully sheds the form of divinity and visits us in human form in Jesus. God shamefully appears not in the form of a king, priest, or emperor, but in the form of a poor carpenter’s son from the unremarkable town of Nazareth. God shamefully consorts with tax collectors and sinners, much beneath God’s dignity. God shamefully submits to death, and not just any death, but the particularly shameful and cursed death by execution on a cross. God cares more about us than about honor. God’s love for us is more powerful than God’s sense of retribution.
It’s a sentiment that is captured well in a song I just recently learned, and I’m going to invite Melissa to come up and help share it.
God loves us with a reckless love. It is not something we earn or deserve. It is a grace that God offers us freely. God welcomes us lowly human beings and calls us children, sons and daughters of the Most High.
Like the older brother, and like those scribes and Pharisees who prompted Jesus to tell the story in the first place, there always seem to be some pious religious people who are upset by the radical inclusivity of God’s love. There always seem to be religious people who think they know better than God about who should be in and who should be out. But God surprises us again and again by accepting people we thought were outside of the scope of God’s love. God surprises us again and again with a reckless love that searches out the lost and celebrates when any one of us comes home. Through the grace that is offered us in Christ Jesus, we know that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. There is nothing that will cause God to disown us. There is nothing that will dissuade God from searching us out. There is nothing that can destroy the identity that we celebrate in the sacrament of baptism. There is nothing that can change the reality that God loves us beyond our ability to comprehend it, that God claims us as God’s own, daughters and sons of the Most High. Thanks be to God.