Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 31, 2019
Year C, Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
This was a joint service held at St. Andrew’s. There was no recording of this sermon. The text is below.
“There was a man who had two sons.” That begins one of the most memorable and famous stories in the New Testament, a story commonly called “The Prodigal Son”, or the Prodigal Son and His Brother”.
The younger son demanded his inheritance but then squandered it, and the older brother stayed and worked hard. He is angry when his younger brother returns home into the arms of father delighted to see him, with all seemingly forgotten. [As our youngest congregant said upon hearing this story, “what the heck”?] What the heck, indeed?
We all have parents, most of us have brothers and sisters. How many of us are angry when we think our brother or sister has gotten more from our parents for less work? When we think we haven’t been treated fairly? I specifically put that sentence in an active voice – “are angry” – because, be honest, who among us hasn’t been?
For people who don’t have any other siblings they usually have at least indirect experience, through the experiences of their friends, of situations like the one Jesus describes here.
I suspect that most of us relate to one or the other of the sons in this story.
A question to ponder: where do you see yourself in this story? Which brother are you? The dutiful one – who works hard and expects to be treated “fairly”. In the text in front of me I have the word fairly in quotation marks because “fair” is, of course, very subjective.
Or are you the younger brother who wants to enjoy life?
It’s normal for people to focus on one or the other brother in this parable and see ourselves as one or the other. But it’s just as important for us to focus on the father in the story. After all, isn’t this what Jesus invites us to do when he opens the story as he does. “There was a man with two sons.” Some newer titles for this parable actually focus on the father and are titled, “The Forgiving Father”.
What we’re hearing about in today’s gospel is forgiveness – compassion. And love – our love for each other, which is a glimpse of God’s love for us.
In the Gospel, the father runs from afar to embrace the son he thought he had lost, and orders up a feast, a homecoming that most of us might question whether or not he deserves.
If you’ve had an experience with fatherly love, you’ll bring our own experience of that love to the hearing of this parable. If you had a good relationship with your father – felt loved and affirmed by him – it will provoke those good memories and remind you how wonderful it felt to be loved in that accepting and forgiving way.
If your father wasn’t present, or wasn’t able to love you as you needed to be loved, you might have a different response to the image of a father racing to embrace his lost son. Maybe what you feel is longing.
What we hear in the Gospel today is a lesson in how we can be offered and receive unconditional love. There is a lesson for all of us in how this prodigal father loves his sons.
Yes, I said “prodigal father”. Even after his son wastes his inheritance, what does the father do. He spots him from afar and races to him, full of love, to welcome him back.
Some would argue that he was being wasteful and extravagant in loving this son despite the son’s shortcoming. His other son certainly sees it that way. He sulks and refuses to join the feast. The father goes to him and pleads for him to rejoin the family circle.
The father cares deeply that neither son is lost. This father loves lavishly, extravagantly. Though I would argue that no love is ever wasted.
What we really hear about though is a “forgiving father”.
There’s one phrase in this passage that ties this long passage together – we start with “sinners and tax collectors”, we end with “he was lost and has been found”. But in the middle, we hear that when his father sees his wayward son, he “was filled with compassion.”
Compassion is an expert teacher. If recognizing ourselves in what others are feeling can help us to grow in understanding life and love for ourselves – then there are lessons for all of us in this story.
Perhaps there’s no other time, at least in this generation, when these lessons about love, love that brings us together, felt more urgent at so many different levels than they do right now.
The great 20th-century contemplative Thomas Merton, who lived in a different time but inhabited a world that had some challenges in common with our own wrote about love, and hatred.
“Hatred,” he said, “tries to cure disunion by annihilating those who are not united with us. It seeks peace by the elimination of everybody else but ourselves.”
And he talked about love as an antidote to hatred, but it’s interesting that he didn’t consider the commandment to love one another as the place where that love begins. He thought it came out of believing that we are loved – loved by God even though we are unworthy.
And that’s exactly what this parable is about. It’s about a parent’s love for a child. It’s about God’s abundant love for all God’s children.
We are welcomed with God’s open arms, we are celebrated, and we join in a feast, not because of what we do, or how we act, but because we are loved. We are all here because of God’s mercy – all of our lives’ journeys lead us to the love of God. We are invited to listen and care for one another – for those we encounter and know in our lives.
Nothing can keep us from God’s love, though if we try hard enough to push love away, it might feel that way. When the younger son in the parable asks for his inheritance – now! – and then leaves home with it, he’s turning his back on his father’s love. But his father doesn’t stop loving him.
The story we’ve heard today is a prelude to the resurrection, a story about the possibilities and realities that are ours because we are people of the Resurrection: he was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found. It’s a story that in God’s kingdom the law is grace, the currency is mercy and the economy is forgiveness. It is about God’s love for all that makes this possible, the God who says always, I love you and welcomes us home time and again.
 Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation (p. 75). New Directions. Kindle Edition
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