Welcome, Hospitality, and Acceptance of a Prodigal Father: Lent 4

Welcome, Hospitality, and Acceptance of a Prodigal Father: Lent 4

Year C, Lent 4
March 27, 2022

Year C: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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For once, I can say I am preaching on a bible passage that I have been aware of for well over 40 years.

I still remember the high school religion test that gave the citation of Luke 15:11-32. There was no multiple choice. It was fill-in-the-blank. And you had to get the answer right. “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” And for good measure, I remember having to write an essay answer on what a parable was.

I also remember the first time I looked up the meaning of the word “prodigal” and found out it was very different from what I thought. I remember thinking that prodigal meant “returning.” Nope. The first definition of prodigal is “rashly or wastefully extravagant.” The next definition is recklessly spendthrift. I learned something new.

Our story opens with Jesus addressing an audience of tax collectors and sinners with the Pharisees at a close distance looking on and grumbling their usual complaint that Jesus not only welcomes these sinners but accepts them fully by eating with them.

Jesus, in response to the Pharisees and scribes grumbling and griping, tells a series of parables. These are fictional stories that teach religious or moral lessons through symbolism and metaphor, most specifically about the Kingdom of God. Jesus uses images from everyday life, often in unusual and exaggerated ways, drawing the listener in, so the lesson is unforgettable. By teaching in parables, Jesus invites listeners to use their imagination to reflect upon the parable and its meaning again and again.

In today’s parable, Jesus identifies the three players in a Jewish family – a father, his elder son, and his younger son. Division of property to pass on to the next generation was usually done after the father’s death. Assuming there are only two sons, we presume that the younger son’s share was one-third because the eldest son was always to receive a double portion).

The younger son, however, did not wish to wait. His disrespect was the equivalent of declaring his father dead when he demanded his share of the property.

The father grants his wish, neither questioning his young son’s motives nor arguing with him.

The younger son had no intention of ever returning home. He spent a few days gathering all he had before his departure. His distant destination was to lands beyond where Jews generally resided. There he squandered his property. After that, things got even worse.

Having spent all he had, a severe famine ravaged that country. Unfortunately, he lived in a place where Jewish laws requiring people to give to the poor, including strangers, were not observed. Desperate to survive, the younger son had to hire himself out to “a citizen of that country,” which meant he had to hire himself out to a Gentile farmer.

So, realizing what he had left behind, he decides to return home to his father.

One of the things I love about this story is that there is something new to learn every time we read it – because there are so many layers to uncover.

The other night in our discussion about this passage in our weekly bible study, the question came up about the younger son’s presumed repentance. We’re told “when he came to himself he said, ‘how many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father.’”[1] We generally assume this signifies that the younger son has repented.

The question came up – cynics that we tend to be – did the younger son genuinely repent, or did he come to his senses because he realized he could have it better at home.

Who’s to say? Who’s to say? As I said, many layers here to unfold, and the narrative operates at many levels.

Jesus looks at one family while casting an eye upon all humanity. When and how were the seeds of such division and estrangement sowed that caused a son to demand of his father, “I want right now what will belong to me”?

We are faced with the question: Where am I in a story like this? How many of us are angry when we think our brother or sister has gotten more from our parents or when we believe we haven’t been treated fairly?

As to the seeds of such division, the Bible assures us that sibling tensions have existed from the beginning. For example, in Genesis 4, we learn of Cain and Abel. Most of us know about rivalry and competition and how it can leave us feeling insecure and alone, hating another for depriving or threatening us, and like Cain, we don’t always react well. Cain ran away to a far country where he wandered in exile, but remember this – God did not lose interest in Cain. He did not give up on Cain. (Gen. 4:15).

Are you the dutiful brother or sibling who works hard and expects to be treated fairly? Or are you the younger brother who wants to enjoy life and already feels perhaps “less than” because of his birth order?

What we’re hearing about in today’s Gospel, and why this comes to us in the season of Lent, is repentance, forgiveness, and compassion. And love – a glimpse of God’s lavish love for us. In this parable, Jesus talks about a father who runs from afar to embrace the son he thought he had lost and orders up a feast.

No matter the reason he left, frankly, no matter why he returned, he is welcomed home lavishly by his father. And that leaves his brother quite angry and perhaps broken.

According to Parker Palmer, an author and educator who focuses on spirituality, we live in a culture of brokenness and fragmentation. Palmer says that images of individualism and autonomy are far more compelling to us than visions of unity, and the fabric of relatedness seems dangerously threadbare and frayed.

Is this any different than the world faced by this first-century family? By the elder brother?

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are hopefully convinced of a unity, indeed a community – a oneness rooted in the fact that we are all children of the same God despite our strangeness to one another.[2] That is Palmer’s vision of a Christian community. And arguably, that is the kind of community that Jesus was talking about in this parable.

Is that our community? Are we a community rooted in love, the extravagant love, perhaps even by definition a prodigal love, shown by a father to his wayward son?

Think again of how the father responded to his younger son. His father interrupted his carefully rehearsed speech. He did not ask where his son had gone or what transpired during his failed journey. Instead, he turned to give instructions to his slaves to bring accouterments for his son. The best robe was for an important person. The ring, with its family emblem, would have been used as identification in litigation. Shoes were worn by family members only. The “fatted calf” in the context of a society where little meat was eaten would symbolize this as an extraordinary occasion.

The many layers of the Parable of the Prodigal Son speak to the law, free will, human folly, and God’s love.

This parable is full of irony. It’s a complex tale, not a two-dimensional morality tale, but a story acknowledging how human beings get lost in life. Both sons are lost and hurting, and both want a home to belong to, a home with warmth, joy, comfort, and love.

The father in this story, who represents God, is full of tenderness and generosity, eager to recover and restore both sons. It shows how much God longs for a relationship with us. It’s an invitation to us.

It’s about welcome, hospitality, and acceptance – this is what God provides for us and what we might provide to others.

God offers a party of celebrating and rejoicing. We’re invited. The father, representing God, rejoices, full of love for his son, who is no longer lost.

Here’s the good news. Through the father to his sons, God’s message to us is the same: “Repent, turn around, come home from the far country, stop wandering, you belong here, you are my children. Live with confidence and strength knowing my acceptance and love of you.”

At the end of our parable, two men stand outside the party. We are left to wonder – will the elder son join the celebration? Would we?

Holy God, show us how to grow in your image, for you are gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Amen.

[1] Luke 15:17-18 New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)

[2] Parker J. Palmer, The COMpany of Strangers

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