Fourth Sunday of Lent 2016: The Gospel Passage – The Story of the Prodigal Son

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable . . . “Luke 15:1-3

Actually, before the story of the Prodigal Son Jesus told two other parables as preambles, I assume, to this story.

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.” (Verses 11-13)

I want to stop and consider if this would be considered a norm in Jesus’ time. Would a young man abandon his family and home? Would a father divide the family legacy prematurely and let a relatively young man carry it off with him? We have heard this story of the prodigal son often, but I am not sure I ever stopped to think about whether it would really happen. Some bible commentators believe that Jesus used stories of the time to illustrate his points rather than creating a story that has no basis in actuality.

When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.” (Verses 14 – 16)

Desperation. It can do a lot of things to you, and reveal a lot about a person. How far would one go? What would one do if desperate enough? And to bring my reflection around to the point I want to make – how far would you run away to distance yourself from sin? What would you do to avoid having to confess? Questions worthy of deep consideration. Think about them before you read on.

But 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, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ (Verses 17 – 19)

If you know enough about God, beloved reader, I hope you know enough about God’s grace to know that it is better to come to God and confess than to be left wallowing in your sin. What the prodigal son does, or at least what he is prepared to do, is a good model of confession and penance. In order to have some sort of relationship to his family home, he is willing to take an inferior place and accept less that optimum in order to survive. But the father, and our Lord God, has other plans.

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him . . . “ (Verse 20a)

God sees us coming, filled with sin, guilt and remorse. Our Lord might, justifiably, be filled with disgust, rage, indignation, anger – all the attributes of a “wrathful God.” But, that is not what happens when we come before God in our brokenness.

“ . . .and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.” (Verses 20a – 24)

A kiss of love; not heeding or remembering what we might say in our shame; clothed in comfort and grace; recognition of being back in God’s favored status; sustenance and nourishment; celebration at our return. This is what we can expect when we return to God. Forgiveness and mercy are ours before we can stumble to our knees. Not that we should not be humble and confess; not that we should not offer a humble and contrite heart. NO! We must come to God as if we expect or deserve nothing; it is only in that state that we can do penance.

Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.” (Verses 25 – 28)

We, as children and followers of God, do not often see the grace and mercy that is showered on those who are returning to God. Often that return occurs inwardly, and we do not see the how God receives the contrite heart and spirit of believers. And often we do not know the depths that our fellow believers have sunk in their sin. But the older brother of the prodigal son did. And he had words for his father.

But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’” (Verses 29 – 30)

If it were a different time of the year, or different theme for the Revised Common Lectionary, I might delve into the story of the older son. Because there is richness in his story too. And lessons that can be learned. But, beloved reader, we are all sinners. And this season of Lent we are all returning home from doing all manner of things that we should not. If, however, you find yourself drawn more to the older son than the younger, heed well what the father of the story says to his older son.

Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (Verse 31)

If you, and if I, are sinless and pure this season of Lent, than we have never left God’s side. And have never had to suffer because of our mistakes. And is it not enough to have always enjoyed the abundance of never feeling apart from God? I could say more, but again, it is not the time and season. Instead, . . .

But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” (Verse 32)

All of heaven rejoices that we have returned. Even if it was just a return from a short distance and for minor reasons. Do you think the father of this story would be any less exuberant and welcoming if the young son has changed his mind just a few miles down the road? Do you not know how it grieves the Lord and all of heaven when even for a moment we have pulled away from God? Oh beloved reader! May you know even just a portion of the joy that our Lord feels when we return to our Divine Parent! Selah!