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!

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LOST AND FOUND . . . . Finding out what it means to return or already be “home” with God

“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.” (Luke 15:32 from Luke 15:11-32 [Emphasis mine])

[The evening when I sat down to write the blog commentary on this passage, I was not feeling well. It happens every once in a while that I get too tired to do much in the evening. More explanation of that at a later point. For now let us turn to this passage. I looked back at what I wrote 5 years ago, and it was pretty good . . . just the sort of thing I wanted to say this time. But while what I said was good, I said it poorly; some grammar and spelling mistakes, and other little things. So I decided to edit myself and then re-present it under a new title. And here it is; five years ago it was called “It’s party time.” I can do better than that now too.]

The older son said – “I was the good child. I did not cause problems. I worked hard and did what I was told. I helped my father’s business grow, and lightened the burden of my mother. I was diligent and steadfast. The little money I made I turned over to my parents to help pay for my clothes, food and housing. I was the good child.”

The younger son said – “I was the bad child. I caused chaos and heartache wherever I went. I avoided work and chores at all costs. My attitude to my father’s business colleagues and friends caused him embarrassment and lost him business opportunities. My mother wept and wrung her hands over me. I goofed around and stayed out late. I asked for money and then stole more money as I needed it. I was the bad child.”

The deeper question in the story of the prodigal son is who felt more lost? The child who got all the attention because of the misbehavior; or the child who got overlooked because of not being a problem?

In God’s kingdom who are you? If you were (or are) the bad one, you are probably glad that your Heavenly parent rejoiced when you returned (or will when you do). But if you are the good child you may feel like the older brother who saw all that he had worked for being lavished on the son who squandered and disregarded what their father gave him, and now at his return this younger son was again feted and pampered.

And it is interesting that Jesus does not address the needs of the good child. I am sure most of Jesus’ listeners assumed, or wanted to assume, they were the good and faithful son. And it must have hurt Jesus’ listeners and his disciples to know that being good did not get them the kind of homecoming celebration that was given to the younger son.

The explanation of the story of the prodigal son was that Jesus openly accepted those who were marginalized and on the fringes of society. Jesus extended compassion and welcome to those who may have tried the patience of the proper and haughty. But still, the plain and the simple folk who never had anyone make celebration for them, must have felt slighted. The message to them is in verse 31: “My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything good that and that I have done is yours.” [Paraphrase mine]

Now consider our Lord God saying all that God has is ours, instead of it being said by the father in the story. The sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets; they are ours. The wealth of the nations, the buildings and the forests; they are ours. The gems, the precious metals, and clothe of silk and satin, all things lush and rich; they are ours. ALL that God holds and commands, it is also ours! Our brains cannot contain that realization. Being with God is good, and having all the good things that God has is wonderful.

And then consider having no protection from the pain and the suffering of the world because we have no relationship to God. The hopelessness and heartbreak of being totally cut off from God. Being totally alone without any one to run to and no Companionship in life’s darkest hours. If we are upset because the ‘bad child’ is being feted, we need to remember we have never had to suffer from being on the ‘outs’ with God. We have always had God there for us.

However, let me add one more thing. If we are with God, have always been with God, and work with God, part of our work is welcoming home those who have gone astray. Or who have never claimed their heritage as a child of God. To have never gone astray means to make a home for and to celebrate the return of those who have gone astray.

So is it better to have been the ‘bad’ child who is welcomed warmly upon return? Or is it better to be the good child who has never known want or pain in the first place, but has partnered with God in God’s mission in the world. Think carefully.

As God speaks to your heart, welcome those back into the fold who have known the pain of not knowing God. And let me know when one who has been lost has been found and I will come help celebrate with you that those who have been lost have been found, and those that were feared dead are alive. Or if you have been apart from God, alone in the world, but have decided to return, or only now claiming God as your Lord and Divine Parent – let me know, and I will join with God’s angels celebrating that one of God’s precious children is claiming a heritage in God’s family.

May you gentle reader – whether returning “home” again, returning “home” for the first time, or remembering how good it is to have never left – be celebrated by all of heaven! Selah! And shalom for your day.