Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
In the name of the divine creative Trinity: life-giving God, life-saving Jesus, and life-renewing Spirit. Amen. Funny things happen around the height of tax season. For example, The Rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church gets this call:
“Hello, is this Father Moore?”
“This is Mr. Richards from the IRS?” I wonder if you can help us?
“Do you know a Tom McDonald.”
“Is he a member of your congregation.”
“Did he donate $15,000 to your church?”
How some stories will end is very clear and predictable, but the story we get in Luke’s Gospel today is not one of them. This is a family tale and like many scenarios that involve conflict in a family there is often no resolution. The word “prodigal” is an interesting adjective. It means not only “extravagant” but “wasteful.”
Some commentaries on this parable have noted that the story is misnamed, that it should be called “The Prodigal Father,” but actually “prodigal” is an appropriate description of both this father and son—the father being extravagant in his generosity, even to the point of giving up his security, and the son being absolutely reckless in spending his father’s hard earned savings.
This story is the climax of a series of three parables about grace that Jesus told in response to the consternation of the Pharisees and scribes who criticized him for eating with people they considered sinners and outcasts. It begins with a young man’s request that his father give him his inheritance, which by Jewish Law would be a third of the estate. He takes his money and moves far away where he blows it all on fast living. When a famine strikes, he is reduced to taking what amounts to the most demeaning job for a Jew—a pig herder who has to work in the slop of animals deemed unclean by Jewish tradition. Starvation and homelessness are cruel mistresses and become the epiphany for this young man’s recognition that his greed and wastefulness have led to his sorry state. He is alienated from family, his country, and his religious tradition.
Note that there is still a streak of self-centeredness in this fellow because, even in his remorse, his plan is to return home and live off of his brother’s inheritance—even if only as a hired hand on the farm. Typically, we can get caught up in this story by focusing principally on the siblings—talking about the thoughtlessness of the younger and, depending on our point of view, either commiserating with or frowning on the anger of the elder.
Anyone of us can put ourselves in the shoes of the two sons because each represents the best and worst of human nature—how wasteful we can be with God’s gifts and yet how repentant we can be about our failure to be good stewards of them; how responsible we can be in our commitment to serve God and how resentful we can be of those whom we think fall short. But Jesus didn’t tell this story so much to teach us lessons about us and how the two sons reflect or human nature but rather to do what Jesus so often did when he told a parable like this—to paint a picture for us of God, to show us what God looks like and how God looks upon us.
This father is the icon of radical, extravagant, unconditional love. Like Jesus did time and again, he violates the norms, the expected behavior in order to be an agent of reconciliation and healing. He does not stand still or walk slowly towards his son when he appears in the distance, he runs to meet him and as an elderly man that was considered a huge loss of one’s dignity. This father never says a word of rebuke to his errant child but rather embraces him warmly and kisses him. What is so very striking here is that the son doesn’t even get a chance to make his confession until after the kiss, after the embrace. Then comes the fancy clothes and the ring and the feast, complete with fatted calf when serving meat was a rare occurrence in the ancient Near East.
Enter number one son. Here is the responsible one who has been working hard to maintain the fields in order to support his father and himself. Older siblings often get the raw end of the deal and this is no exception. My sense, however, is that the elder son was not so much infuriated by his selfish brother’s repentance or even his father’s immediate forgiveness, but rather by the whole notion of a celebration of that kind for his wayward brother—one never prepared for him in tribute to his faithfulness and hard work.
The elder child in all of us would easily get its nose out of joint in similar straits because this violates our sense of what is fair and what is just. If we have been trying our best to do the right thing, if we have been faithful in worship, if we have been good stewards over God’s abundance to us, if we have worked hard at our jobs and families and relationships, we can forget that God has shared God’s grace and reconciliation and forgiveness and inheritance with all of us—equally, no matter who we are or where we land on life’s journey. And, if we have settled in comfortably to a community like this, where that grace is so palpable and plentiful, we can forget that there are still many others who are still in a far away country starving for the experience of God’s radical welcome.
On Friday I officiated at the funeral for a man who had just one son and who asked to say a few words of remembrance at the end of the service in the funeral home. It was very sweet—presented in the form of a letter that included a list of things like “thank you for helping me build a go cart out of cardboard boxes when I was nine…thank you for helping me with my calculus homework in high school…”
Then, turning towards his father’s casket, this young man said something that gave me an entirely new perspective on the story of the Prodigal Son. “Finally, Dad,” he said, “I want to thank you for letting me be the person I am, not what you expected me to be, for just accepting me and loving me as God made me and without any conditions.”
That, for me, is the essence of the message Jesus wants us to hear in this familiar and much loved parable. The ultimate theme of this story is not the prodigal son, but the prodigal father who loves both of his sons equally with no strings attached and who will always love them under any circumstances—even when they try to alienate themselves from him, either by running off to a far away place or by refusing to join the party and be a part of the family.
The father just loves them—period—not because of what they have done or not done, not because of what they deserve. He just loves them because of who he is—and that is precisely how God loves each of us. The ultimate theme of this story is not my faithfulness, but God’s faithfulness and therein lies the reason for joyful festivity—today on this Refreshment Sunday—and everyday. Wherever forgiveness is proclaimed, there will be great joy, lavish garments, and a great big celebration.
Meister Eckhart, a German mystic of the 13th century, once said, “Nobody at anytime is cut off from God. It is impossible to lose God.” If somehow we have learned or have been led to believe that there are limits on God’s love or that we have to earn or win God’s love or that if we stray from God we can lose that love, this parable is meant to set the record straight for us. God’s love, like the Prodigal’s Father’s, is simply a given—a constant, abiding, and unchangeable given.
What makes this hard to accept, perhaps, is that we are so used to measuring human worth by one’s buying power and successes. And in a world dealing with economic tribulations, the Good News to tell is that God’s love is not a product we can buy or a loan for which we need to qualify. It is always given—for free—to all—whoever you are, whatever you do. Whether you embrace it or go away to a distant land, God never leaves you.
John Shea in An Experience of Spirit: Spirituality and Storytelling includes this dialogue about the Gospel story: On the hill beside his home the father waits. He has been there before. He sees his son coming from a distance and lifting up his robes above the knees he runs to greet him. The servants who are in the field watch the old man running past them, short of breath, his eyes never wavering. By the time the younger son sees him, the father is on top of him. He embraces his son and weeps down his neck.
“Oh Father,” said the son, his arms never leaving his side.
“Bring the robe,” said the Father. The servants had gathered around.
“I have sinned.”
“Bring the ring.”
“Bring the sandals.”
“And against thee.”
“Kill the fatted calf.”
“Do not take me back.”
“Call the musicians.”
“As a son.”
“My SON,” and these words, the father whispered into his ear, “was dead and has come back to life.”
“But as a hired hand.”
“My SON was lost and is now found.”
The party had no choice but to begin.