[Note: This past Sunday, Lent 4, I filled in at Holy Cross Church in Murfreesboro TN. This is the mission I did my field education at, so it was nice to see the familiar faces, as well as all the new ones. This is the sermon I preached there.]
Scriptures: Joshua 4:19-5:12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:11-32; Psalm 34 or 34:1-8
The parable from our Gospel reading this morning is probably the most well known of Jesus’ parables, and with good reason—it speaks to us on many levels.
But before we really get down to it this morning, I wonder, who knows what a parable is? One member of my parish suggested that it was what you get when you put two steers together.
I’ll relieve you of your anticipation and tell you that it really has nothing to do with Bulls. A parable is a story—in particular a story that has as its purpose the explanation of one point.
It’s more than a bit ironic that we call this parable the “parable of the prodigal son…”
By rights it should be called the parable of the forgiving or faithful father.
You see a parable, as we said, has only one point, one focus. We might identify with any number of characters within the story, but the action of the story is meant to lead you to one primary realization.
In this parable, Jesus tells us about a man who had two sons. One day the younger son comes up to him and says “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”
Now, in Jesus’ day, this would have been shocking. It would have been unheard of for a son to speak to his father this way, and would have been seen as very disrespectful.
I remember one time seeing a middle school girl at a football game throw a tantrum trying to get what she wanted from her father. In the process she yelled at him and said “I hate you, I wish you were dead.”
This is the sort of thing that makes us uncomfortable these days…. All of the rest of us in the same area in the stands were sort of trying not to look…err… we were trying not to be seen looking—we were all embarrassed for the father, that his daughter would act like that, really at all, let alone in public.
But the thing is, this is exactly the way the people who heard Jesus’ story would have felt. For a son to go to his father and ask for his inheritance, something that one normally didn’t get until after the death of the father, would have been tantamount to going up to your dad and saying “I wish you were dead…. I don’t care about you, just give me what’s going to be mine so I can get out of here.”
And, as if that’s not strange enough, Jesus goes on, and tells us that the father listens to the son’s request and divides the inheritance between his elder and younger sons.
Already we see the love of the father, the extent he’s willing to go to for his son.
Then we’re told that the younger son squandered his inheritance in what the scripture terms “loose living.”
Not only that, but once he’d done this, a famine came upon the far country he was in, and he was left with no other choice but to get a job—we’re told he joined himself to a citizen of that country, who employed him to feed his swine.
Now, when we’re told that he joined himself to a citizen of that country, that doesn’t mean he went and put in an application, went through an interview process and got a desirable job. No…instead, he was in such horrible circumstances that he had to go begging around to get a job, to get anything, that would help him keep himself alive.
So what happens to him? He ends up basically becoming a servant to one of the natives of this far country, who has him out there slopping his pigs.
Suddenly he finds himself in such a bad situation that he would gladly have eaten what the pigs ate.
This would be horrible for anyone… but just imagine yourself as a Jew listening to this story—Pigs are unclean, anything associated with them is unclean…to be caring for pigs would have been the lowest possible point in someone’s life.
And so, the younger son gets up his nerve and decides he’s got to go back to his dad and ask for help. He doesn’t expect that there will be no consequences for what he’s done, in fact he thinks to himself that he might be able to go back and apologize to his father and just be able to live as a hired hand in his house.
But what happens? He goes home and the scripture tells us that “while he was yet at a distance” his father saw him and went running to him,
And when he got to him he grabbed him and embraced him…. he was so thankful to have his son home.
He didn’t even listen to the protests…
“Father,” the son says “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Does he listen?
No… he throws a party….
The father is so glad to have his son back that he throws a party to celebrate.
“my son was dead, and is alive again;” he says, “he was lost, and is found.”
But what about the older brother…he’s not too happy about this.
He comes in from a hard day’s work and he sees that there’s a party going on, a feast.
“What’s going on here?” he asks…
Well, once he hears what’s going on, he’s so upset he won’t even go inside.
And here’s the cool thing…Jesus again tells us something important about what the father did….
You remember that when the younger son was still a long way off, the father ran out to him… it was the father who took the initiative and closed the gap to his son.
The same thing happens this time, only it’s the older son that the Father comes out to.
When faced with his anger the father says to him:
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
You see, the point Jesus is making in the telling of this story isn’t a point about the prodigal son…
Just think about it for a moment…why would he need to make a point about the prodigal son?
To tell us how he was greedy, or impatient, or how he didn’t really respect his father….
How he spent all his money, or how he ended up in a pigsty?
Don’t we know that already?
Don’t we all live life like the prodigal?
We are, all of us, the prodigal at some point with someone we love…even—especially—in our relationship with God.
So I guess it’s natural that we would identify with the prodigal son, and call the parable by his part in the story…
Maybe some of us feel like the older brother, wondering why people we know who don’t really live the right way seem to get all the breaks while we—good people that we are—do everything we’re supposed to do and don’t feel like we get any recognition for it.
But you see, Jesus isn’t talking about us—not directly—he didn’t need to spend time telling us about ourselves.
We know from experience what it’s like to live our lives that way…
To make bad decisions…
Or to judge them….
To become estranged from family and friends for—well, stupid reasons…
Or to foster the separation by pointing out others’ flaws.
And finally to find ourselves in a pigsty of some sort.
Or alone with no one there to stand beside us.
Jesus doesn’t need to tell us a story about our own lives…and he doesn’t…
Instead he leaves us this story of a Father’s love. Of THE Father’s love.
A love that always takes the initiative….
That leads the Father out to meet his wandering children.
That led the Father to send his only Son, Jesus Christ, to save a race of prodigals…
…of judgmental older brothers.
And that’s something we need to know…
We need to know about the father’s love, for us and for everyone else.
And we need to know about the rejoicing that takes place in heaven—the party that God throws every time one_single_lost_sinner comes back to him.
One of my favorite preachers, Fred Craddock—one time preaching professor down at Emory, has this to say about how he came to understand the meaning of this story.
He says that he’d always preached sermons about this parable as though it were a wonderful, natural, easy and right thing for the father to respond this way to the prodigal son…
But he says, he had never thought about the party until a family on his street divorced and left three or four children, all girls. One of them he says, was attractive, “prematurely mature” and about fourteen years old…
After the divorce of her parents she started getting into a lot of trouble, she’d lay out of school, and Craddock says she’d hang on the tail end of every motorcycle that came through the neighborhood.
Eventually the judge got fed up and sent her away to boarding school. “About the fourth or fifth month that she was there,” Craddock says, “she gave birth to the child she was carrying. She was fifteen at the time.”
Word came to the neighborhood some months afterward that she was coming home. “Will she have that baby with her?” “Is she really coming home, back to our neighborhood?” The day we heard she was to come, all of us in the neighborhood had to mow our grass. We were out in our yards, mowing our grass, and watching the house. She didn’t show, nobody came, and we kept watching the house and mowing the grass. I was down to about a blade at a time, you know, watching the house, when a car pulled in the driveway—and out steps…. “It’s Cathy. She has the baby, she brought home the baby.” People in the house ran out and grabbed her and took turns holding that baby, and they were all laughing and joking, then they went in. Another car pulled in, then another car pulled in, and another car pulled in. They started parking in the street. You couldn’t have gotten a Christian car down the street, just cars on either side, and they’re all gathering there, you know. Suddenly I got disturbed and anxious and went in my house. It suddenly struck me, what if one of them saw me down in the yard and said, “Hey Fred, she’s home and she has the baby. We’re giving a party, and we’d like for you and Nettie to come.”
“Well, I’ve got a lot of papers to grade and all.” Would I have gone? If you lived next door to the prodigal son’s father’s house, would you have gone over to the party? It’s easier to preach on that than to go to the party.
You see, Jesus knew which story we needed to hear… Which point he needed to make.
The father rejoices whenever a lost sinner is found…he doesn’t stay put, he comes out to meet us, to take us to the party thrown in honor of our homecoming….
The question is, are we ready to live up to that? Are we ready to go to the party when it’s thrown in someone else’s honor? Can we—can I—put aside the part of us that wants to be a judgmental and angry older brother or an equally judgmental and embarrassed neighbor…and come, accepting the father’s welcome, and take part in the heavenly party he’s throwing in honor of all who make their way back home.