Today’s reading and message is from the Gentle Shepherd’s Service for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. The reading is from the Jerusalem Bible version of the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 15, verses 1 to 3, and 11 to 32:
“The tax collectors and the sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and the scribes complained. ‘This man’ they said ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he spoke this parable to them:
‘A man had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.
‘When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch, so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled his belly with the husks the pigs were eating but no one offered him anything. Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants.” So he left the place and went back to his father.
‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly. Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we are going to have a feast, a celebration, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. “Your brother has come” replied the servant “and your father has killed the calf we had fattened because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out to plead with him; but he answered his father, “Look, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we had been fattening.”
‘The father said, “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”’ This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
What better passage of Scripture is there to consider on the Fourth Sunday of Lent than the Parable of the Prodigal Son? It is a story that is so familiar to us, but it continues to offer us fresh spiritual fruit each time we hear it. Jesus tells this parable in response to the criticism that he has received from the Pharisees and the scribes. Jesus is criticized for spending too much time with those who were considered to be sinners.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of three parables, each of which address the ambiguity and complexity of the human condition even in the face of God’s grace and mercy. Unlike the other parables, the Parable of the Prodigal Son gives us an inside look at the dynamics of a privileged family. There is no reference to shepherds or women searching for coins. This particular family has assets and social status. However, like many of Jesus’ parables, there is a similar theme of strange behavior and of how God’s ways might seem so very different from our own. In this parable, we see first how the younger son insults his father by requesting his inheritance up front and before his father’s death. Then, we see how the father might seem a little too indulgent – to the point of appearing to be reckless – by granting his younger’s son’s request. Finally, we see how unbelievably trusting and forgiving the father is to welcome home his spendthrift failson, running towards him to greet him regardless of what sad story his child might have on hand to exploit him. What can all this mean? Is God really all kindness and no severity?
How we view God’s message through the Parable of the Prodigal Son will be affected by how we view the perspective of each son. We could regard the younger son either as someone who is genuinely remorseful and repentant. Or we could see him as someone who is keenly opportunistic and manipulative of his very credulous parent. Yet, to Jesus, it is clear that the motivation of the younger son does not really matter. The critical point is that he returned home and sought to repent – even if that repentance might have seemed to be convenient or lukewarm. Perhaps we should be taking from this parable that God welcomes anyone who begins to move in His direction, however slowly that might happen or however self-interested the motivation behind it might really be.
To me, the perspective of the elder son is much more revealing. He noticeably breaks from the narrative of how good it is to have his younger brother home. He visibly appears to feel alienated and probably resentful. He feels taken for granted, as if his faithful service is all for nothing. What kind of welcome would he have received from his father, if only he had been the bad child like his younger brother? Why is his dignified, wealthy father behaving so scandalously? What, then, is the point of rules, of righteousness, of justice? In asking these questions, we Christians reveal ourselves to be very like the elder son. We know the rules and we try to play by them. We are justified and well on the way to being sanctified, thank you very much. We deserve prosperity because we are virtuous. We are different from those people over there, who behave in ways that are so beneath us.
And yet the father did not dismiss the elder son’s concerns. There was no zero-sum switching of positions between the “good son” and the “bad son.” Both children were accepted. The elder son’s faithfulness and favored status were acknowledged, but not at the expense of his repentant brother. In their own way, both sons misunderstood the deeper meaning of God’s grace. We cannot bargain with God, pulling one over on the Divine by temporarily coming to our senses. However, we also cannot win favor with God by sticking to sacred rituals and excoriating those who are unable or unwilling to do the same.
Our own standards are irrelevant and deeply inadequate. Coming home to God is a cause for celebration, but it often looks or feels much more complicated than that. Our homes and our families sometimes come with a lot of baggage and issues. Our roles and our past are hard to escape and perhaps even harder to acknowledge. Fortunately, God is always greater. No matter why or how we turn back to God, the heavens rejoice. Thanks to His grace, it is never too late to come home. The lights in our eternal home are always on. The door is always open. Please take some time today to move toward them, and encourage others to do the same. Amen and Amen.