Filed under: Sermons | Tags: Baptism, community, Luke 15, party, prodigal son, sermon, welcome
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Today we hear one of Jesus’ more famous parables, the Prodigal Son. On the surface, it comes to us as a portrait of a family with broken relationships. Whether or not they are in our family, most of us know what it is to have relationships strained and severed. Jesus uses our ability to relate with that portrait to answer the questioning religious leaders and reveal to them, and to us the great depth of God’s love.
The beginning of the chapter sets the scene: wherever Jesus is teaching, society’s undesirables are following. It’s not only the good religious people, but the people who have done everything wrong whom Jesus welcomes. This has made the good religious people uncomfortable. So, Jesus launches his teaching with a number of parables that show God’s longing and desire to search for and welcome back those who have never known God, or have turned away.
Whether you’ve heard this parable once, or many times before, you may not have noticed some details, so we’re going to look a little deeper at the text. These details have to do with the timing and order of thoughts and events. The first has to do with the prodigal son. He’s feeding the pigs in a foreign country and starving, not being allowed to even eat the pigs’ food. In this miserable state, the text says “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!’” The part our minds tend to focus on is his second thought, “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.”
We tend to hear that the horrible situation the son found himself in was enough to make him repent, realize his primary sin of selfishly breaking relationship, and desire to work towards the restoration of that relationship. If we read too quickly we can miss the sense that he’s not primarily worried about his relationship with his father, he’s focused on himself. His question is, how can I get myself to a better place, where I’m not starving, and what do I have to say in order to get it? He’s still stuck on himself. What we might consider his repentance speech: “Father, I have sinned” may not be quite as sincere as I’ve always considered it, after all, he isn’t first saying to himself “I have sinned,” but only saying it in the context of his plan to get what he wants from his father once again. Because he isn’t aware of his primary sin, he isn’t looking for healing there, he isn’t even considering that his Father may be more faithful to the relationship than expected. The son isn’t seeking to become a member of the family again. He may not even see restoration into his role as son as an option. Hungry, he heads for home, rehearsing this speech.
The second detail to note is the timing of the father’s decision to embrace his child. The text reads, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (20b).
We might imagine that the father has not seen nor heard from this son from the day he left. On that day, the son irrevocably declared that his father was dead to him by demanding his inheritance and severing their relationship. Now he comes back filthy and starving, stinking of the ways he has wasted his father’s money. The son hasn’t had a chance to give his speech, there are no apologies. The father simply sees an opening, an opportunity to take his son back, and he runs for it.
It makes me wonder what this father has been doing in the intervening years. I think of families whose children have run away, or have become so estranged that news is no longer shared. I think of the improbability that this landowning father would have recognized his son from far away when one would expect his concentration is focused on tending the estate. Since he did see the son from afar, I can imagine the tension of hope that has been this father’s constant companion. How often he must have been looking up the road for the years since his son left- haunted by a vision of his son’s back and longing for one of his return? Has he planned how he will welcome him back, how he will protect him from the anger of the rest of the family and neighbors who also know the depth of the insult his demand for the inheritance had been?
The joyful celebration following the welcome of the first son can leave us forgetting the second son. He remained with his family, working hard to run the farm and continue to support the family. But he was in the field, doing what he was supposed to be doing, when the other son returned and the party began. When he learns what has happened, “he became angry and refused to go in.” He is not left in his anger, “His father came out and began to plead with him.” The father invites this son to let go of wanting exclusive rewards for his good work, and to join the party to welcome the restoration of the one who was lost.
Jesus tells parables so that those listening would hear themselves into an encounter with God. In our Bible, Jesus tells this story to Pharisees and scribes, good religious people, who are angry that religious Jesus would welcome and eat with sinners. Jesus has come from God to bring the kingdom of God, and so his parables, and his life, show what this kingdom is like. The prodigal son is the sinners, who, even though they remain in sin, and continue to do things that turn them away from God, are so loved by God that God runs to them, even before they change their ways. The righteous, resentful brother is the religious, who have become so wrapped up in their work to be holy that they have put boundaries around God. They expect God to restrict God’s love and blessing to those who do what God wants, and when Jesus shatters their expectation by bringing sinners into the celebration, they are resentful of God and their hard work or perhaps simply confused by this new, unexpected welcome for all.
Jesus tells parables so that we would hear ourselves into an encounter with God today. It’s a blessing to be beginning a new ministry here with you all, but it’s always difficult to preach to a new group of people and a new congregation. I don’t know where each of you find yourselves in this story, or how our congregation might fit in. Are you feeling overwhelmed in a difficult situation that you’re all too aware you’ve created for yourself? Are you discouraged over broken relationships you’re not sure will ever heal? Are you frustrated that you work hard to do good and yet so many others seem to be rewarded for working only for themselves? Or maybe you find yourselves like me, some days sitting with the pigs, realizing that you’re not getting where you hoped by acting alone. And other days, pouting outside the party, because you weren’t recognized for your work.
If the father was to stand for any of us, maybe he would not have known what his reaction would be until he saw the son coming. Maybe he would have intended to chase him away if he ever had the audacity to show his face again. Maybe, only on a good day, that moment of recognition would have changed his heart to mercy.
But the father in the story stands for Jesus, and God’s work to build the kingdom through Jesus. Even if you can’t quite relate to one or the other of the sons, the important thing is to hear and wonder at God’s awesome grace. All three of these parables in chapter 15 are meant to proclaim that God expends infinite energy to find and welcome even one person. Jesus lives out this parable, running to all the children of the world as he runs to the cross. There he embraces all suffering, so that he might draw all people through death into life and joy with him.
This good news is for you, daughters and sons of God. You don’t have to worry and wonder what God’s reaction will be when he recognizes you, broken and distant. Jesus runs to you, embracing you, allowing the dirt accumulated from the places you have been to touch him and stick to him. If you don’t relate to the first son, perhaps you hear in the second son your own righteousness. Jesus says to you that you are also most dearly beloved and God is drawing you into the celebration as well. You can live your lives in the painful state of both these sons, never acknowledging the gifts of the Father, and yet God continues to come to you, to welcome you, to forgive and love you. The party begins here today, as all of us sinners and saints are brought together into one community of joy. This party continues into eternity, when we will be hesitant in our celebration no longer, but will fully experience the welcome of God.
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