Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 31, 2019
In the name of Jesus. AMEN.
Today we hear the powerful and familiar parable commonly referred to as the “parable of the prodigal son.” It is sometimes referred to as the “parable of the loving father.” Or, as I learned this week, if you understand that the English word prodigal can be defined as either “exceedingly or recklessly wasteful” or “extremely generous or lavish” then we might call it: “the Parable of the Prodigal Family.”
Today, I want to imagine with you, there are actually 7 actors in this drama. There are probably even more, but in order to keep the length of my sermon to a normal length, let’s focus on these 7.
As we do … consider who you see yourself in today.
First, the dreamer – this is the younger son who asks for the inheritance. Obviously, this was culturally inappropriate and an audacious request. But, in our imaginations, might we be charitable to the younger son? What if the son’s motives were positive? What if heard of a fantastic opportunity in a far off land, and decided to go for it?
Many years ago, I left my parents behind to travel across country to go to seminary. There is a plaque in the narthex of this building dedicated to immigrants who came to this country. All of us can trace back in our family tree men and women who left behind fathers and mothers and siblings to come to this land.
Anyone who has ever had a dream, and asked others to believe in that dream, and left home, or familiar and comfortable places in pursuit of that dream, can see themselves in this dreamer who asks for the inheritance and then travels away.
Second, the investor – this is the father who gives the son the inheritance. Again, we don’t have to imagine the father was duped by the son. What if the father saw potential in the son and recognized talent? What if he saw it as a positive business investment?
I give thanks for my parents, investors, who started saving money for my college education before I started preschool. Of course, they did things legally. We can also see investing parents in the recent college admissions scandal. Parents invested the inheritance, illegally, in trying to send their children off to the best schools.
Anyone who has ever made personal sacrifices of money, time, energy in the interest of another, to help the other succeed, can see themselves in the father who gives the inheritance to his son.
Third, the squanderer – no sugar coating this story. The younger son lost the inheritance. He made bad, and stupid, and foolish decisions. He ended up as a pig farmer – a bad thing for a Jewish boy.
Can anyone here relate to making bad decisions? Have you all made perfect decisions in your life? Since baseball season has started – are you all batting 1.000?
Anyone who has ever squandered an opportunity, a job, a marriage, a relationship, money, can see themselves in the younger son who has lost everything.
Fourth, the victim – Lutheran Professor Mark Allan Powell has pointed out an interesting cultural phenomenon is the interpretation of this parable. When asked the question: “Why is this younger son starving? Why did he find himself starving?” the answer depends on your culture.
People in Western cultures answer that the younger son is starving because of personal irresponsibility. He made bad choices. However, cultures that live close to the land, say he was hungry because there was a famine in the land. Perhaps nobody had enough? And still others cultures, those built around a communal mindset, answer that he was starving because of communal irresponsibility. As recorded in the gospel: “No one gave him anything.”
Anyone who has ever suffered because of the choices others have made, anyone who has ever suffered because systems beyond their control privilege some and exclude others, anyone who has ever suffered at the hands of another, can see themselves in this younger son as victim.
Fifth, the confessor. Finally, when he had lost it all, when he was starving, with no where else to turn, he decided to confess. He couldn’t go on like that any longer. He confessed his powerlessness.
Step 1, of the 12 Step recovery program for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, is this: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, or over our addiction; that our lives had become unmanageable.” In confession, the man recognized he was at rock bottom. His life had become unmanageable.
Anyone who has ever hit rock bottom, anyone who has ever admitted that life had become unmanageable, anyone who has admitted they could no longer go on the way they were, can see themselves in this younger son confessing his powerlessness.
Sixth, the reconciler. This is the loving father, in love, who goes after both sons. When he sees his younger son far off, even before he gets home, the father rushed out to greet the son. Think about that, the father didn’t wait to receive his son like some king on his throne making his son crawl back to him. And then, when the older brother refused to join the feast, the father went to the older son and pleaded with him.
Look at the reconciliation work of the father with the older son. The older son distanced himself from his brother, in saying to the father: “This son of yours.” The father reminded the older brother of the relationship that persisted, when he said: “This brother of yours.” This is the work of loving God, standing in the midst of our sin, speaking connection and relationship to us today – calling us into relationship with those we would cut ourselves off from.
Anyone who has ever stood between warring family members, or between fighting loved ones, anyone who has ever worked for reconciliation and understanding, can see themselves in this loving father working to restore the family.
Seventh, and finally, the unappreciated. This is the older brother. As the oldest brother of three boys, I have always felt a connection with this older brother. Not that my younger brothers were bad. They are now both good husbands and loving fathers. But I always connected with this older brother, this one who played by the rules, did the right things, and in the end, doesn’t seem to be rewarded for doing the right thing while the younger son who did the wrong thing gets the feast.
By the way, this older brother shows up at Church on Christmas and Easter … hey, we’re here every Sunday, who are all these people showing up for the feast on the feast days?
Anyone who has ever played by the rules, done everything the right way, and watches as others seem to receive the credit, the recognition, or what seems to be special treatment, can see themselves in this older brother.
So now my question to you: who are you today? Who do you connect with in this parable?
- Are you the dreamer asking someone else to believe in your dream as you set off to new places?
- Are you the investor making big sacrifices for the sake of another’s dreams?
- Are you the squanderer, throwing away the abundance God has given you?
- Are you the victim, impacted by forces larger than yourselves?
- Are you the confessor, weighted down by guilt and shame, hitting rock bottom, and needing to come home to receive a word of grace and life?
- Are you the reconciler, standing between warring family members, trying to show love to all, even when they don’t love each other?
- Are you the unappreciated today – having played by the rules, you feel others are getting the love, the recognition, the appreciation?
Now, who is God in the parable?
As we consider this question, remember the context: Jesus told this parable BOTH to the sinners and tax collectors who ate with him and needed grace, AND to the Pharisees and Scribes who grumbled about it, who wanted to control access, and who wanted to limit God’s work.
So, in order to really appreciate how Jesus challenged the narrow thinking of the Scribes and Pharisees, and to truly appreciate how God’s expansive and inclusive love challenges us to move past our narrow and comfortable understandings today …What if we imaged GOD AS ALL OF SEVEN OF THESE ACTORS?
God is dreamer today … God is dreamer who comes to us, asking us to believe in God’s dream of a land where all are fed, and clothed, and welcomed, and talked about & treated with honor, respect, and nobility. God is dreamer who comes to us today, asking for the inheritance – our time, our talent, our money – asking us to invest in the land to which God dreams of taking us. God, is younger son dreamer, asking us to invest in God’s dream.
God is investor … God is investor who kneels before us and says “Here, have it all! Take it all!” God doesn’t divide God’s self and tell us, “Here, you can have some.” Last week in the parable of the fig tree, I proclaimed our Triune God’s work as gardener, kneeling before us in relationship giving us all that God has. God is investor today, investing in us all that God has.
God is squanderer … This one is maybe harder to think about. Certainly God has not squander anything in dissolute living. But God, in the form of Jesus Christ, came to earth and lost his life in our dissolute living. There on the cross, in the suffering and dying Jesus, God gave away everything. God, in Jesus Christ dying on the cross, is the younger son, who lost everything.
God is victim … God is the younger son as victim, that no one would give anything to. God is present in those we don’t feed, those we don’t care for, those we dismiss in our prejudice, fear, and sin, those we mock, demonize, and reject – God as victim is in those people. God is in the suffering and marginalized. In any human who is victimized – there is God suffering as victim.
God is confessor … In Romans, Paul wrote that the Spirit intercedes for us when we do not know how to pray. When we are at the end of our ropes, when we confess that our lives are unmanageable, when we don’t know how we can go on … God is with us in the Holy Spirit! God is right there with us at the end of the rope. God is no stranger to rock bottom, in fact, God often is found AT rock bottom waiting for us to finally stop struggling, and to finally surrender and join God there. God is confessor today.
God is the unappreciated older brother … In God as older brother, we might imagine a living God feeling unappreciated and saying something like: What about me? Where’s my party? I’ve been working all day and night for years on your behalf! I’ve been speaking through the prophets, through Jesus, through the saints, through the church. Don’t you know I’ve faithfully labored on your behalf for millenniums? Where’s my fatted calf?
Finally, indeed, the Good News is God as loving father. God as loving father who pours love on both the younger son and the older son. God is the loving father, who comes to us, who moves to us in Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, in the Word, in the water, in the bread and cup, in the Church, in faithful disciples, in other surprising ways – God is loving father who welcomes us home, putting rings on our fingers and sandals on our feet.
And so, friends in Christ, however you come to church today, in whoever you see yourself as today, the Good News is God as dreamer, investor, squanderer, victim, confessor, older brother, and loving father reconciler working on your behalf.
With that good news, let us rejoice today!
Let us eat today!
Let us celebrate today!
The feast is set for us! … The feast is set for the world! … Let’s party!
Thanks be to God! AMEN!