March 31, 2019
Joshua 5:9-12 Palm 32 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The parable of the prodigal son is one of my favorites – I know the prodigal son, and I imagine you do too. Whether we ourselves have gone astray, or it was a member of our family who was lost, I expect we can all relate to this story. With five brothers, my parents certainly could relate to the father and the joy he experiences when the prodigal son returns to him. As he says to his older son, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
I’m not certain, but I do think that every one of my parent’s six sons were lost at one time or another – in one way or another. One of my brothers went on what the Australians would call a “walkabout.” He thumbed his way across the country and was not heard from for months. He was gone for so long that my parents later confessed to have discussed plans for his funeral. Several of us left the church completely – at least for a while. When I joined the Episcopal Church, I asked my father, the Methodist Minister, how he felt about it and he say simply, “I am glad you are attending church.”
Mental illness, addiction, and dysfunction affects all families – mine included. These are the reasons that many people we love are lost to us. Those of us who have been lost, can likely remember a specific moment when we decided we needed help, we needed to change the direction our lives were headed.
In today’s parable, it was when the son found himself hungry for what he was feeding to the pigs. Jesus says, “he came to himself.” He says to himself, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” He is humbled and decides to return home in hopes of becoming a hired hand for his father, knowing that his father treats his servants well. He does not expect the greeting he receives, nor does he feel he deserves it.
This is, of course, true. He does not deserve the treatment he receives upon his return. God’s forgiveness is not earned. God’s love in not earn, it is freely given. We can run away from God, but when we return, God, our Father, is filled with compassion and runs to greet us, to wrap his arms around us and to kiss us. And for what? All the prodigal son has done was to change the direction he was headed in life and return to his father. That is enough. That is enough for us, too. When we are lost, all we need to do is turn around and return to the one whose love knows no bounds.
There is another character in this story, the older brother. Part of our human nature, causes us to see what others have received and compare it to what we have received. If they have been given more than us, we think it isn’t far. The older son returns from working in the field and sees the celebration of his brother’s return and he is upset.
He says to his father, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours comes back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” The father’s response, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
“All that is mine is yours,” means the father is not taking anything away from one son to give to the other, but his oldest son is jealous, nonetheless. Jealous of the attention his father gives his unfaithful son – and he is judgmental of his brother. He covets what he perceives his brother has and fails to see and appreciate what is his. He has his father’s love, he always has. Just as his father rushed out to receive his younger brother, his father comes out to him when he refuses to come be a part of the festivities. His father’s love is not a limited commodity; the love of God is infinite. There is more than enough for everyone.
Jesus tells this parable in response to the Pharisees and scribes who are upset with him spending time with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and scribes, we are told, grumble and say, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Perhaps, the Pharisees are like the elder son. They consider themselves the faithful ones and the ones who are worthy of Jesus’ attention. Or perhaps, they are simply being judgmental, because the truly faithful should not associate with the likes of those people. Or both – as is the elder son.
Fortunately for us, God’s love is not earned and God celebrates whenever the lost find their way back. One of the reasons I love this parable is that I can identify with each of its characters. The father may represent God, but as a father I know the joy a parent experiences when a child, as Jesus said of the prodigal son, “comes to himself [or herself].” We all go through difficult times, we all lose ourselves, but when we watch our children struggle and distance themselves from us, the joy we experience when they return to us can be overwhelming.
This parable not only helps me relate to God in this way, it also helps me remember that wherever I am – jealous and judgmental or humbled and ashamed, God comes to me. God is not sitting on the front porch waiting for me to make my way back and beg for forgiveness. No, God reaches out to me even when I am keeping my distance. Thanks be to God, for God loves me, God loves us, with open arms.
Let us pray.
Loving God, creator of us all, help us we pray, to come to ourselves and see that our lives are nothing without you. You are the source of true life and love. Fill us with your Spirit that we might share your love with others. These things we ask in the name of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.