The Prodigal Son

Sermon on the Prodigal Son Parable for 3/27/22
Luke 15:11-31, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Jesus tells this story to illustrate a classic human dynamic: the person who chooses selfishness and sin and pays the price versus the person who follows the rules and expects to be rewarded for it. Jesus knows his audience is all too familiar with Jewish legalists who emphasize the letter of the Law and the required sacrifices to atone for sin, even for small missteps. Some of them are in the crowd. Theirs is a harsh, judgmental, and demanding God. Jesus wants to teach them why he gladly receives the very people they regard as outcasts and sinners
The younger brother is at an age where he’s tired of following his father’s orders and wants to be independent. He’s naïve about what life is like outside his father’s estate. The desire for independence is common for young adults, but instead of leaving home to make his own fortune, he tells his father something devastating. In that time, it would have sounded like, “Dad, I wish you were dead so I could have my share of your estate now.” Not only is it a harsh and ungrateful request, it’s also a false kind of independence that starts by asking for a gift from the very person you don’t want to have telling you what to do. It’s like anyone who tries to deny dependance on God while using the very gifts God gave us to begin with, like our brains and our tongues, trying to escape God’s love and control, running away from home.
His father divides the estate and gives each son his share. Then the boy leaves for a far country and squanders the money doing whatever he likes. The word “prodigal” implies that he spends it extravagantly on sexual services and other immoral, wasteful choices. Jesus’ audience waits for the usual ending, where harsh consequences follow bad behavior and justice is served.
Meanwhile, the older brother slaves away, looking forward to the day when he’ll take over the estate. His father still cares for him, although he doesn’t show it as much as the son would like. He watches as his father misses his brother, mourns his loss, and wonders whether he’s still alive. After all, this is back when communication from a distance meant paying a scribe to write a letter and hiring someone to deliver it, nothing as quick and easy as phone calls or texts.
The younger brother is busy having fun, not sending letters, not thinking about his dad at all - until the money runs out. A self-centered life is always a waste of what God could have used for good.
The far country, the place that seemed so attractive, is revealed to be ugly and horrible when one’s purse is empty. Imagine the humiliation of a Jewish boy who must work feeding ritually unclean pigs while he himself is literally starving. His desperate need to survive brings him to his senses.
They say there are no atheists in fox holes. When our feeble human resources run out, we remember that we need God. There is a God-shaped hole inside each of us that hungers for the food without price which earthly things cannot satisfy.
He rehearses a humble speech for his father, hoping to be hired as a servant. He has nowhere else to go. I wonder how sincere his speech really was.
The beauty of it is, the grace of it is, that it doesn’t matter.
Despite what he’s done, his father still loves him. He watches for his son to come down the road to his childhood home, only to be disappointed time after time. Finally the day comes when he spots his son. He’s still a long way off, wearing filthy rags over his skinny body. He may have been dragging his feet, anxious about the coming scene. The father, filled with compassion, runs up and greets him with a joyful hug and a kiss before he can say a word, and throws a party to celebrate his return. Rather than rejecting or berating him, he shows his son grace and forgiveness.
Jesus’ audience is astonished.
The older brother, the so called “good kid”, feels betrayed. Suddenly, he’s in a bad place, a far country, starving not for food, but for his father’s approval and love. After watching his father mourn for his younger brother, he thinks some acknowledgement of his loyalty is overdue. He has obeyed his father and feels taken for granted and used. “It’s not fair! You’ve never given me a party,” he whines.
Sound familiar? In our culture, we often watch and judge as immoral people achieve wealth and fame while we work away. Secretly, we may even want what they have. Others make selfish choices like committing crimes or even just cutting us off in traffic and get away with it. It’s not fair. We resent it. We want justice. We want them to pay.
Jesus wants everyone to reimagine God as a compassionate and forgiving parent. The story of the Prodigal Son and his brother isn’t about justice. It’s about grace. Let’s put it this way: Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting the punishment you deserve. Grace is getting the love and forgiveness of God that none of us deserve.
We all fall short. We’ve all sinned, which literally means “missed the target.” Sin propels us into that far off country. Grace is ours because God loved us enough to send his Son to die in our place. The Triune God made a way for sinners to come home and be forgiven, to start fresh, to have God’s unconditional love.
Thank God, grace isn’t fair. Grace isn’t just. Grace is a gift freely given. This is a huge paradigm shift, a way of thinking the Pharisees and Sadducees can’t understand. It’s so radical that Jesus dies for it. It gives everyone new opportunities for redemption and for the self-acceptance needed to make different and more loving decisions about how to live. It heals rather than punishes, bringing us back into right relationship with our heavenly parent. Because we were reconciled to God through Christ, ours is a ministry of reconciliation. God charges us with announcing the good news of God’s redeeming love to those around us.
COVID has put us all through a difficult time of change, heart ache and loss, a far country we didn’t plan or choose to visit. We don’t know for certain that the pandemic is over, but we know the world won’t ever be quite the same. As we slowly return to something more like our previous way of life, we need to cherish each other and the way we can worship together, shake hands, share a hug, touch a shoulder, stand side by side. I wonder if, had we known what was coming, we would have griped and complained as much as we used to about the minor inconveniences of life. Let’s not start that up again. We took our “normal” life for granted, like the family in the story, until what was lost is found and cherished all the more for it. Let’s remember to be grateful for what we have, rather than wishing for perfection.
Life is never perfect. We are never perfect. We are by nature self-centered creatures, especially without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We need God to help us and show us how to reinvent life, reinvent church, to love each other in healthy ways and bring back those who’ve been too frightened to worship with us. Like the doctors and nurses in our hospitals, we’re called to offer grace and compassion toward the sick and the families of those who died, whether they followed the rules or not, whether we think they deserve it or not, whether or not we think it’s fair.
The father not only welcomes his lost son home, but also reassures his older son that he is loved, safe and secure. For the peace of the household, indeed, for his own peace, the older brother must now learn to forgive the younger, following the father’s example. We need to do the same, forgiving others whether or not we think it’s fair, and whether or not they repent. As Paul put it, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” That includes us. We become new as we learn to pray for those we used to judge, help those we used to think about as having earned the hardships they brought on themselves. To remember that we are forgiven reminds us to be forgiving as well.  Thank God, grace isn’t fair. Grace is miraculous, healing love. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to earn it, just accept it. May God grant us the grace to love each other unconditionally, just as God loves us. And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

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