Fourth Sunday in Lent, year C, 2016 (preached 3/6/16)
First reading: Joshua 5:9-12
Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Gospel Reading: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
This is one of the best loved of all the parables of Jesus. Even non-Christians have heard of the story of the Prodigal Son.
It seems like a simple story, but it’s really SO much deeper. None of these three characters are ideal. We’ve got a son who won’t grow up, an angry son who grumbles all day, and a father who wouldn’t know tough love if it hit him in the face.
Jesus tells this story because the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about the lowlife with whom he was associating. They don’t think Jesus should be eating with “sinners.” In response, Jesus tells them parables about being lost, then found, and the rejoicing that comes with the finding.
Makes sense when put simply – but it’s really NOT that simple.
I’ll be honest with you. I identify with the elder son. And I think Jesus meant for the Pharisees and scribes to do so as well, because the comparison is very clear. They didn’t think Jesus should be eating with those who clearly didn’t deserve him. So Jesus tells a story about a father who throws a FEAST for a child who clearly didn’t deserve HIM.
Jesus eating with sinners. The father feasting with an undeserving son.
Again, back to describing these characters: one is selfish, immature and wasteful; one is rigid, unforgiving, angry and bitter; and one loves with no boundaries or discipline. WE are the children, and God is the father.
Jesus is telling us that THIS is how God operates with us – God loves recklessly and forgives foolishly. THIS is the love of God. It knows no bounds. It doesn’t abide by human rules of what is proper or “good.”
God’s love accepts those of us who try our best and those of us who don’t try at all. God’s love embraces those of us who sweat for the Church and those who have abused the Church. God’s love prepares a feast for the lifelong faithful and for deathbed confessors. God’s love makes no earthly sense.
It IS reckless and foolish. There is no sense of fairness or right and wrong. And thank God for that!
The father’s only actions in this parable are to forgive, show mercy and REJOICE.
And while we, (or at least “I”), grumble at the unfairness of it all like the elder son, God is forgiving US of THAT sin – the sin of wanting to be judge – thinking we can tell God who is “deserving” of God’s love and rejoicing. How arrogant and presumptuous!
Sure, the elder son did all the right things, but he was angry and bitter, even lashing out at his father at the unfairness of it all. He refuses to attend the feast and greet his brother – and he rebukes his own father. He does all the right things, but his attitude is rigid and unforgiving. And he is more than a little jealous. “Why didn’t you let me have a party?”
The father forgives them both.
The father could’ve said to the elder son, “Look, I’m in charge and if I want to throw your brother a party then I’ll throw him a party. Now get in there!”
Instead he says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we HAD to celebrate and rejoice…”
The father even tries to repair the relationship between the brothers. When the elder son refers to the younger son as “this son of yours,” the father changes it to “this brother of YOURS.” The father wants them all to be reconciled – a theme in our second reading where St. Paul calls us to a “ministry of reconciliation” – not only to God, but to one another.¹
From a human perspective we get jealous and think that somehow love is a finite thing and that a loved one giving another love will somehow mean less for us. And you know, sometimes with human beings that happens because of sin. But it is not so with God.
God loves me more intensely, more personally, than I’ll ever know. Yet God loves all of you the SAME way. God’s love for me doesn’t mean there’s any less for you; God’s love for you doesn’t mean there’s any less for me.
And that love is with us no matter how well we’ve done, or how far we’ve fallen. This may not seem fair, but it’s a glorious thing. Because each one of us has times in our lives when we fall, when we fail – when we KNOW we have done wrong. We feel small, humiliated, weak. Each one of us has had times when WE are the younger son.
And we have been like the elder son – rigid, perhaps even jaded by events in our lives, only looking at the world with eyes of judgment instead of love and grace.
And in BOTH these times thank God that we are welcomed back by God with arms that embrace instead of reject us.
The world can be cruel, but God is not. God is love.
Heaven rejoices whenever we, as we sing in our Lenten gospel verse “return to the your God”² again and again and again. Every time we confess, every time we petition for God’s mercy, there is rejoicing in heaven.
Thank you Lord, for loving us foolishly and recklessly, when it makes no “earthly” sense to do so; thank you that there’s enough of your love to go around for us all; and thank you for loving us SO much that you rejoice whenever we return to you. Please teach US to rejoice in your gifts of love and mercy, and in the gift you give us of each other.
¹Matthew 5:24, plus many other texts that speak of our need to forgive one another as God has forgiven us.
²Joel 2:13 – each week our congregation sings a verse from the Bible to introduce the gospel reading. In Lent, we sing this verse.