Sunday, March 14, 2010

The parable of the lost sons and the limitless father

Today's sermon for the 8 am worship (Bishop Shannon Johnston will be with us for the 10 am service) is based on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.

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I’d like to ask you a question: Who are you in this story of the “Lost Son” we hear today? Are you the younger son or the older son? Are you the father? Or one of the bystanders?

Who do you want to be in the story?

Jesus taught in stories, or parables. This is a very Jewish way of teaching; Jewish parables are intentionally open-ended – they are meant to provoke, prod, push. Parables do not yield easy answers.

And so it is with this story that is misnamed “The Prodigal Son.” I call it “misnamed,” because who is the parable really about?

Consider the Younger Son: he demands from his father his share of his father’s property. This was not unusual; younger sons were entitled take their inheritance and leave. That is not the sin. Doing so could bring honor to the family and the father.

But in this case the son squanders everything, and he sinks so low he is tempted to eat the food of pigs. He is in the desert, in the wilderness.

The younger son has brought dishonor on his father, his family, and he is about to be a non-person.

Have you ever felt lost, alone, unsure, like this lost son?

I can remember a time when I felt lost; a relationship had ended, and I worked too hard at my job. And I was very self-absorbed and very lost.

In the parable, do you notice what the younger son does? He realizes that even his father’s servants are better off than he is. He decides to return home. He decides he will ask for forgiveness and be a servant to his father.

So he heads for home, and I am sure is afraid and he is unsure how this will come out. He goes anyway, despite his fears.

Now, consider his older brother: The older son has done everything right. He has followed the rules, done his duty. He has worked hard, brought honor to his family and to his father. And now his deadbeat younger brother shows up, and dad is throwing him a party. The gall!

In fact, the party is already in full swing when the older son hears the music and sees the dancing. He is really ticked, and not without good reason.

Have you ever felt like the older son? You followed the rules, did everything right, and someone else got the break. It wasn’t fair.

Long ago, I dwelled on this kind of hurt. I called friends at odd hours of the night – I wore out many friendships.

Do you notice something about the older son? He has no joy, no life. He is caught up in the slights.

The older son is lost too, maybe more lost than the younger son, because the older son doesn’t yet see how lost he is. He is physically home but mentally and spiritually he is far, far from home.

Have you ever been like that, letting the resentment about someone or something rent space in your brain for free?

Now, consider the Father: What does he do?

The younger son decides to go home to ask forgiveness; but before he gets a chance to ask, the father sees him from “still a long way off” and runs to embrace him. The father is filled with compassion. Fathers in the ancient world never run to embrace anyone. Fathers wait to be courted, to be flattered, for their sons to bow-and-scrape at their feet.

Not this father – he is filled with compassion and runs to embrace his errant younger son.The father forgives the younger son before he ever asks. The younger son doesn’t even get the words out of his mouth before he is forgiven.

The younger even tries offer to become a servant, but the father interrupts him – it isn’t necessary, he tells him. You have returned home, you were dead and now alive – let’s throw a party.

And consider again the older son: the resentful son. The older son, relishing his wounds, complains to the father.

And what does the father do? Invites the older son to the party.

The father tells him everything is already his, it is right here in front of him – all of it. Forgiveness and abundance already belong to the older son before he ever asks.

The story doesn’t really tell us what happens to the older son – that is the open-endedness of the parable. Does the older son suddenly see it? Or does he remain lost, resentful? Can he finally join the party?

We don’t know.

But the father keeps the door open for the older son; everything will be there for him whether he deserves it or not.

This parable should really be called “The story of the father’s extravagant, radical love” because it is really about the limitless generosity of God that, through the eyes of humans, seems completely impossible, even outrageous.

This parable is about God throwing us a party, and all we need to do is show up. The party is always there waiting for us.

Do you notice something else about the father? The only authority the father claims is the authority of love, the authority of compassion. He casts away all pretense of being regal. He gives his errant younger son a king’s robe.

This father’s judgment is the judgment of love.

God’s justice is not like human justice, it is about love and forgiveness and keeping the doors of love open no matter how hard that may be. The father never gives up. The father waits to bless us.

So, I ask again, who are you in the story? Who do you want to be in the story?

And can you be like the father? Can you be the one who is not only forgiven, but someone who can forgive?

Can you not only be blessed, but bring blessings to those who least deserve it?

Can you not only return home but also welcome others home? Can you and I live our lives even a little bit like the father, even some of the time?

I believe that is what Jesus is inviting us to do just that – Jesus invites us not only to join the party, but also to throw a party for the world and invite everyone in. AMEN

Art work: At top, "The Prodigal Son," 1967, collage of mixed media by Romare Bearden (1911-1988); At bottom, "The Return of the Prodigal Son," 1662, oil on canvas, Rembrandt vin Rijin (1606-1669).

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