Lent 4, Year C
Readings found here.
Out of all the Gospels, Luke is my favorite. Sure, the other Gospels have some powerful things to say as well, but there will always be a soft spot in my heart for Luke. You see, Luke is an amazing storyteller, and his stories portray Jesus as the champion of the marginalized. Luke’s Jesus is a guy who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty: he hangs out with the poor and the oppressed, he cures lepers, and he even enjoys eating with sinners and tax collectors (gasp!). This gets him in trouble with the religious leaders--the Pharisees. In response to their grumbling, Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son.
The Prodigal Son. I bet most of you have heard of it; I think only the Good Samaritan is more familiar than this story. Prodigal means wasteful or reckless (Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary), and this certainly describes the action of the younger son. Biblical editors gave it this title, but I think this story should be called something different. How about: The Two Most Ungrateful Sons. Ever.
Case #1: The younger son strolls up to his dad one day and says, “I’m sick of waiting around for you to die. I want my share of the land now.” When his father gives it to him, he waits a few days and then sells it. All of it! Let’s think about this: The land means everything to the Israelites. It’s the land promised to them by God after walking around the desert for 40 years. It’s the land that they were kept away from during the Exile. It’s their home. To sell it means he has no respect for his culture or his family, or even God.
With the money he makes from selling the land, the younger son takes off, leaving behind all that he has ever known. He spends all of the money just in time for a famine to hit. Completely broke, he hires himself out to a pig farmer. Not only is this gross, but it’s a cultural taboo; Jews aren’t supposed to be around pigs (they are considered unclean, so their meat is forbidden). On top of all of this, he’s starving but no one gives him anything to eat. This is pretty much as low as he can get. He decides that he’d be better off working as a servant for his dad than where he is now. So, motivated by food, and not necessarily repentance, he returns home.
Case #2: The older son has a hissy fit when he finds out there is a party going on for his delinquent little brother. He tears into his dad, complaining that he’s been working his butt off with no appreciation. “You never threw me a party!” he whines. “But your son, who, may I remind you, wasted his money and dishonored your name, comes waltzing back home and you throw him a huge party! This is so unfair!”
What did I tell you? Most ungrateful sons ever.
But if we focus on the two sons solely, we miss out on talking about the father. He’s actually the main character in this story. So let me propose another title: The Prodigal Dad.
Wait--what? You may be thinking, “Lara, what do you mean? The dad isn’t wasteful or reckless--he's just a big softie!” My point exactly. The father’s love for his children is so great that it could be considered reckless. He loves his kids with reckless abandon, even though they don’t deserve it!
Case #1: When the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, the father gives it to him. When the son sells the land and moves out of town, his dad doesn’t chase him down. According to Deuteronomy (Deut. 21:18–21), a son who is rebellious and disobedient is supposed to be stoned to death. But the father lets him go, even though it breaks his heart.
We don’t know how the father reacted at first. Maybe he was angry and bitter, maybe he was sad and mopey. All we know is that when the younger son finally returns home, he doesn’t even make it to the house before his dad is running to him. You can just imagine the dad, searching out the window day after day, just willing his child to return to him. And when he finally sees the familiar form walking up the pathway, he doesn’t stop to think twice, but, filled with compassion, he lifts his robes and runs to him. He doesn’t care about what his son did to him, he doesn’t care about whether or not his neighbors see him running like a fool; all he cares about is having his baby boy back, safe and sound. His joy is so great that he ignores his son’s apology and throws him a huge party, inviting the entire community to join in the celebration.
Case #2: At some point the father realizes that the older son is not there. He leaves the party to come find him. He sees the son stewing outside and brushes aside the son’s yelling and accusations. “My son, you have always been by my side. Now that I’ve given away your brother’s share of the inheritance, literally everything I have is yours. You could have asked me for something, and I would have given it to you. But we have to celebrate your brother’s return. Don’t you get it? He was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!”
We don’t know if the younger son is ever truly sorry for what he had done. And we don’t know if the older son ever swallows his pride and joins the party. All we know is that the father repeatedly demonstrates his unconditional love for his children, even when they do not deserve it.
Think back to right before the beginning of the story. The passage begins with Jesus hanging out with tax collectors and sinners; people considered less than by society, people the younger son probably hung out with. And yet, despite their wrongdoing, despite their dishonest way of life, Jesus welcomes them to his table, shares meals and stories and laughter with them. Loves them with reckless abandon.
This upsets the Pharisees, the religious leaders who devote their lives to having a right relationship with God. They know that maintaining a relationship with God is hard work. So, like the older son, they are upset when people who don’t follow the rules are invited to the table. Now, I don’t think the Pharisees are evil. The Pharisees believe that the way to honor God is to follow strict rules so that they will be holy, set apart. They’ve got so much respect for God, but the problem is, it’s all vertical, top-down. Don’t get me wrong; I think we need to have a healthy sense of awe for God, to appreciate that God is powerful and mysterious and there is no way we can ever comprehend all that God is.
But Jesus comes to show us that our relationship with God should not be based on fear. Jesus shows us that God’s love is unconditional. We are loved just as we are with reckless abandon, regardless of our past or future sins. And if we truly believe that we are all created in the image of God, then we are called to recognize God in each other. God is not just hanging out up in the sky somewhere; God is in our very midst! One of the most moving lines in Victor Hugo’s book Les Misérables is this: “to love another person is to see the face of God.” This is what Jesus is trying to tell us! In Jesus, God becomes human. In Jesus, God spends time healing the sick and feeding the hungry and teaching the “wrong crowd.” In Jesus, God is hung upon a cross like a criminal. What greater example of God loving us with reckless abandon is there?
This is why we come together every week. We come to be reminded of our baptism into God’s family. A baptism that calls us to "respect the dignity of every human being" (BCP 305)--to purposefully seek out the marginalized and the pious and bring them to the table. This table. Here, we become equals in God’s eyes. Here, we approach the altar in all our brokenness and bitterness and receive unlimited forgiveness. Here we taste and see that God is so good.
In this season of penitence, we seek to strengthen our relationship with God. We ask God’s forgiveness for the times we mess up. Remember, God’s love is not wasted on any of us. Regardless of our past, God is watching for us, ready at any moment to gather us in his arms and invite us in.
picture found here