Sermon for IV Lent, Year C
Based on Lk. 15:1-3, 11-32
“The Waiting, Loving Father”
Today’s parable is regarded by many as the greatest parable Jesus ever told. It is a parable that fits in well with one of the favourite themes of Luke’s Gospel, namely: that Jesus has come to seek and save the lost, the poor, the outcast and sinner.
The parable begins with a description of the loose, prodigal living of the youngest son. First, he demands that his father give him his share of the property, allotted to him through his inheritance. In making this demand, the son shows considerable disrespect towards his father. According to Jewish customs back then, property was divided up as a family inheritance only after the parents died. This youngest son refused to wait until after his father died; he wanted his inheritance right now. It’s almost as if he were saying to his father: “You’re dead. I want my inheritance to leave you and my brother for a far country, with greener grass and a better life without both of you.” Yet, when he reached the far country, he was no better off.
He spent all of his money; he lived in a carefree, irresponsible manner. Even worse than that, reaching rock bottom, he took a job looking after pigs. For a Jew, to feed the pigs was one of the most degrading, unclean, horrible things to do; because there were laws against it; they were forbidden to eat or associate with pigs.
Many of us—perhaps all of us—at one time or another, in our own ways, are like the youngest son in this parable. In our sinful state, we too rebel against God, our parents, and other people who are in positions of authority. In our rebellion, we too, like the prodigal son, try to run away from God, our families, our friends and neighbours, or our responsibilities that we face in our daily work. As the youngest son traveled the youngest son traveled into the far country, seeking to fulfill his selfish wants; we too travel into far countries, for pleasure and selfish reasons.
Many years ago now, the rock group the Rolling Stones sang a song called: “I can’t get no satisfaction.” The prodigal son’s carefree, irresponsible living could not get no satisfaction either. The members of the Rolling Stones have had their difficulties getting satisfaction in their lives too. In their voyeuristic rebelliousness, they have struggled with drug addictions, and moving from one broken relationship to another. We too “can’t get no satisfaction” if we live selfish and irresponsible lives.
The far countries of voyeurism, irresponsibility and rebellion led the prodigal son to a state of mental, spiritual and physical death. It led him to reach rock bottom. He realized that it would be better back home as one of his father’s hired servants; than it was in the far country looking after pigs. So he rehearsed a repentance speech that he would confess to his father, once he returned back home.
Maybe the prodigal son hoped that if his repentance speech were successful, he’d be accepted as a hired servant; then he could prove himself and regain the trust of his father; so that eventually his father would accept him completely as his son again. But much to the prodigal son’s surprise, this doesn’t happen. The father accepted his prodigal son as soon as he saw him! Moreover, the father even cuts off the son’s repentance speech before he has the chance to say: “treat me as one of your hired servants.”
Then, with pomp and ceremony, the father welcomes his wayward son back into the family. According to the customs of that time, the best robe was reserved for distinguished guests and special occasions. In other words, the son was loved, forgiven and completely accepted royally by his father.
No matter how far away the country is that we have gone to; no matter how great a sin we are guilty of; God is like a loving, waiting, welcoming father; who accepts, forgives, loves, and welcomes each one of us back; just as the prodigal son was in today’s parable.
In the grande finale of our parable; after the celebration is underway; the elder son comes home after a hard day’s work in the field. When he finds out that his father has gone all out and thrown a big party to surpass all parties for his prodigal son; the eldest son is furious. This eldest son had stayed home all these years; had worked with his father faithfully every day and obeyed him. How could his father do this? Why would his father give such a royal welcome to this wayward son?
Out comes the father to speak with his oldest son; to welcome and invite him to join everyone for this great, celebrative, family reunion. However, all the oldest son is able to do is think of himself, how self-righteous he has been; thus he refuses to forgive his younger brother. Instead of the love and grace with which the father welcomed the youngest son; the eldest son preferred the law, which kept track of everything one does or fails to do. To make matters worse, the oldest son was so jealous, and selfish that he refused to call the younger son his brother. In verse thirty, instead of saying “my brother,” he said: “this son of yours,” which shows how hostile and distant he was towards his brother.
Moreover, out of jealousy and self-righteousness, the older son makes a false accusation against his younger brother, which he cannot prove: the older brother said: “But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots.” This charge that the younger son was “living with harlots,” cannot be proved; since the older son was not in the far country to find this out. In the parable itself, all we are told is that the younger son: “squandered his property in loose living.” This leaves it open-ended as to exactly what or who or how the younger son spent his money. In addition to the older brother’s self-righteousness and false charge against his younger brother; we also see how selfish the older brother is when he says: “you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.” Here we see that instead of forgiving his younger brother; instead of loving him and joining in on the celebration with his father and younger brother; all he can think of is himself.
There are times in our lives when we too are like the oldest son. We know how he must have felt to see his wayward brother at the centre of so much attention, love and good will. The oldest brother was haunted and tortured by the question: Does it pay to be good? According to his beliefs and understanding; if you live by a legal, cause-and-effect construct of life; then it necessarily follows that if you obey the law and are good you shall be rewarded and if you do not, then you will be punished. He failed to see that his father’s love toward the wayward son went above and beyond a legal, cause-and-effect construct of life; so that there was forgiveness and the opportunity for the youngest son to have a new, fresh start again, without having to prove himself as a hired servant. The unforgiving attitude—not the father or the youngest son or anyone else—of the eldest son shut himself out of his father’s house.
We cannot have a relationship with God that excludes others. The eldest son wanted such a relationship with his father that would exclude his younger brother. However, that was not possible, since the brother was in the home, and if the elder brother could not stand to be in the prodigal’s presence; then he could not come into the father’s house.
There are those, even in the Church today, who, like the older son, who find it very difficult, if not impossible, to live by love and grace. They are good churchgoing, law-abiding citizens. And yet, they shut themselves out of loving, meaningful relationships with God; because they cannot tolerate or forgive the sinners whom Jesus himself forgives and loves. How difficult it is for many Christians to extend real forgiveness to the outcasts of their community, unless the outcasts reform themselves enough to be worthy of acceptance in their community. We, like the eldest son, sometimes prefer to have the prodigal sons and daughters of our community prove themselves as hired servants before we are ready or willing to love, accept or forgive them.
However, that is not what the father in our parable does; nor indeed does our God! The true hero of our parable is the father. He is generous, loving, waiting patiently; he treats both sons equally, and in the end he is—as my professor, the Rev. Dr. William Hordern observes so insightfully in his beautiful book, Living by Grace—even a gambler. The father shows his generosity toward the younger son by giving him his share of the property and allowing him to do what he wanted with it—in spite of inner pain and grief they may have cost the father at the time. The father shows his love to this prodigal son in so many ways: by noticing him coming and running to meet and welcome him by opening his arms to him and kissing him; by placing the robe, ring and sandals on him; by killing the choice, fatted calf and throwing a homecoming party for him. The father also loves his eldest son by going out to meet him, plead with him and invite him to join in the homecoming party. The father does not punish or reward his two sons for what they have or have not done; instead, he loves them equally, in spite of what they have or have not done.
Finally, the father shows that he is a gambler in that he accepts his prodigal son back without any conditions or strings attached. The parable does not tell us whether or not the prodigal son was just using his father to benefit himself and afterwards go away back into a prodigal way of life. The father may have known that he was taking a chance—he was gambling—on trusting his prodigal son and accepting him without the son proving himself. But nonetheless, that is the gamble, the chance the father took because he loved his son and forgave him; even if that meant the son would take advantage of the father in the future; the father’s love and forgiveness was always constant.
There are times when we are like the prodigal son and have wandered far away from God. Yet, God our Father-Parent is generous with us, loves us, waits patiently for us, treats all of us equally, and gambles on us. He too runs to welcome us back into his family with open arms, and rejoices when we have come back home.
There are also times when we are like the elder son. When we too are selfish, righteous and law-abiding. When we human beings fail to accept, love, and forgive; God our Father does, so that we too, as recipients of his generous grace, are then able to do likewise.
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