Who’s the Prodigal One?
Message for Year C Lent 4
Based on Luke 15: 11b-32/Psalm 32
I’d be surprised if there was anyone here who hasn’t heard this story before. It might even be one of the most well- known of Jesus’ parables. Somewhere along the line it even got its own title, many of you will know it as the parable of “The Prodigal Son”. Now, as it happens when something is very familiar, you assume you know all about it, and, well, fine and good. That’s how I felt about this story, which I have known for years as The Prodigal Son—the younger son, a wasteful and extravagant spendthrift—you know one of those ne’er do well types, like the guys on TV or the movies who fritter away their paychecks drinking and gambling in the casinos, or someone who blows the million dollars they’ve won in the lottery and then winds up flat broke. “Prodigal” always held a negative connotation for me, it didn’t sound like a good thing to be. But when you’re writing these sermon, well it’s best to be sure….So I looked it up.
- characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure: lavish
- recklessly spendthrift
- yielding abundantly (as in nature)1
The third definition was a new concept, the idea of abundance, like in a crop yield. Well, and me living on the farm for 40 years, and I didn’t even know that. But I was right on the money with the first two definitions, bang on descriptions for the younger son in our story who spent his father’s early begotten inheritance lavishly and profusely, he squanders his way through it in indulgent & reckless living. So, now he’s flat broke, having been abandoned by all of his fair- weather friends, and when famine hits the land, he’s starving. And so, he winds up feeding pigs and even having to eat the feed he’s been hired to feed the pigs with, pig slop in essence. A Jewish boy, born and raised into a good and rich family, feeding pigs, eating pig feed; for a Jew you can’t get much lower than that–this is the biblical equivalent to hitting rock bottom. Eventually ‘he comes to himself’ (NRSV vs 17), or in another translation ‘he comes to his senses’ (CEV), and realizes that the only option left to him is to go back home, plead his father’s forgiveness and ask him for a job as a hired hand. He knows that his father is well within his rights to disown him completely, and refuse to see him. Now, let’s remember the society this story is written in. When this son asked for his inheritance while his father was still alive, he was showing absolute disregard for his father, the family name, the laws of the Jewish ways of life, and his father’s station in that community as an affluent landowner responsible for the lives of many who worked for him. For him to take that money out of the family estate would have impacted the lives of all who were a part of it, actually impacting the business as well. The younger son completely disrespected his father in every possible way — in effect telling his father that he couldn’t wait for him to die, that the money and his desire for it was more important to him than his father, or anyone else for that matter. And now, he has nothing, his only hope for his very survival is to fall at his father’s feet and beg for forgiveness—and that’s assuming his father hasn’t disowned him completely and will even consent to see him.
“So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” (vs 20) (Downton Abbey fans? Lord Grantham?) Affluent and powerful owners of estates don’t normally conduct themselves in this way, running through their lands to welcome a disreputable son home. This would have most certainly at the very least raised the eyebrows of the folks who were listening to Jesus telling this story. In real life one would not expect this, no self-respecting estate owner would behave in this way. This son should have been rejected, renounced, not welcomed back literally with open arms.
Now, you don’t need a degree in theology to understand that the father in this parable represents God. So then, what is Jesus telling us about God? What does Luke tell us: “While he was still far off, his father saw him….” His father must have continually been on the look-out for this lost son, if he saw him and recognized him from a great distance, watching for him, waiting for this wayward son, hoping he would return. No matter how badly we mess up our lives, no matter how hurtful or egregious our sin, God not only patiently waits for us, but is looking for us to come back when we have strayed away.
The father “… was filled with compassion…” God doesn’t hold grudges, although considering some of the things we do individually, or even corporately as a humanity—even in God’s name, you’d think God certainly has a right to! But no, this is not our God modus operandi. Our God is a God of love, of care, of compassion, not a God of vengeance or retaliation. Thanks be to God that God’s ways are not our ways!
“Then the son said to him ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son’. But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.’” Robe, ring, sandals—these are all the things that a son of this type of household would wear, these are not the accessories that slaves or hired men would wear. Can you just imagine how this son would have felt, after all he did against his father, the family, the family’s business, to be reinstated as a full member of the household? When we ask the Lord’s forgiveness, we are forgiven and restored as a child of God. Even though we know we are not worthy of it, God wants us back and lovingly welcomes us back sisters and brothers of Christ.
So delighted is the father at his son’s return, that he orders the fatted calf killed. That’s a lot of meat, takes a lot of people to eat all that. The father is throwing a village wide celebratory party. Now who’s the prodigal one? God is! The love of God is so lavish, profuse and abundant, God is almost reckless in God’s desire to share that love, wanting so much for us to accept God’s amazing love. God’s love yields abundantly. No matter what, when we return to the Lord in true penitence, God is absolutely delighted! God’s love is unconditional and can be counted on. And that’s also the message in today’s psalm. (invite to look at bulletin) “Sins” are those behaviours, those things we do or don’t do, that arise out of our self willfulness or our hard-heartedness or our blindness to God’s ways—behaving like a mule the psalmist likens it to. And it is our stubborn desires that lead us to behaviours that are not God’s way, but our ways. This is the true definition of sin, separation from God. We were made in God’s likeness, made to be in union with God. We’ve lost touch with our Creator our Father/Mother God, the spark of God that is within each of us gets buried underneath our self serving desires, and our stubbornness to go our own ways. We have come to depend on ourselves, our own deeds to find our sense of worthiness, our willful desire to be our own gods. And these sins, these behaviours weigh heavily upon our Spirits—sapping our energy, wearing out our bones, like exhaustion as in a summer’s drought. And when we confess our sins, we lighten that load, we are refreshed and relieved.
Sometimes it takes a major event in our lives to open this deep awareness of our need for our Creator’s love, to ask God’s forgiveness and receive the grace of God, like the younger son in our story. But we don’t need to hit rock bottom to ask God’s forgiveness, to admit our sins and be relieved of the weight guilt that we hold onto. As the psalmist said, “Faithful love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord.
Let us pray:
Loving and Gracious Lord, you made us in your image, in your likeness, and from your prodigal grace, you have given us all we need, and more! But we fall off the path, we get lost in our own selfish desires and wants, forgetting or ignoring your will and desire for us, which is to be in communion with you, to live in a loving relationship with you, our truly awesome Creator. Forgive us Lord, for ignoring you, for putting other things in our lives before you. Forgive us Lord for our sins, that which we do which separates us from your love. We give thanks that you don’t give up on us, you are always ready to receive us, and ask that you keep looking for us Lord. And now, we open ourselves, our souls to your Holy Spirit, to touch that spark within us that is from you, reigniting it with your love. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
The Rev. JoAnn Todd
The Anglican Parish of Hanover – Durham