A sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
What a tale rich with the complexities of this world we have here! The Prodigal Son – or is it the Tale of the Lost Sons or the Tale of the Lamenting Older Brother – or is it a Tale of a Prodigal Love? Ralph Waldo Emerson called this the greatest story in the Bible. I call it Everybody’s Story. Part of the reason we are so drawn to this story is that we are never only one of the characters. We find ourselves with the younger son mired in the messes of our own making, with the elder son in our righteous bitterness and fear of being overlooked, and we long to be like the father who empties himself in his selfless devotion to bring in the lost and the forsaken.
Who among us has not squandered the love we have been given? Who among us has not chased after our own impulses, passions, and needs be they hunger, thirst, or wanton desires instead of choosing a higher path? Who hasn’t felt the unrelenting pain of losing someone we deeply loved and the regrets that fill the void they leave behind? Who hasn’t felt the bitter sting of insecurity and fear of being left out or chased blindly after love, hoping it will be returned? Who hasn’t thought better of themselves only to be humbled by a harsh lesson in humility? Who hasn’t hoped, hungered and prayed that someone — anyone – God — will come searching for us when we are lost, broken, and alone? It is a story about joy, about love, and about grace – and about our misunderstanding of the nature of grace.
And so, without further ado – as the late, great comforter on the airwaves Paul Harvey would so famously begin every radio show – the rest of the story…
The tax collectors and sinners were very near to Jesus now. He had them on the edge of their seats. Never had someone so different from them taken the time to talk with them. He offered them something no one else could or would. And the Pharisees and the scribes continued in their grumbling, saying, “Not only does this fellow welcome sinners and eat with them – he’s offering them grace – a cheap grace at that. He’s breaking every law in the book! He’s crossing the line here. The government surely won’t stand for it. He’s saying God loves them too!”
Jesus could hear the Pharisees grumbling. He knew they were right – He did, after all, hang with the wrong people, he was breaking the rules – but he had more important things to do than observe the laws of this world – especially laws that served only to divide and condemn – laws from a time before – laws that served more to separate people from God rather than bring them to Him. His father sent him to take on the cloak of sin and bridge the great chasm it created between Him and his children and by George, he was doing a good job of it! He found it ironic that the most religious and pious in his audience where his greatest critics. Jesus continued.
Now, the younger son, still basking in the glow of his new life, overheard his father’s pleas to his older brother. He excused himself from the party and went to see to his brother.
“Come on brother, don’t be like a stubborn old mule, without understanding. Get over yourself! Your bitterness and resentment towards my redemption is confining you to a fallen world. Come inside and celebrate – there is much to rejoice!”
The older brother glared at his precocious and suddenly highly prolific sibling. Who did he think he was? Telling him what to do?
Seeing his brother’s continued hardness of heart, the younger one continued.
“Look, I don’t fault you for feeling as you do. Everything you said to Dad is true. I get it. You have worked all these years – and worked hard! I mean look at this place – it’s amazing – so much better than when I left it all behind. You didn’t run off and desert Dad – let alone practically wish him dead by asking for your inheritance early. You didn’t squander the family’s wealth. You, for the most part, I am sure, have been dutiful and responsible and trustworthy all this time, and so it must really burn for you to see Dad running down the road flailing his arms like an idiot in disbelief and joy – for me – I mean what an embarrassment!! And then he welcomes me home with an outpouring of love and no questions asked. Even I wasn’t expecting that! I know you don’t think it is fair and that’s because it’s not!”
“Not just unfair, it is a complete disgrace.” Said the older brother – finally finding something to agree with.
“Look, this hasn’t been easy for me, either. I was so certain there was something more in this world for me – that there was nothing for me here. I felt suffocated by rules and expectations that meant nothing to me. I wanted to live! And it was great for a while in that distant country – living with abandon – enjoying what I thought were the finer things – a far cry from what you’ve been toiling at all this time – but then things took a turn. The recession hit and my careless living was taking a toll on me. I had nothing to lean on – no savings and no foundation – no relationships of value – nothing to give me strength. I found myself at rock bottom – well actually slop bottom – I had to feed pigs to survive! Can you believe that? The only job I could find that I had any skill for was on a pig farm! Not only that – but my hunger was insatiable – nothing filled me – I even began to eat the pig’s pods. Pride kept me silent but soon I realized I was dying inside. And look at me – my body practically wasted away! The weight of all that I had done and all that I had lost was unbearable. When I realized I was worse off than – well those people – I came to my senses.”
“Yeah, you came to your senses when you wanted more from Dad. I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe you would come back – that you could come back after what you have done. The shame you have brought upon yourself and Dad.”
“Oh, believe me, I know what I have done – and now so does God – he knows everything, you know. We had a long talk on my way back home you see – I told him about everything – I confessed my rebellion – I accepted my failures – it was a pretty long walk. But as I walked, I felt the weight of my guilt and my failures wash away with a rush of mighty water.
“Look, the more I think about it, my return home actually seems much easier than bringing you out of that cold anger making itself at home in the deepest corners of your being. Brother, your resentment is killing you. But it’s not just about me, is it? It’s about your virtue!”
“Hey, don’t try to bring me down to your level!” The older brother spat out defensively.
“Down to my level? Look! We are all sinners here. You just happen to be sinning in a different way. I am trying to lift you up.”
“Oh, come on! Where is it written that it isn’t good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? Such attitudes are praiseworthy!”
“And indeed, they are! We should all strive to be that way – I know I should have. But don’t you see, you are so caught up in being right that you can’t see past yourself! I see your despair! It’s like you are battling against yourself. At the very moment you want to act out of your most generous self, you get caught in anger or resentment. And just when you want to be selfless, you find yourself obsessing about being loved. And just when you have done your utmost to accomplish a task well, you question why others do not give of themselves as you do. You think you are better than me for overcoming the same temptations that I had, but in truth, you envy me for giving in to them! It seems that everything you are basing your virtuosity on is turning you into a resentful complainer. Where is there happiness in that way of living?”
“I am happy…”
“Oh please, you are deceiving yourself – and Dad. Continue on this path and you will be stuck here and tormented forever! True happiness belongs to those whose sin is forgiven, covered – forgotten. Look at me! I feel like my slate has been wiped clean! Like God is holding nothing from me – because I held nothing back from Him. That’s the kind of happiness I have now. I have found shelter from my troubled ways and joy in my freedom.”
Shaking his head, the older brother replied, “You may be happy – but you are not being realistic. The world doesn’t work that way kid. I am proof of that! God may have removed the label of “sinner” from you when you sought restoration but there are plenty of people here at your party who will try to pin it back on you as soon as they have had their fill of wine and taken their leave. They’ll cast sideways glances at you in the store and I bet they won’t sit with you in church.”
Having stood by and watched his two sons stand their respective grounds, the father had finally had enough. Shaking his head but at the same time opening his arms he interrupted.
“Sons, both of you have wandered far from me. You,” he said to his younger son, “alienated yourself from me by trying to satisfy your passions with no regard for anything or anyone but yourself. And you,” he said to his older son, “distanced yourself from me and all those who care for you, by indulging in anger, and envy, and caring only about your place in life.”
Putting his arms around both his son’s shoulders for the first time in a long time he continued.
“I wouldn’t want to live in this world if rules and fairness and equity didn’t matter. It could get out of control pretty fast. But we can get lost in the means and forget what the end result of rules and fairness and equity is all about. Just look around. Take a good hard look at your own hearts and motives. We want to be judged only by our best moments – but condemn others who have fallen short of our ideals. We seek validation and vindication for our accomplishments, but when it comes to those we deem as unworthy of the same we’d rather have our own pity party than join in celebrating them. We keep scores for everything. We literally count everything – from calories to miles to money – even good deeds – all in an effort to tip the scales of fate in our favor. We see life as a game of winners and losers and that skews our relationships and diminishes the value of every one of us. Good scores, accomplishments, fairness, equity, – those are important goals, but they are not the only things that matter in this life – at least not to me. What matters is that we have joy – joy in our hearts, joy that fills our minds, joy that strengthens us for this world. A joy that reigns in this house.
“That joy comes from love. And my love is something that cannot be counted. I could never apportion my love. I don’t track it or measure it or parcel it out. I can give all of my love to one of you and – guess what? – I still have all of my love left to give to the other.
“You might fear that there is a limit – or secretly hope that there is – and only a certain amount of love is reserved for a select few – including you – but that is not how my love works. There is never a limit – never was and never will be. You see, love is one of those things that the more you give the more you seem to have – you may try, but you will never be able to control who I love, how I love, or quantify it.”
Having been silent for too long, the younger son looked at his father and said, “Thank you, Dad. Thank you for forgiving me before you even saw me and loving me. I want to love like you love.”
Not to be outdone the older son reached deep.
“We live amid war, fires, floods, poverty, greed, persecution, imprisonment, betrayal, hatred, and sins we have yet to imagine. Signs of the world’s darkness that will never be absent. But you are telling me I can still have joy in the midst of it all? The joy of belonging to a household whose love is stronger than my present darkness and even death; a love that empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to a home of joy.”
“Yes, my son. It is yours every day. You have always been loved and that joy is yours. Every day you are made new and made whole in the waters that wash away your sin and make you shine.”
Upon hearing this, the Pharisees went away in silence as Jesus broke another loaf of bread to share and the tax collectors and sinners were filled with joy.
And there you have it. The rest of the story. We are restored every day in the waters of our baptism. God’s forgiveness is always there; we are the ones who cut ourselves off when we choose envy and bitterness or go our own way. But God never stops trying. His love and grace have no limit. God promises us a warm welcome and complete restoration to God’s household -if we simply approach and come home.
As Paul so eloquently shares with the Christians in Corinth and as written in The Message: “He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own. Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)