Lent IV: Coming Home
We are continuing this week with our sermon series, WDJD, or what did Jesus do. If you’re tired of me saying that, don’t worry, next week will be our last installment of the series. But we’re also breaking the rules just a little bit this Sunday. Our scripture lesson gives us just a tiny hint of Jesus’ recent actions, which catapults him into a parable I think we’ve all heard at one point or another in our lives. So, I hope you will allow me to stretch the criteria just a little bit because there really are some beautiful lessons to be learned from the Gospel of Luke this morning.
Last Monday I had the privilege to preach at one of Monmouth College’s chapel services. I would invite you all, if you’re free from 12:10-12:40 on Monday afternoons, to go because the services really are something special. I preached on a Corinthian text, about reconciliation, about giving grace even to those we’ve labeled as enemies or those we’ve deemed undeserving. After discussing my choice of passage with someone, they said to me, “Brandon, that was great, but you should have preached on the story of the prodigal son! It fits your life so well!
I know this comment was meant in good humor but I thought to myself, “well, I hope it doesn’t fit my life too well—spending my youth squandering away my inheritance, taking advantage of my father’s kindness, and only coming back when I had no other choice!" But I understood the jest and I think I understood the point, we all like a coming home story, a story of hope, a story of redemption.
I think anyone with children can empathize with the father from our parable, with the journey of a child reaching the age when they are able to make their own decisions, and the hardship of sometimes needing to let go, let mistakes happen, to give time for a hopeful reconciliation in the future. Likewise, many of us here have probably felt like the younger son at one point or another—feelings of being lost or the loneliness that often comes from hardship. But we can also empathize partly with the older brother, right? With feelings of resentment and jealousy at unequal treatment, the unfairness of life, or the thoughts that one should reap what one sows.
It’s perhaps because of these reasons, these approachable themes that seem all too familiar to us, that the story of the prodigal son remains one of the most well-known from our biblical text. What is easily forgotten about the story, however, is why Jesus was telling it in the first place. Our lectionary does a good job at including some contextual lines from the beginning of chapter 15 that give us some clues as to Jesus’ previous activity. We know from our scripture that Jesus’ most recent teachings and, perhaps even a few meals, had been among those “vile” sinners and tax collectors, of the latter who were apparently so evil, they needed their own category of definition. This does not bode well with some Pharisees of course as they grumble their disapproval. Truth be told, the parable of the prodigal son is situated among many other parables in the middle of Luke’s Gospel. Before it, is the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, and yet, it is this one, this parable that so often sticks in our minds.
There is a certain human quality of our characters, we can see ourselves in all of their shoes. But we can also see ourselves challenged by their actions, we can begin questioning whether or not we would act in the same way. And our challenge from Christ becomes—in what circumstances is forgiveness given, or in what way, if any, does it have to be earned? We know of course that the young son took his inheritance, spent it, and returned, in his mind, not as a son but only as a servant to his father. Anyone listening to this story in ancient Israel would know the subsequent consequences that would come from such arrogance of the son.
But in astounding fashion, on the young son’s return home, the father breaks all social convention, he runs out to his boy, kisses him, does all of the things that no Jewish man would be caught doing during that time for fear of embarrassment, and he celebrates the return of what was once lost. I’ve often spoken on the complicated feelings of the older brother in this story. On the really human response that he has, “father, for all
these years I have been working like a slave for you, yet you’ve never given me even a young goat.” His feelings are legitimate, why should my brother receive the best treatment, particularly when he did wrong, and I’ve been the faithful all these years. It’s not fair.
We see ourselves in this position. We treat people how we think they deserve to be treated. We judge other’s, often not even consciously, on how they look, speak, or act. We like things ordered, conventional, expected. So it’s easy to extend favoritism to the one who showcases these things, it’s safe, and it’s human. But of course what we see is a break from convention, a break from what is normal. We see a father who overlooks his son’s past, who recognizes the potential in all of us to go astray, and is thankful that his son has come back to life.
One of my favorite people in the ministry scene right now, and I may have mentioned her name before, is a Lutheran minister named Nadia Bolz-Weber. She most recently founded and pastored a congregation called the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver Colorado. For the purpose of this example, I need to mention that she doesn’t quite look the part of your typical pastor—she’s covered in tattoos and often sports bright colored hair. Nadia preaches a gospel that welcomes all peoples in life, no matter what their background, no matter what their history, but particularly, and this is important, no matter how the person continues to live their life each and every Sunday—there are no conditions on this welcome.
Nadia’s example is inspiring because as she says, and I’m paraphrasing here, although she still curses like a sailor and continues to sin every day, she ardently relies on the grace of God—a scandalous grace that defies all earthly rules or conventions. A grace that is not contingent on our desire to give it, but a grace that comes from God nonetheless.
It may be difficult for us at times to understand such a grace, but I think looking to the Father’s example might just give us a glimpse. It challenges us to remember that, like the older son, it is not up to us to pass judgment or to qualify what someone deserves in this life. But it is up to us to celebrate and rejoice when we can help bring people to life.
Rodney Clapp, a well-known Christian writer said, “Every time God’s active, stretching, searching, healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us. It means there is more for all of us.” Not a limited and bounding grace but an unlimited and boundless grace.
So I don’t know about you, I tend to want to take on Jesus’ example—to eat and be with the sinners and tax collectors of this world. After all, none of us can truly meet the mark on our own and we are all reliant on this grace that sustains us. Because it is that grace that then transforms and gives new life to all things.
So our call this Lenten season and throughout all the year, becomes less about getting people here, in the door, but more about going out there, into the global church, and being with people where they are at. A welcoming church does not equal growth, but a flourishing ministry, one in which its people are running out to meet others with unconditional love, that is what makes the family whole.
So as we continue to look forward to that Easter Day, to the promise of the resurrection, let us remember new life, let us remember redemption, let us remember the love of a father, of a mother, and of a God whose love surpasses all things.