4th Sunday in Lent
March 27, 2022
Scripture: Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
(The Prodigal Son)
Sermon: “Profound Forgiveness”
Whenever people grumbled in the Bible, Jesus often responds with a parable. In the parable, often lies the heart of the point that Jesus is trying to make to the grumblers. I’ve often wondered…why the parable? If you look up parable you’ll find that it’s a fictitious story used to relate a spiritual lesson. In Matthews’ Gospel, Matthew says that Jesus told the people parable because they could not see, hear or understand. The parable gave them another element of hearing something, so that spiritually their eyes might be opened.
This is the fourth Sunday in Lent. The time in Lent when we look deep into our hearts and see the sin inside us whatever it may be, and turn our hearts around and repent. Such a season lends us to the story in Luke, about a sone who has gone astray, but now comes home.
The Prodigal Son is one of the most famous parables. Today we hear it and we tend to wonder “Are we the prodigal son?” Or, are we more like the son who stayed and was bitter when the younger gained the feast and party by simply returning home. We might associate ourselves with the father, who longed for his children to be faithful, fruitful with their time and gifts, and respectful and honorable. Whoever we are in the story, we’re reminded of a love that is so deep, one runs to share it, no matter how far we’ve strayed.
This is a story about repentance and restoration. However, you may notice in this story, when this youngest son finally comes home, it’s not really because he’s turned and repented. It’s because he realizes he’s hungry. The life he thought he would live with his inheritance didn’t quite turn out as he had imagined. St. Jerome puts it this way... "the son couldn’t be satisfied, because pleasure always creates its own hunger.” What the son needed was what he left—love.
James Howell notes that it wasn’t a change of heart that brought him home. It was hunger. “If there was any change in the boy—any real change—it comes not in the pigsty, but when he finds himself surprisingly swept off his feet by his father.” TS Eliot wrote “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” The son was back where he belonged all along.
Whatever we see or hear when we listen to this story—one theme remains in the forefront of storyline—profound forgiveness.
This isn’t easy for the older brother to swallow. When the older son learns of the younger brother’s return, he was so furious, he didn’t want to go to the party. “Let the penitent come home, by all means, but let him come home to penance, not a party!”
The whole setting of this parable is disturbing from the outset. The youngest son begins with the words, “Father give me what belongs to me…now.” This is stinging because he’s asking his dad for his inheritance—before his dad is even dead! But, in this case, he’s taking more than what might have been. We don’t know what might befall us in the future—none of us do. As John Wesley writes “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” It’s important to have insurances, and savings and to be able to have a wage that provides and allows you to live. Saving is important, but often we may save, so that we can later provide. We’re I’m from in the US, we don’t know if a major health concern might turn up a really high paying hospital bill in our future. For Canadians living in Vancouver, we might be saving to hopefully own a home one day. For this father, he’s got the money—the inheritance and the property—but he might need it in his future. We don’t know. We never will—because it’ll already be gone once it’s given to the younger son. The boy also doesn’t ask if this is okay. He demands it. “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” Not, that does belong to me.
Bishop Barron writes that “By definition, a gift cannot be demanded, it can only be received graciously and as a sort of surprise.” By removing the possibility of a gifted relationship between father and son, the son is cutting off the flow of grace.
Even if you haven’t been raised in the faith, it’s possible you’ve heard this story before of the prodigal son. Or, maybe you’ve heard the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden in the very first book of the Bible—Genesis. Adam and Eve wanted to eat of the tree of knowledge and of good & evil. The Tempter in the Old Testament prompted them to take for themselves the life that only can be received as a gift.
What is our posture today in this world? Is it one of take or receive? Our society and our culture that we live in feeds us images all the time to make us think we should have more than we do. We should look different than we are. When we live in a land only of taking, paying & possessing, we lose contact with the divine love of God—we starve spiritually.
“The divine life flows because it is a process of giving and receiving.”
The boy’s story is disturbing. Things don’t go well. And we realize that if he had never left, he’d be treated far better than what has become of him. He realizes this, too. In some versions it reads, “when he came to himself.” In the New International Version of the Bible, which we read from today, the words read “When he came to his senses.”
This past week our family watched the Lin Manuel Miranda movie “Tick Tick Boom” about the true story of playwright Jonathan Larson. He needed to write one final song for a musical…and it took him a very long while. Finally he wrote “Come To Your Senses.” Not only one sense, but use all five, he writes. Come back, alive!
This son was dead. Not physically. But to many in his household, it felt that way. What the father must’ve known, is that his son was spiritually dead—he had fallen far away from the truth; far away from love; far away from home. Come back, alive! Not just physically, but in every way—and who waits, but a loving Father, wrapping arms around a boy who was finally ready to receive. This time, it wasn’t the property or the money that he was seeking, it was the gift of acceptance, of assurance, of forgiveness, of grace. Now, he finally felt alive again.
When the younger son was on his way home, Scripture says his father saw him while he was still a long way off. His father caught sight of him—from way far away—he’d obviously been looking. He never stopped looking.
Many of you met me and my family upon our return from a sabbatical in England. I remember sharing with Betty Jofenig about climbing Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. I thought she’d be proud I knew about it and I mentioned that our entire family climbed that mountain. “Mountain!” She exclaimed… “why that’s nothing more than a hill!” That’s not a mountain! J Well…I suppose she was right, and she would know---but the day we climbed it, it felt like a mountain! The wind was strong and our middle son, Sam went off far ahead of all of us and reached the top before any of us. However, once we got to the top, there was no Sam. Anywhere. We started to worry—shouting his name—looking frantically around and over any side. Until way far away, coming down from another ‘hill’ was a glimmer of a boy—and we caught sight of his blue pants that he was wearing that day. We knew immediately it was Sam. He apparently got tired of waiting for us, and skipped on down the other side and off to the second hill. But my point—we saw him---you could barely make-out a figure far off, but we knew it was our boy.
The father in this parable in Luke’s Gospel is known as the “gatherer-father.” He reaches out not only to the son who is far off, but to the son who is near. The younger brother had been in physical exile, but the older brother had been in spiritual exile. When the older brother says to his father “this son of yours came back, who devoured your property with prostitutes…” the father catches his reference. The older brother isn’t even calling the younger his brother—he’s distancing himself from his father, as well. The father responds “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
The father doesn’t love either of his sons according to what they deserve. He just loves them, both.
The party was thrown for the one who had been away and was back home, but the party was really for all who gathered. My friend writes about the wonderful, hairy-footed people known as the hobbits from J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. The hobbits have an intesting custom. “On a hobbit’s birthday, he or she does not receive gifts from family and friends. Instead, the birthday-celebrating hobbit presents gifts—and perhaps throws a party—for all of his or her family and friends.” This sounds backwards, doesn’t it? I mean, when it’s MY birthday, it’s my day—everyone should celebrate me, right? But think how clever these hobbits are. In terms of adding up the total number of birthday gifts and parties a hobbit participates in every year! Instead of just one birthday party once a year—there are many celebrations many times a year.
“God raised us up and called us home. It is just not about you or me, or my sin or your sin, or my deserts or your deserts. It is about God and God’s life-giving love and mercy.”
Rodney Clapp writes:
”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.
More wine. More feasting. More music. More dancing.
It means another, and now a bigger, party.”
It is God’s dream to renew, reconcile, repair, and restore all of creation. This is not a brother against brother world-- a “you against me” world in the faith of God. This is an “us” world in God’s Kingdom, that all would be healed. That all would find peace.
 Barbara Brown Taylor.
 Word on Fire, Bible and Commentary.
 Ibid, Barron.
 Rodney Clapp, FOW.
 FOW, quoting “Joseph A. Fitzmyer.