Sunday, March 14, 2010

Parable of the Prodigal Father

Fourth Sunday in Lent – Year C (RCL)
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3,11b-32
Sunday, March 14, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

I have a confession to make. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I always thought that the designation of the younger son in today’s Gospel as the “Prodigal Son” somehow referred to his returning home. I suppose it was because of how the term is used in secular society, as in “the prodigal son returns.” At least to me, this seems to imply a free-spirit who returns home after a period of wandering. As I was preparing for this sermon, I ran across some commentary that seemed to indicate a different meaning for the word “prodigal.” So, I looked it up and found that it actually means “wastefully or recklessly extravagant” or “lavishly abundant.” Not at all what I expected. Based on the definition, I could see how this pericope got the name Parable of the Prodigal Son. But it still didn’t seem quite right.

As I see it, this story is not so much about the prodigality of the younger son – yes, his prodigal actions are there, but it is merely an explanation of how the boy got himself into his current predicament. Yes, he lost his wealth through extravagant and wasteful spending. And while important, in the grand scheme of things, this is a relatively minor point in the story. His prodigal actions certainly set him on a course that changed his life. His actions and indiscretions set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to a conversion experience that completely redefined who he was. Because of this, he can no longer be considered recklessly extravagant. That part of his life is but a small detail of his total life story.

Now if you want to talk prodigality, to examine that which is recklessly extravagant or lavishly abundant, we really need to take a look at the father. We certainly see the lavish abundance with which he showers his son upon his return home. But the father exhibits recklessly extravagant behavior throughout the story. Virtually everything he does throughout this parable is out of character for a prosperous landowner. The younger son is obviously impatient and does not want to wait for his father to die to get his share of the old man’s property. The father breaks with social convention and allows his younger son to take his inheritance even before the father is dead. Talk about recklessly extravagant. In his actions, the father would have invited ridicule and criticism from his friends, neighbors, and extended family. As far as society would have been concerned, his actions would have been more like recklessly stupid.

So, the younger son takes his share of the inheritance, which would have been a third of the estate (the eldest son was legally entitled to two-thirds) and goes off and spends it recklessly and extravagantly on whatever tickles his youthful fancy – exciting adventure, rich food and drink, fast chariots, loose woman, you name it. And in due course, when he has exhausted his bank account and is faced with the prospect of living on the streets, he hires himself out as a common laborer, hoping to at least earn enough to have shelter and food. But things turn out to be tougher than he had originally thought and he just isn’t able to earn enough to provide for his basic needs. He eventually realizes that if he is to be consigned to such a miserable and lowly existence, he would probably fare better back home. After all, his father’s hired hands always seem to have enough to eat. And besides, he would at least be in a familiar area among people he knows. He could only hope that his father might have a little compassion and give him a slave’s job. So, he hits the road and heads for home.

As the son approaches his father’s home, we find that the old man has been holding vigil, watching the horizon, hoping against hope that his wayward son might return home. This again would have been one of those recklessly extravagant acts. No man of his status and wealth would waste his time or show such hopeless longing by waiting and watching for the son who had disrespected him by running off with a third of the family fortune. He should have written him off long ago and been done with it. Most men in his position would have. And in a further act of prodigality, when the father does see his son in the distance, he does not coolly wait for his son to come to him. He runs toward his son, throws his arms around him, and kisses him. Again, an act unbecoming of a man of his status. Again, behaving recklessly and extravagantly in his display of emotion.

And before his son can apologize, ask for a job, or do any of the groveling he had expected to have to do, the father again acts in a prodigal manner, ordering a great feast be prepared. This would undoubtedly have been a massive party, one to which the entire village would have been invited, to celebrate the return of the younger son. This was also reckless and extravagant, not in keeping with expected social custom for dealing with such situations. But the father obviously does not care. For in his compassion, what seems reckless and extravagant is a heartfelt expression of lavish abundance, signifying great joy.

It’s pretty obvious that Jesus intended the father to be an analogy for God. Just as the father exhibits extravagance toward his son, lavishing abundance on him, welcoming him back home regardless of what he has done, so too does our God welcome us home whenever we wander off in pursuit of our own fancies. And we don’t even have to ask. Forgiveness is freely given. The offer of reconciliation is freely and joyously offered. But the thing to remember about reconciliation is that while forgiveness is a one-way action, reconciliation is two-way. It is the re-establishment of relationship between two parties. In other words, in the reconciliation dance, it takes two to tango. One has to make the initial offer. And such an offer requires a response. When God offers reconciliation, which he has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and continues to do, we have a choice. And his hope is that we will accept the prodigal gift.

But there’s one loose end on the parable that needs to be dealt with. What do we do with the elder son and his attitude problem? “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” There’s that part of us that just wants to shake the elder son and tell him to get over himself.

But you know what? I think there’s also that part of us that is there siding with the elder son, cheering him on. Because if we stop and think about, isn’t there a little bit of the elder son in us? Sure, we know on one level that God invites, even welcomes, everyone, no matter who they are. That’s Gospel 101. That is Jesus’ central message. That was why Jesus ate with such riffraff as tax collectors and prostitutes. That’s what this whole parable has been about. But even so, it is easy for us to get entrenched in our own opinions, our own beliefs on how the universe, or at least, the church, should operate. Particularly those of us who have stuck it out, followed the rules, done what God has asked of us, whether we wanted to or not. Don’t we get extra points for that? Why should someone who is so radically different from “us” be afforded what should be rightfully ours?

Sadly, we see this across the church, at all levels. We see it in tensions between the Episcopal Church and much of the rest of the Anglican Communion. We see it in tensions between bishops or diocese within the national church. We see it in disagreements between priests or parishes in our own diocese. And we are painfully aware that we have even experienced difficulties within our own parish. Thanks be to God that we have come through it and are stronger for it. But there is still pain to be overcome. There is more healing that needs to happen.

God’s desire and purpose is, as St. Paul says in today’s epistle, that of “reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses.” But that can be hard to do when we become so focused on our own opinions and positions. While we are all entitled to our own perspectives, they can become all consuming, driving a wedge between us, hindering God’s desire for harmony and reconciliation in and through him. Like everyone, I have my own definite opinions on every issue facing the church. Nonetheless, I get so tired of the ongoing battles that detract from the Gospel message and get in the way of reconciliation. I get tired of hearing from “the other side.” And frankly, I get tired of hearing from “my side.” It’s always the same. One side gloats when a little victory is made for their position. In response, the other side whines that “they” are trying to take the church away from them. Regardless of the issue, the dynamics are the same. Frankly, such responses give both sides a bad name and only serve to further fuel the fire of discontent, further driving a wedge between them. In this, we are all a bunch of recalcitrant children, just like the older son.

That’s not what the church is supposed to be about. That’s not what the Kingdom is about. It’s not about your side or my side. It’s not about being right or wrong. It’s about living the Gospel. It’s about seeking reconciliation with God – accepting God’s lavishly abundant offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. And in response for us being reconciled to God, we are to be about the work of being reconciled one with another. That’s what St. Paul is advocating in his second epistle to the Corinthians – we are called to be ambassadors for Christ, seeking and facilitating reconciliation with our brothers and sisters. And that’s what the father in the parable is trying to get across to the elder son – that regardless of who we are, we celebrate and rejoice all who find new life in God through Jesus Christ.

It can be done. Our diocese has a team of people who go out and do reconciliation work in parishes, co-led by two people. Brian is a conservative priest who struggles with the church’s sexuality issues. Joanne is a liberal lay woman and an openly partnered lesbian. And while they disagree on many issues facing the church, including those of sexuality, Brian and Joanne will both tell you that they have incredible respect for each other, that they count each other as good friends, and that they can come together to worship and share bread and wine at the same communion table. This is what it means to be reconciled one with another. It is ultimately about being in relationship despite our differences and coming together at the table. Because it is not our table. We do not decide who is welcome. It is God’s table. And God invites whomever he wishes. And it pleases God to invite us all, younger son, older son, and everyone in between.

In closing, I will note that for me, one of the most interesting things about the parable of the Prodigal Son, the parable of the Prodigal Father, is that Jesus didn’t tell us the end of the story. He tells us the father’s response. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” But Jesus doesn’t tell us how the elder son responds or what he does. And I can’t help but believe that this was no accident, no mere omission. Because, as we know first-hand, there is still much work to do. And it is our job to write the ending of the parable.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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