Today’s reading has a strange hold on me. I was at a meeting of clergy earlier in the month, where we were looking at a difficult text and trying to suss out what it was that the Revised Common Lectionary people were thinking when they selected it – let alone put it with the gospel that they did, and someone said: “Well, we can all be happy that we will soon have the Prodigal Son reading shortly.”
And I admit I was puzzled.
The statement implied that everyone knows what that story is about. Everyone knows what to preach on that particular Sunday, because the formula is straightforward:
Wayward child is incredibly rude to parent and selfishly leaves home.
Wayward child spends all their money and suddenly finds themselves struggling through the crap of life.
Wayward child has an epiphany moment of clarity that they screwed up and that their suffering could end if they but found their parent again and apologized.
Child straightens up.
The relationship is healed.
And, thus, we have the story of the Prodigal Son.
…and everyone lived happily ever after…
That’s not the story that is being told.
I don’t even know that it’s a story that is based in reality. It is often the story we hear. It’s likely the story that we want to hear. This tale is a classic tale of forgiveness and repentance. I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to hear a story of forgiveness and incredible grace poured out to an unworthy sinner? Hold that thought. Let me come back to that thought in a moment.
Because, that story of forgiveness and incredible grace is another story altogether.
That’s not the story that is being told right now.
So, let’s deal with the story of The Prodigal.
I have heard many different interpretations on this parable. And I think it’s safe to say that this is a truism of all parables. Parables aren’t easy to explain – which often leads me to believe that they aren’t, in fact, explainable. Much like trying to explain faith. Some of the things that we believe and understand have to stew in us. We need to ruminate and chew on what we are being told and allow the Holy Spirit to do the work of the Holy Spirit. We need a little spark, a little inspiration, and then we see things differently and understand some new and hard to explain thing.
That’s what a parable does.
So, I think it’s important to understand where this particular parable is situated in the story of Jesus.
At the end of the fourteenth chapter of Luke, Jesus tells the large crowds that have gathered that:
26 “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever doesn’t carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)
And at the beginning of this fifteenth chapter of Luke, we read:
“5 1All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.””
I think that’s clever. and I think Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and legal experts is cleverer still.
He tells two parables before we get to the one of the Prodigal. Jesus tells the story of the Shepherd with the 100 sheep who loses the one. And then he tells the story of the woman with ten silver coins, who loses one of them.
And then we get today’s gospel reading: a certain man with two sons. One, the youngest, who asks for his share of the inheritance, and departs. The other, the elder, who stays and works hard.
I think it’s fair to say that most people are familiar enough with the first half of this parable. My formulaic breakdown is mostly accurate.
The second half of this tale is one that I ruminate on a lot.
Something about the older son’s story impacts me. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s overly responsible, works hard, seeks fairness in all things, and does what he’s told. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s really ticked off with how much his little brother gets away with. I betting that these two brothers were a lot like me and my brother.
To be fair. The youngest in our family is a boy after three daughters. I’m the third daughter. And my childhood relationship with my brother can be somewhat comically summed up in the following sentence, heard coming from my mother’s lips: “Zsófi, you are not his mother!”
I can remember getting so angry sometimes. I would tell my brother again and again to stop behaving a certain way, or doing something that I just knew was going to get him into trouble, and would smugly wait for him to get into the trouble that I was anticipating. Or panic at the very last moment and scream for Mum or Dad. I would get so angry when he was showered with parental love after having done something that I was certain was just going to make them furious with him.
Like the elder son, I wanted fair consequences for dumb actions. And I would pout and sulk when it didn’t happen the way it should. And, you know, when my siblings and I talk about our childhoods we don’t count out all the ways we each screwed up or all the ways we were rewarded for every little good thing we did. We talk about the sheer abundance of love we had. Because you can’t really count and measure relationships.
So we find the eldest son, refusing to go to the party – because of the perceived injustice. This whole scenario is just not adding up. He works hard, does the right thing, and his wayward, irresponsible, and reckless brother gets the party to end all parties?!
And his father comes out to beg him to join the celebrations.
“Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours…” Literally.
But – like a lost sheep and like a lost coin, what was lost has been found again. And this father is just fit to bursting with joy and love – not a properly portioned amount, not a neatly counted and measured out quantity. Just a great overwhelming abundance of love, the amount of which stirs us all deep within ourselves.
In a few weeks we are going to hear the greatest story of Christianity. A real life event that no one can really perfectly explain. Like a parable, it needs to sit and stew. It needs the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to move in the ruminations of every person who has eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to love.
Christ will die. The Lamb of God will take on the sin of the world. And mercy will fall on us like a Father welcoming his lost son home. Like a woman who searches carefully until her lost coin is found. Like a Shepherd who cuddles a beloved lost sheep and gives it a place of love, rest, and comfort – the Shepherd’s shoulders.
Can you imagine the party that God and the angels were having the day that Jesus conquered sin and death?! Can you imagine the amount of joy that broke out in heaven over what just happened on Easter morn?
On that day, all of creation was restored.
Not just one lost sheep.
Not just one lost silver coin.
Not just two lost sons.
All of creation was restored, showered with compassion and incredible grace poured out through a most horrible, murderous, death on a cross.
I would hazard to say: the real Prodigal Son, Jesus Christ, recklessly extravagant with abundant love. For each and every one of us.
That’s a lot to chew on.
As we approach Holy Week, it might be worthwhile to spend some time thinking about the different ways that we react to God’s gift of extravagant grace. Whether we are down and in the muck and mire of life, desperate for the smallest amount of compassion and instead surprised and overwhelmed by the abundance of love. Or, whether we are working hard to keep count of everything in life, keeping track, measuring and comparing ourselves to those around us – trying to make the world fair and equal and instead are surprised and come face to face with the unexplainable excess of God’s love for all living things. Or, whether we are somewhere in between, we all need a little time for God to work wondrous things in and through us. And, maybe, someday soon, a little spark, a little inspiration, will hit, and then we will see things differently and understand some new and hard to explain thing.
Let us pray,
Holy Trinity, we thank you for being the true Prodigal. We thank you for loving us and all of creation so excessively and recklessly – from the lowest of the low to the hardest working of us all. Move within us, inspire us, and help us to better understand your love in all things. Strengthen us for the journey ahead as we look forward to Holy Week with a renewed sense of your greatest love story. Through Jesus Christ, our Saviour, we pray. Amen.
David Lose. “Lent 4C: The Prodigal God.” Dear Partner in Preaching, …in the Meantime.