Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
March 31, 2019
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! 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!’ Then the father said to him, ‘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.’”
It may seem rather early, but this week the first Christmas resource catalog arrived in my mailbox! I certainly don’t want to start planning for Christmas until at least after Easter. Like most people, I suppose, just thinking about Christmas brings back some incredibly pleasant childhood memories and some regret that many of those former memories cannot be recreated or repeated.
When I was growing up, my parents did their very best to give my brother and sister and me a wonderful Christmas. They sacrificed so that we could have the latest and greatest toys and clothing items. They stayed up late putting together stuff so that it was ready to be used when we came down the stairs on Christmas morning.
I also remember that we had some family friends who had children about the same age as my sister and me. One year this family brought presents for me and my siblings. My mother and father then felt obligated to return the favor and so they purchased a present for each of our friends’ two children. Thus began a weird kind of Christmas present arms race! Every year the presents that my brother and sister and I received from this family were bigger and better. And every year the pressure was on my parents, financially and creatively, to come up with something to give to my friends’ children. The problem was made greater in that the family owned a local store which sold all of the toys in my hometown. They were able to get their hands on the latest dolls or sports equipment. Sometimes we were able to receive the toys that other children in town could only wish for. One year my brother and I got World War II noise making toy machine guns, complete with camouflage. I know my parents would never have purchased those for us. I shudder to think that I actually enjoying using a toy like that.
Yet I recall looking forward to receiving these incredible presents. But more importantly, looking back I understand the difficult position it placed my mom and dad. They could not keep up with such generosity. They did not have the resources to supply such grace. It was an impossible task.
The Scripture lesson this morning is one of the most known stories in the entire Bible – the parable of the Prodigal Son. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the greatest story ever written – within the Bible and outside of it. That’s quite a compliment! Charles Dickens agreed. He called the parable of the Prodigal Son the best short story in the English language.
I was telling Laura this week that when it comes to preaching about the Prodigal Son, I have perhaps exhausted my creativity. I have preached it from the perspective of the young son, of the older son, and from the father’s point of view. A colleague suggested that perhaps we could look at the pigs’ perspective or even explore how the fatted calf felt about things. But when talking about this parable, I think we should resist the temptation to get too cute or to find a secret hidden message. Calvin Seminary professor Scott Hoezee writes that this parable is like your Grandmother’s classic recipe for chocolate chip cookies: “at some point you might try to tweak the recipe to freshen it up a bit. White chocolate chips might be fun, or maybe some cinnamon in the dough. But when your children bite into the cookie they usually end up saying, ‘Why did you mess with it? We like the old way better!’”
The parable in the gospel of Luke is really two stories in one. The first story focuses on the younger son. He decides that he has had enough of his life as he knows it. He asks for his father to give him his share of the property immediately. He then goes off to a far country and wastes his inheritance on wine, women, and song. After his money is gone, and after a famine comes upon the land, the younger son takes a job feeding pigs. He soon comes to realize that even his father’s hired hands back home have life better than he does. So he makes plans to return home, to confess his sins, and to see what kind of meager reception his father might offer.
The second story is about the older son. While his younger brother enjoyed the good life, this boy kept his nose to the grindstone. He was out doing his job, working in the fields when his snotty-nosed sibling returned. Actually he didn’t see what was happening, he heard it- he heard the music and the dancing. When a servant told him that his father had pulled out all the stops to celebrate the return of his younger brother, the older son refused to join the party. When his father came out to plead for his to join the celebration he said, “All these years I have been working like a slave and yet you never have given a party for me. Now this son of yours who wasted your mercy returns and you kill the fatted calf for him.” And this story ends with the older brother still out in the field, apparently eternally resentful of his father’s hospitality and goodness.
Both stories have one thing in common. The mercy of the father. It is the father who is the protagonist in both of the stories. It is the father who lavishes grace and mercy and love on an undeserving child. It is the father who seeks to restore a lost relationship and insure a good future. It is the father who give and give in ways that we can’t match and perhaps even understand. It is the father who is really the focus of the story.
The Prodigal Son. Words are important. Titles are important. They can be the difference to how we view or understand something. I read this week where the original name of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Psycho was “Wimpy.” Wouldn’t that changed how we view the movie! The movie Titanic was once called “The Ship of Dreams” and Casablanca was first called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” These titles just don’t have the same zip or the same appeal. They don’t speak of what we know to be the content or memorable image of the movie.
The same may be true of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Prodigal. We usually only hear that word used when we read this parable. Because of this story we may think that we know what the word prodigal means. Perhaps like me, many of you have always thought that prodigal meant one who goes away for a while and then returns home. But that’s not who a prodigal is. If you take your dictionary off the shelf or use the review option at the top of your Word page you will discover that prodigal means “wastefully or recklessly extravagant” or “giving or yielding profusely.” A prodigal is a person who spends or has spent his or her money or substance with wasteful extravagance. I suppose after hearing that definition, the title of the parable of the Prodigal Son would still fit because the younger son was wasteful and recklessly extravagant with his inheritance. Yet perhaps it is the father who is the most prodigal character of all in the story. He is the one who gives of his love and grace with reckless abandon. He is the one who never stops giving and loving. He is the one whose compassion leaves us scratching our heads and challenging our rational perceptions.
David Lose writes “one of the things that strikes me in this story is the absolute foolishness of this father. In response to his son’s remarkably offensive request- asking for an inheritance ahead of time is akin to wishing your parents were dead- this father goes ahead and gives it to him. Given that wealth is tied up in land, this isn’t about going to the bank but rather selling off tracts of real estate, herds, and more. And then, when his son has wasted all this away, he runs- something no self-respecting landowner would do- to meet this son, cuts off his lame apology, and restores him to his place in the family.” “Trust me,” Lose continues, “every single listener in Jesus’ audience would have known that this kind of thing never happens, at least not in this world. Which is precisely the point of the parable. Jesus is introducing people to the relational logic of the kingdom of God that runs contrary to and way beyond the legal logic of the world.” God’s love is more abundant, more extravagant, more recklessly given that we could ever imagine.
As we reflect in the midst of the Lenten season, let us consider our lives and how we have fallen short of God’s intention. We are more likely to be as the younger son, wasting our lives for our own pleasure, seeking what we deem we deserve when it suits us. We are more likely to be the older son, judging the behavior of others according to our own standards, refusing to forgive or to reach out in love until we believe that someone has adequately repented or has paid for their sins. But let us remember that God is the prodigal father, who refuses to give us the love we deserve, but instead gives us always the love we need. Let us consider that God waits patiently for lost children to return. When God sees us from a long way off, God runs to welcome us. Let us rejoice in the God who looks around the party and feels our absence, who then leaves the party, spends time with us, extends to us another invitation, and then waits patiently for our response.
The prodigal. A God who loves us extravagantly and wastefully. A God who gives to us love and mercy beyond our deserving. The prodigal. A God who calls us to do likewise, the best we can, with those with whom we share our lives and our world.