March 31, 2019

Lent 4C

The Prodigal Son and the Prodigal Father

GOSPEL

Jesus said, “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.'”   Luke 15:11-32

SERMON

Jesus used parables to expose the mystery of God and the workings God’s kingdom within us and among us.  Of the many parables of Jesus, the parable of the Prodigal Son is undoubtedly one of the most loved. It touches us in a way that I believe we ache to be touched by the One Jesus has taught us to call Father. You know, lovingly embraced and securely held.  But the parable is also somewhat challenging and gives us pause to ponder its deepest meaning.

Why? On the face of it, is doesn’t seem so complex, nor does its meaning seem so obscure. The domestic scene it describes may even be familiar to some of us. A beloved family member who has wandered off for a while returns to the fold. His family greets him with conflicting emotions.  Some feel joy at his return. Some feel relief that he is safe. Some feel jealousy that all seems not only forgiven, but even forgotten. Some harshly judge his profligate ways. Some feel it is unfair that they are not celebrated for having stayed and having remained faithful to their family obligations.

But the real message of this parable isn’t quite so simple. It doesn’t lie so obviously on the surface of the story.

In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul admonishes the folks that in Christ God is creating something radically new with regard to this business of forgiveness. This parable is a window into this new thing that God is doing with reconciliation.

The eldest son’s error was in judging his brother’s return and his father’s reaction of pure and utter joy.  On his father’s part there were no reproaches, no recriminations for the trouble or grief the son’s departure and reappearance had caused.  

But who among us has not and would not take the same point of view of the faithful son when confronted with a similar situation that seems so obviously unfair?

Somehow the Prodigal Son’s return to his father’s favor seems just too easy.  Essentially, it is, “Hi, Dad. I’m Home!” “Son, OK – all is forgiven and forgotten. Let’s have a party!”

It is hard for us to accept that the consequences for behaving badly could be, should be so apparently light to even non-existent. We are more inclined to believe that punishment should be proportionate to the crime.  The prodigal should have at least spent some time on kitchen duty.

Even though we understand that the return to the flock of any one strayed sheep, even just one formerly lost soul, is always the occasion for joy in the family of God.

Even though we understand that the call to “repent and return” is one that we all should heed both in small ways, as well as in life-changing ways, for we have all gone astray and continue to go astray.  

Even though we take to heart the psalmist’s reminder that “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven and whose sin is put away!”

Even though we do understand, we have been taught and believe, at least in the abstract, that in the life of faith we are called to cultivate a forgiving nature and to demonstrate forgiveness in our relationships with others.

In spite of all of this, somehow we can’t help but feel that the situation described in this parable smacks of what we might call “cheap grace.” It conflicts with maybe our deeper belief, that we need to earn good fortune, and certainly in some measure we need to deserve God’s favor, and that “no pain, no gain” is the proper yardstick for measuring out someone’s portion of forgiveness.

Understanding God’s justice is never easy. Basically, the difficulty lies in the fact that we confuse our sense of justice with God’s understanding of justice. The parable of the Prodigal Son is an invitation to have our sense of justice redefined in the light of God’s capacity for love.

For us, justice has to do with fairness; But God’s love has to do with utter and complete selflessness. For us, justice is balanced; but God’s love is extravagant and even prodigal.  Yes, God’s love is recklessly generous, lavish, liberal, unstinting and unsparing.  For us, justice almost always involves some measure of retribution; God’s love calls us to reconciliation and restoration.

The deeper truth of the story of the Prodigal Son lies in coming to grips with the breadth and depth of God’s love. In the words of the hymn, it requires us to contemplate the “wideness in God’s mercy,” and to imagine it from outside and beyond the narrow confines of our human perspective.  In God’s economy, justice and love are one and the same. The Father, in the parable, embodies this awesome mystery.  For his part the responsible and dutiful son embodies our struggle to embrace the truth being revealed in the Father’s response.  

The breadth of God’s embrace is unknowable to us. The depth of God’s love is incomprehensible – and certainly immeasurable from a human point of view. And so it is not for us to decide who falls within God’s grace – nor is it for us to decide who should be excluded from his mercy.  For God to be just, is for God to be merciful and loving. When we listen with open hearts to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we are invited to enter into the Father’s joy and to find there our own path to the deepest experience of peace. A peace that is born of and grounded in the Love that the Father has for each of us, in the face of and in spite of our unrelenting sinfulness.  

During this time of Lent, when we are meant to prepare ourselves spiritually to once again enter into the story of Jesus’ passion, his death and resurrection, we need to keep Paul’s words clearly in focus – that through one astounding act of self-sacrificing love, “God was reconciling the world to himself.” And not just reconciling our one self-selected flock of faithful believers gathered in any one place at any one time, but the whole world, once for all time.   Yes, even those whom we would so easily judge as beyond the divine embrace.

In Christ, in his death and resurrection, God was reconciling the world to himself. There was no universal accounting of trespasses, no meting out of more salvation to some than to others. There was no greater redemption for one group than for another, no fuller restoration of a chosen few over the vast hordes of sinners. God was reconciling the whole world to himself. That isn’t justice as we know it; that is unfathomable divine mercy and unbounded holy love – justice has God knows it.

Paul tells us that we have been entrusted with spreading the message of this kind of absolute reconciliation – the message of reconciliation that lies at the heart of the story of the return of the Prodigal Son.

And the kind of reconciliation that we are called to preach is the kind of reconciliation that does not weigh our merits, but simply pardons our offenses.

It’s the kind of reconciliation that holds nothing back, harbors no recriminations and nurtures no resentments.

The kind of reconciliation that demands nothing in return –nothing except utter surrender to God’s mercy.

The kind of reconciliation that starts with a heartfelt confession like the one the Prodigal Son makes to his father: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am not worthy of your favor.”

We are called to preach and live the kind of reconciliation that comes from unconditional forgiveness, like the father gave in his immediate welcoming and loving embrace of his errant son: “Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

On this Sunday, we are meant to cast our eyes forward to the end of this season of penitence. On this Sunday we are called to anticipate the joy of Christ’s resurrection, to celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption given long ago to the Israelites, God’s chosen people:

  • a promise renewed time and again down through the millennia each time God’s people have returned from their disobedient and faithless ways
  • a promise given to Moses when he led the people out of Egypt and across the Red Sea
  • a promise renewed with Joshua at Gilgal, redeeming all Israel from their forty years of wandering faithlessness in the wilderness
  • a promise renewed again with David, forgiving him for his sins against Uriah and God and making him king of all Israel
  • a promise renewed by bringing the dispersed people of Israel out of exile in Babylon and restoring God’s people to the promised land

Again and again, scripture recounts one story after another of redemption, restoration, and renewal of God’s people – individuals, tribes, and nations of God’s people — until finally, the promise is fulfilled in Christ once for all time for all who would believe.

Jesus Christ died once for all time and once for all humankind. On this Sunday of rejoicing, let us remember the words of our psalmist this morning: “Mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord. Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; shout for joy, all who are true of heart.”

Yes, the parable of the Prodigal Son touches in on a way that we ache to be touched by God.  The good news is that we are in fact lovingly embraced and securely held no matter what. Let it in and live it out and let go of all those lies about a punishing and vengeful God.  For such is not the Father of Jesus.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna                                                                                                              March 31, 2019