Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the Fourth Sunday in Lent: Luke 15:1-32
I’ve been talking about justice during Lent, but at first glance the readings we have just heard seem to have nothing to do with justice. But I think they do in a very profound way, and in particular this is true of the Gospel reading. In the parable of the prodigal son, as we usually call it, Jesus teaches us about how God does justice, and, as often happens with Jesus’ teaching, it is not exactly what we expect. It might even make us angry.
The governing thought for this parable (and the two that precede it) is the grumbling of the religious authorities: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And what is that but a complaint that Jesus is unjust. He does not follow the law, God’s law. He makes a mockery of God’s justice in their eyes by accepting those who should be rejected.
He answers their charge in his usual way: he tells stories. First two short ones. He tells a story about a shepherd who seeks out the one lost sheep and when he finds it, calls together his friends and neighbors to celebrate. And he tells a story about a woman who carefully searches her home when she has lost a silver coin. Again, when she finds the coin she calls together her neighbors and friends to celebrate.
Then what some have called the crown jewel of the parables. Now it is known almost universally as the prodigal son, but that is an unfortunate title. As Jesus tells the story, the main character is not the younger son, but the father. We should really call the parable the parable of the loving or forgiving or even prodigal father.
Why does that make a difference? It makes a difference because if you think the parable is mostly about the prodigal son, then you probably have a tendency to think that the parable is about a sinner who finally gets his act together as a result of which he can return home.
On the other hand, if the parable is about the loving father, you probably have a tendency to think that the parable is about the radical forgiveness with which the father treats his returning son. Listen to the story through these eyes.
Jesus says, “There was a man who had two sons.” The younger son asks for his inheritance. Immediately Jesus’ original listeners would have been puzzled and outraged. Puzzled because it would not have been very much. Eldest sons in Jesus’ day inherited the vast majority of the family wealth, and certainly all the land. So what does this son think he is doing? Outraged because he is basically wishing his father dead. “I want to live as if you were no more,” they would hear the son saying.
Then the outrage would have continued and increased when the father went ahead and gave it to him. Any self-respecting father would have put that young man in his place.
Away the son goes with his inheritance in his pocket. No great surprise, it doesn’t stay there long. He squanders it in “dissolute living.” The Greek word translated “dissolute” literally means “dis-connected.” If you think about it, that’s what sin is, “dis-connected-ness.” We get dis-connected from ourselves, from one another, from the world around us, and from God. That makes repentance something like “re-connection.” I think that’s helpful.
Meanwhile in the story the younger son quickly hits rock bottom. For a Jew his dis-connection becomes so bad he works by feeding pigs. For a Jew there’s nothing more unclean than a pig. But in the midst of this awfulness, Jesus says, in a nice turn of phrase, “he came to himself.” That was his initial moment of reconnection, and a fundamental one, to himself.
It happens to us all from time to time, this disconnection from self. We forget who we are and whose we are. We forget our core values. We do things that harm ourselves, sometimes knowing full well that is precisely what we are doing. We need reconnecting with our own being, our own sense of value and dignity. Sometimes to make that reconnection we have to hit rock bottom first, hopefully not, we catch ourselves earlier, or, by the grace of God, we are caught.
The younger son had a moment of reconnection that led him to desire a further reconnection with his family. Perhaps at first his motivation was less than ideal. He was hungry. God can use any motivation for good, and God certainly did so in this story.
The younger son prepares a speech. Clearly he fears rejection. He decides not only to return, but to return as a hired hand rather than a son. Perhaps that offer will convince his father to take him back into his household, if not his family.
Meanwhile back at the farm, the father is waiting for the return. He sees the son when he is still far off. That says to me he has been waiting. He had not given up on his son. And he does something just as outrageous as when he had given his son his inheritance. He runs to greet him.
What we know of men in Jesus’ day is that maintaining a sense of dignity was always important, as well as a certain pragmatic toughness. This hiking your skirts up (literally what he would have had to do) and running down the road just was not normal. Besides, he had been wronged by this child. The child needed to do some groveling.
Well, that is what the child was prepared to do, but instead he gets kissed, an important sign of acceptance in Jesus’ culture, before he says a word. Then he begins his speech but his father interrupts him before he can get to the part about being a hired hand.
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 the party happens! Note that in all three of the parables responding to the grumbling about eating with sinners, the story ends in a party. Now there’s an image of heaven. Why don’t we say that when someone dies. Not, “May she rest in peace,” but, “May she party in heaven.”
Of course this story doesn’t end here. The man, Jesus said, had two sons. The older one is not amused. He’s been a fly right, nose to the grindstone kind of guy. Probably a perfectly good son and human being. But clearly he is not happy with the return of his brother, and even more so with how his father has received him. He seethes with resentment. He all but says, “Where is the justice in this?”
And you can hardly blame him, can you? The older son is really us in this parable, people who most of the time believe that you should get what you deserve.
But that is not how God works. That is not God’s justice. Jesus was trying to teach us in this parable that God’s justice is tied directly to God’s compassion, and forgiveness is what happens when anyone makes any move to reconnect, because from God’s end of the relationship, the love never stopped.
The Book of Common Prayer teaches about baptism that, “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble” (p. 298). That’s a pretty outlandish statement. How do we know it is true? Because that is what Jesus taught us. It is the justice of God.
We’re almost to Easter. In the late 4th century, John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople, said these words in an Easter homily. He was clearly thinking about this story.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and whether first or last receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you zealous and you negligent, celebrate the Day! You that have fasted, and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden, feast royally, all of you! The calf is fatted, let no one go forth hungry!