Fourth Sunday in Lent
Year C, RCL
April 1, 2019
North Fork Ministries
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So Jesus 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.'"
Several years ago I arrived at the stage in my life that I’m told most of us eventually reach. I got up in the morning, stumbled to the bathroom, looked in the mirror and saw the face of my father looking back at me – the same lines, the same droopy eyes, jowls starting to sag. Inevitably, we’re told, we turn into our parents.
The story we heard this morning, the parable of the prodigal son, is probably the best know and among the most loved of Jesus’ parables – perhaps because it is so easy to identify with one or more of the characters in the story. After all, who among us hasn’t make mistakes and then been welcomed home? What parent hasn’t longed for the opportunity to welcome home the wayward child? And how many of us have remained faithful like the elder son, and felt resentment as we watched our less steadfast brothers and sisters receive lavish praise. This story is as much a reflection of ourselves as the image we see in the bathroom mirror.
Growing up as the much younger brother in a family with three sons, I had a safe vantage point from which I could observe the complex interplay between my father and his two oldest offspring.
A small dark mahogany bookcase, distinguished by the delicately carved fretwork on the doors, sat in my family’s musty and unheated living room for at least a quarter century. My mom called it “the china cabinet” although it never contained a single piece of dishware. To my child mind, “china” referred to the exotic faraway country where I imagined the doors had been carved by skilled hands in Shanghai or Beijing. Or perhaps I found the cabinet exotic because the shelves held a collection of “The Great Books”, sold to my father by a salesman who recognized a man who sought for his sons the education that he never had. As a child I occasionally found diversion within the bookcase, often choosing the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, an anthology of fiction that arrived in our mailbox four times each year - for as long as I can remember. It was inside this bookcase that I first discovered John Steinbeck and James Michener, and Arthur C. Clark.
The everyday ordinariness of the bookcase belied its violent history, and called attention to itself only by the absence of a pane of glass on one of the bookcase doors.
I was about 10 years old when I witnessed, from the hallway through an open door, the shattering of the glass. I had been drawn to the living room by the sound of raised voices. My father, his eldest son, and the younger prodigal son stood facing one another. There had been a disagreement, not the first, among these three. From my limited, adolescent perspective the conversation went something like this:
“Son, why can’t you just do what you’re told?”
“You think he is perfect. I can’t ever do anything right.”
“Quit arguing with Dad.”
“You stay out of this.”
Then somebody shoved somebody else and in the scuffle a body was thrown against the china cabinet and the glass front shattered. I remember tempers and tears and slamming doors and then silence, as we listened to the sound of gravel flung from the spinning tires of my fleeing brother’s car.
Like the younger son in the parable, my prodigal brother squandered his inheritance. He was the most gifted among us – a musician, a poet, a scholar, an athlete, and more handsome than was useful. In the years that followed he returned home, from time to time, but I don’t remember a particularly welcoming reunion, no father running to meet him, and certainly no party and no fatted calf.
The china cabinet remained in the cold, unused living room; the broken pane of glass never replaced, the damage never repaired. Left standing as a reminder that some brokenness never gets fixed.
Maybe that’s why we are all so drawn to Luke’s parable – it’s a family story with a happy ending and yet we know, not every family story ends so well.
As it happens, my Dad got another chance, an opportunity to redeem himself as a father. My sister and I, born into the family a full generation after my older brothers, both received the unsparing love, which had been more conditionally allotted to the first-born sons. Maybe Dad grew wiser as he grew older, learned from his mistakes, or just mellowed with age. Or maybe he learned to live into the prodigal nature of his truer self, discovering that we worship a God of abundance and that he too might be called to emulate God’s gift of infinite love.
The gospel reading this morning is called the parable of the prodigal son, but I think that it could just as easily be called the parable of the prodigal father. The word prodigal doesn’t mean wayward or disobedient or defiant, as we’ve come to think of it when we recall the parable. Prodigal actually means extravagant, wasteful, lavish, or squandering. To be sure, the younger son in today’s parable was indeed prodigal – taking his father’s inheritance and, as Luke tells us, “squandered his property in dissolute living.”
But so, in fact, was the father. When the father saw his son returning home he ran to meet him and threw his arms around him and kissed him. He put the best robe on him and placed rings on his fingers and sandals on his feet. He killed the fatted calf and invited everyone to celebrate the son’s return. The father squandered his wealth in an exuberant display of joy at being reunited with his son. He demonstrated love unbounded, unfettered, unrestrained - wasteful, extravagant, limitless love. He was a prodigal father.
And, I think, we worship a prodigal God. We worship a God of abundance – ready to welcome us home and throw a party in our honor. Offering us love that knows no limits, love that knows no bounds. Whether we are the son or daughter that has always remained faithful or the errant child that has spent a lifetime in rebellion. We are all welcomed into the loving embrace of the Father who throws a party in our honor.
I like to think that we hold that kind of a party here at Holy Trinity/Redeemer every Sunday. Extending an invitation to all God’s children. Inviting everyone, welcoming those who have lost their way. To the prodigals among us, welcome home. The fatted calf awaits us. Let us eat and celebrate.