3/6/2016 Fourth Sunday in Lent The text is Luke 15:1-2, 11-32.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The gospel for today is one that is familiar to most of us. Often called the parable of the prodigal son, it is really the story of extravagant and undeserved love. It’s the type of love that is sung about in a famous Tony Orlando and Dawn song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon around the Old Oak Tree.” I can still hum the tune, even if most of the words have faded from memory.
The story upon which the lyrics of the song are based is a true story. It is a true story that is older and much more moving than the song suggests. It’s the story about a man, coming home from jail, wondering if his parents (not his sweetheart) will want him home after what he’s done. He sends a letter saying: if you want me back, tie a yellow ribbon on the tree. If you don’t, I’ll know I’m not forgiven, “I’ll stay on the bus, forget about us, and put the blame on me.”
As the bus approaches the appointed spot, the man can’t bear to look, but a traveling companion enlightens him with what he sees, “a hundred yellow ribbons on that tree!”
Our gospel story for today is a parable about such a homecoming. It’s not about yellow ribbons and trees, but it is about a young man who has done wrong and is trying to gingerly return home, wondering if he will be welcomed or rejected. It’s a story about sin, humanity, fear, forgiveness, extravagant love and sibling rivalry. It is a story about human life and about God’s own household. It’s not a story about heroes. It’s a story about human frailty and divine forgiveness. It’s a story about God and his relationship with each of us.
The first character in Jesus’ parable is a young man – brazen and independent and naïve. This child wants his inheritance upfront so that he can “do his own thing.” He doesn’t want to wait until the right time. He is guilty of greed and bad judgment, bad judgment in the way he treats his father and bad judgment in choosing friends and in handling the inheritance given to him by his father. The results are devastating. He loses everything. And in the end, he finds himself hungry, penniless and friendless. In his despair he loses sight of who he is, and he loses his dignity and self-worth.
Nothing is more telling than the picture of this young Jewish man feeding the pigs, an animal forbidden by the Levitical code to be touched. His job makes his identity as one of God’s chosen people no longer possible. The memory of the rich heritage and the blessings bestowed upon him by a gracious God have been erased. In shame and misery, this young man decides to go home, ready to confess all, ready to kneel before his father, asking not to be recognized and treated as his son (for he knows he doesn’t have a right to expect this) but to be given a place as a hired hand.
We’ve all had prodigal moments in our life, times in which we sought independence and went our own way. We may have squandered God’s good gifts and the chances we’ve had to improve our life and the lives of those around us. We may even have a few skeletons in our closets involving situations that we’re not proud of today. We may have estranged ourselves from loved ones as we demanded our own way, we may have deeply hurt those who love us. And, in the end, we may have had to swallow our pride in the hope of returning home to start over again. Of course, before crossing that bridge, we’ve rehearsed a speech justifying our actions and our re-entry into the circle we once left. But re-entry into that circle of family and friends isn’t always assured. For, it depends on what home is and how gracious the people are that we have hurt.
The second character in the story is the older son. He is hard working and faithful. He’s what every parent hopes a child to be. He never disobeys his father’s wishes. He does all the “right things.” But, in the end, it is he who seems to get the short end of the stick. He watches as his younger brother disinherits himself and leaves home, full of spunk and self-determination. And he learns from a hired hand that this loyal elder son of his younger brother’s return and of his father’s reaction. As word comes to him that his father is giving his brother the very best of everything it takes little imagination to feel the anger and hurt of this older son
Putting aside the sibling relationship, we know the feeling well. For, there are many of us who have lived the part of this older brother. We are dependable. We live caring and responsible lives. We try to do the right thing. We are careful to observe the social and religious standards that create the image of reliability if not excitement. And yet, we see that hard work and right living doesn’t always come with the benefits we feel we deserve. Life just doesn’t seem fair and we get hurt and angry at the perceived injustice of it all. So, we become discontent. And, in our struggle to deal with our own begrudging nature, we forget where true joy and peace is found, the joy and peace of being in a constant relationship with a loving and caring father.
The final character in the story is that father who is constant in love and care. In many ways, he is the hardest for us to understand, for his actions seem so contrary to even the most gracious of parents. The father is overly generous – first, in begrudgingly giving the youngest son the inheritance he wishes upon his request; and then extravagantly, in welcoming this wayward son home. The father is unrealistically kind and forgiving in embracing this child who has wronged him and made a mess of his life. There is not one, “I told you so,” or “you made your bed, now sleep in it,” coming off this father’s lips.
The father’s love will have none of this. For the father himself has suffered immeasurably from the separation and his son’s alienation. He sees the son coming down the road and refuses even to wait in splendid isolation and anticipation, expecting this son to recount the whole incriminating story and grovel before him. No, this father runs out to his child, interrupting the young man before he can say his prepared speech. With outstretched arms, more powerful than a hundred yellow ribbons, the father greets his son whom he had lost, not as an outcast or a hireling, but as an heir, a child of the promise, once more.
As a parent, that might be hard for us to do. But, this is the way that God, the father, treats us when we have strayed and return to him. It is as a child that we come to God – a child, not necessarily in age, but in relationship. In the face of God, we can see the suffering of the parent who loves us even when we are out of reach and are possessed by a spirit of stubborn independence and reject his will for us. In the outstretched arms of the Father, we can see the love and mercy of a savior who forgives us and welcomes us into his family.
My friends, God will not forget any of his children, even if his children separate themselves from him. God waits patiently and watches for our return. And, God runs to greet each of us when he sees us coming, offering us his forgiveness even before we ask. He welcomes us home and rejoices in our homecoming. And he invites us to fill the empty seat at the family banquet table.
This is the father of our family, the God in whom we can trust. As a prodigal, we have a home awaiting us. As an elder son, we have a place of peace and joy in the continuous relationship we have with the one who loves us. As a people we have a God who will not forget us, a God who loves us even when we wander and squander, even when we get angry and hurt and become disappointed and disillusioned. We have a father who welcomes us home as beloved children and embraces us through outstretched arms.
May we rejoice in this relationship and accept his invitation. May we reside in his household forever. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.