March 27, 2022 Fourth Sunday in Lent The text is Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 11b “There was a man who had two sons. 12 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. 13 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. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 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. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 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. 21 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.’ 22 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
It’s all about grace! The theme of the parable is grace, God’s grace. I know, we’re still in Lent and the whole point of Lent is repentance; I know, I’ve been preaching about repentance for weeks now. And, yes, the need to repent is part of this parable of Jesus; but in it, grace comes first! Let’s take a look at the parable of the Prodigal Son. For years, when I was much younger, I thought that the sense of “prodigal” was that the son in question had grudgingly left his father’s house, and that prodigal referred to the fact that had left home, that he was separated from the family. In truth, prodigal speaks to reckless, wasteful, and extravagant living; indulging in a dissolute, often debauched lifestyle. “Spend everything that you have and don’t worry about the consequences”. That’s being “prodigal”.
This morning’s lesson from Luke begins with two verses, in which we read that the religious authorities were displeased that Jesus had been spending time with the dreaded “tax collectors” and those whom the Scriptures refer to as “sinners”. And more often than not, it was insinuated that this use of “sinners” referred to prostitutes. And in the space before we come to the rest of todays’ reading, Jesus has previously told these Pharisees two other parables. The first is about the shepherd who has had one of his one hundred sheep wander away and he leaves the remaining ninety-nine to search for it and bring it back to the fold. The next concerns a woman who has lost one of the ten silver coins that made up her dowry headdress. In the parable Jesus tells of the joy she felt when she found the missing coin. Both of these stories were intended to counter the fact that the religious authorities were unhappy that Jesus was attempting to bring some people they thought to be unsavory, into the community of the faithful. Jesus corrects them, telling them there is a place for everyone in the kingdom of God.
But the Prodigal Son parable takes a path slightly different from the previous two. In it we find cultural shame, familial rejection, humiliation, ritual uncleanliness, jealousy, and a welcome home. But grace comes first! The younger son asks his father for his inheritance while the father is still alive; this is tantamount to saying, “I don’t want to wait until you’re dead to receive what’s coming to me”. This was extremely insulting and cause for great shame to his father; the neighbors would take this to mean that the son thought, “I wish you were dead”. This son then takes his inheritance and blows it all on a life of waste and debauchery. When the economy hits bottom and there is no food, this Jewish boy is reduced to the humiliation of not only working for a Gentile who raises swine, but he is forced to live with them in the pigsty, eating whatever slop they were fed. Don’t forget how deeply this would affect a pious Jewish person, for whom pigs are ritually unclean.
Whether this son is truly repentant we don’t know; all we can be sure of is that he was forced to return home or starve, and that he was welcomed by his father, who didn’t wait to hear whether his son repented or not. Grace comes first! And in another example of the grace his father showed him was that he ran to meet him while he was still approaching. It would be unthinkable for a Jewish man to run under any circumstances, let alone out to greet a son who had brought shame on the family. And, in a twist we don’t find in the two previous parables, the father shows this same acceptance and sense of welcome to the older son, the one who had remained at home. Grace comes first! And we don’t know whether this son relented and attended his brother’s party or not; we don’t know if he repents, either. Yet the father welcomes them both home, back into the family. Grace comes first!
The struggle with preaching on familiar, well-known Gospel lessons is that, well, they’re familiar and well-known. Most parishioners have heard them before and many sermons have been preached on them. The parable of the Prodigal Son is no different; yet, in its familiarity, it’s often possible to miss the point. Yes, it’s about repentance, but grace comes first. The characters in the parable are rather obvious; the father of the two sons is God and the sons are those of God’s children who remain faithful and the ones who stray from faith.
And, just as Jesus uses this parable to explain to the Pharisees why it is necessary for him to bring the sinners and tax collectors into God’s kingdom, it is meant also to show us that no mater how far away from God we might stray, we are always welcomed back. Grace comes first. True, the need for repentance remains, but God is willing to run to us, to welcome us home, without waiting to learn whether or not we have repented of our sinful nature. Because of Jesus’ work on the cross we are met, embraced, and received into God’s love and mercy. And what of those of us who have more or less remained strong in faith, and like the older son remained at work in the fields of God’s kingdom? There may be a desire to think ourselves somewhat superior to those who we feel haven’t done as much to reap the benefits of the kingdom. Like the older son we may think, “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!”
As the father tells the older son, and as God assures us, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” We are both of these sons, the Prodigal and the one who stays home, working in the family business. And we are loved, accepted, and forgiven, whether we remain at home, doing all we should; or we stray off, and don’t find ourselves returning to God until we have reached the point when we realize we cannot continue without that Father’s mercy and love. And, in either case, our God welcomes us home because grace comes first!
And, in every case we are invited to join the party, to participate in the joy that the Father feels when God’s children are gathered, whether they’ve been home the whole time, or have just returned from afar. The shepherd celebrates when the one lost sheep has been found; joy for the return of the lost one, and for the knowledge that the flock is again made whole. The woman who finds her missing coin is now joyful that her wedding headdress is once again complete and that she may be confident in her security. And the Father runs to us, filled with joy that both the ones who have strayed and the ones who remained are both reunited in the Father’s house. The party is given in celebration for the ones who have come home, and it wouldn’t be complete without the ones who have always been there.
All that matters is that the party is underway and all are invited; for grace comes first!
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, like the Prodigal Son we have often squandered the blessings that you have showered us with. And, like the son who chose to remain close to you, we find ourselves on occasion thinking we are more deserving of your love. Help us to remember that you are willing to run to welcome all of us, whether we have remained faithful or not. And in all cases, we rejoice that we are invited to the banquet that is your kingdom. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who assures us that grace comes first! Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.