A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
He came to himself and he said, “How many of my father’s hired workers have bread enough and to spare…?
Today the Gospel is one of Jesus’ best know parables. Traditionally it is known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it actually features two sons and a father. The first of these sons, the prodigal of the traditional title, behaves in a way that we see, to one degree or another, in many people of all generations. He seeks for himself, he grabs what he can get. In his case he wheedles out his share of his inheritance and takes off. A big guy living the high life, thinking that just being prosperous would sustain itself. I know people like that. It seems like our society, in recent years has moved in the direction of even admiring people like that. Being admired for appearing to be wealthy sometimes works, at least for a while. Some even make money at it. But the bubble bursts, the market crashes, famine hits. And, at least for this young man it meant that he had descended to the most humiliating place possible: a Jew, feeding someone else’s pigs. And not even making a living at it.
But he came to himself. That’s literally what the text says in the Greek. “He came to himself.” You might say, “but of course he would.” The young man had hit bottom, but it is not the case that everyone who has descended that low will ever come to themselves. Many continue to blame everyone else, and continue to spiral downward, with no bottom in sight. I have watched that happen. This young man came to himself—that is the first part of repentance. It takes courage to come back and look at yourself, to see yourself as you really are, and to admit it. It takes a lot of courage, and it is always tempting to try to deflect, and pretend, and not always to be who you are with your whole heart.
This young man came to himself and he returned to his father. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you: I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me as one of your hired hands.” He confessed how his actions had alienated him from his family, and his responsibilities, and, indeed, from the justice of God. I think we miss the point if we focus on the emotion with which he says this, or think that we have to imitate his expressions of humiliation. It is his own construction that he is irredeemable. His father was waiting for him—he saw his son from a distance and went out to greet him. The father’s love had never stopped, despite the hurt. God’s love never stops either. No one is irredeemable, God’s love is there when ours gives out. God’s love is there before the person comes to himself.
But even when we live in the blessings of God’s love and forgiveness, our actions, both past and present, continue to have consequences. The younger brother had taken his inheritance and left the family farm with his father and brother to shoulder the responsibilities. That disrespect resulted in hurts. Hurts that did not magically disappear. The perspectives of the older brother and the father were different. For the father, the life of his son, his return, and in effect, his return to life, were paramount. For the brother, the rupture of trust within the family, and the younger brother’s exploitation of his privilege were still problematic. Being reconciled to his father did not mend the problems with his older brother. To the extent that the younger brother had really “come to himself” he could not glibly just come back and return to some version of the way things were before—there is real work to do. Reconciliation is hard work.
The older brother in this parable is a bit of a pill about it. Truth be told, most of us can be from time to time, focusing on our own hurts and our own pride, rather than on reconciliation. Historic hurts have a life of their own, and they can magnify. That is why we must all come to ourselves—realize our own role in hurt and in healing. In Lent, we pay particular attention to being reconciled to God in Christ.
This reconciliation does not take us out of the responsibilities and problems in our world, in fact it makes us more a part of it. As we come to ourselves, and repent of those things we have done that have hurt others, we are more willing to accept our own responsibility and talk about these things. Amends and healing are not automatic, reconciliation is costly and takes time.
As we heard this morning, Saint Paul said this to the church of Corinth:
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away: see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.