A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
I have sinned against Heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called you son.
Most people are familiar with the story that Jesus told in today’s Gospel lesson. At least most people are familiar with the title that is usually used for it: “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” However, I think it’s important to notice that this is really a story about a family—there are three main characters, the prodigal son, his older brother, and his father. When Jesus told parables, he wasn’t telling allegories where each character in the story is just a symbol for something else. The parables are stories about familiar things that illustrate something real, characteristics of our universe that are spiritually important to attend to. So…the most powerful male figure in the parables aren’t stand-ins for God, they are men whose lives and decisions are as complex as anyone else’s. That will be important to remember later in this sermon.
The son who takes his inheritance and squanders it is a good illustration of repentance. He does some things that are foolish and selfish and comes to a point that he realizes that he has done wrong, that the consequences of the way he has been living are terrible. He decides to change and then he goes and apologizes to his father and asks forgiveness. In this story, the father pre-empts the end of the apology because he is rejoicing and welcoming back the son he has never stopped loving—even when he was lost to him. But in repentance the apology precedes any forgiveness and only after that does reconciliation follow.
This younger son does not look good in any reading of the first part of the story. But people often leap to the conclusion that everything that he does is outrageous and purely bad. People love to be outraged and to find others to condemn— “At least nothing I’ve done is that bad, I can justify everything I’ve done…mostly.” But as I read the story in Greek, it doesn’t necessarily read like he’s such a villain. It says that he wanted the father to give him his share of the family business. It doesn’t really mention an inheritance. So the young man wanted to set out on his own, develop new business ventures in a far-away land of opportunity. The story says that when he got there, he scattered his wealth around. In retrospect, we can conclude that he didn’t act shrewdly because he wasn’t a success. But one of the things people do in building up their business is to spread the wealth around, ingratiating themselves to a lot of people who might be helpful. He didn’t plan on the famine. Lots of people don’t plan for reverses in the economy that could cause their business to fail.
I’m only defending this young man to show that he is more normal than most people think, what he did is similar to things we see happen or even do ourselves, fairly frequently. Clearly, he wasn’t wise in handling his finances. He wasted the money his father gave him, he was the big spender, partying, rather than investing in his business. When the crops failed and prices went up, he had no way to get by and he had to take a degrading job that didn’t even provide enough to live. It’s a picture of a failure of a young person, due largely to his own arrogance.
If we condemned and threw away every person who ever had this kind of failure, much of humanity would be in the garbage heap. As I mentioned, the father didn’t reject his son, but continued to love him. Part of the truth of this parable is that this is what parents do—they continue to love their children even when they disappoint them.
The elder brother was not so happy. He resented that the capital had been taken out of the business, his own responsibilities had been made greater, and his father had not recognized his efforts or his loyalty. This is why I don’t think the father represents God in this parable. Truth to tell, this family situation had been difficult even before the younger son left. The father is not a bad guy here, but he had not made either son adequately aware of his love throughout this story: He didn’t show gratitude for the elder son’s work and somehow he failed to give the younger son a place in the household where he could be happy and fulfilled. The father is an ordinary person, and not an omniscient, omnipotent, all-benevolent God.
We are ordinary people. In our families and our churches, we are often pre-occupied with our own problems, and it’s hard for us to think about the needs of everyone involved. We’re often tempted to throw up our hands and say: “I’ve done everything, I can!” Everything, perhaps, but listen to what the person really needs. The Prodigal Son asked for his share of the family business. It was what he believed he wanted, but was it what he really needed? What I think he really needed required harder work from his father than just handing over the money. The father needed to recognize both his sons’ contributions, taking their ideas and efforts seriously—real partnership and recognition of their needs and aspirations.
When people leave the church, it is seldom because of problems with belief, even when that’s what they say. People leave because they don’t trust the community with their questions or their needs. People leave because their experience has been that they have not been taken seriously or their deepest values have been dismissed or discounted. This is an issue for the entire church in our time, in our country, and elsewhere. Our inclination is to look for fault, either in those who are here or those who aren’t.
But that’s not God’s approach, it’s not what Jesus is saying. We are welcomed with God’s open arms, we are celebrated, and we join in a feast, not because of what we do, but because we are loved. And God’s children who we don’t see this morning? God welcomes them where they are and invites them to the feast. Notice here that I say God welcomes them to the Feast—not to filling the role we want them to take, or to do the work, or make the contributions we think they should make. We are all welcomed by God’s mercy. We are here because of God’s mercy—all of our lives’ journeys lead us to the love of God, as we are valued in our own precious story. We are invited to listen and care for one another; for those we encounter and know in our lives—those people of such value, that we treasure even when they are far away.
You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord;
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.