First Lutheran Church

Lent IV Prodigal Son Lent 2019

by The Reverend Jeffrey C. Johnson

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable:

11b “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinnedagainst heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your propertywith prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” Luke 13: 1-9

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

“Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” (Psalm 32) The first line of today’s psalm captures the nature of today’s readings especially our gospel, that of the Prodigal Son, the Wasteful Son, one of the most memorable bits of bible stories we have.  

Even though a number of us have heard this story again and again in our lives, and for some of us the first time, we hear this story to remember.  To remember the promises of God that go all the way back to our Joshua OT reading and now to our Gospel reading.  

One of the challenges presented to me this week was this very familiar gospel text and the OT Lesson and even the Epistle. Today’s gospel begins with a scene being set by the gospel writer Luke: Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 

This Luke story begins right where our Joshua story ends.  With Joshua, we end with a meal and here in the gospel, Jesus starts with a meal.  Obviously, Jesus is in trouble again.  He welcomes sinners, those marginalized from decent Jewish society, and then even more horrible, Jesus eats with them. For those in Jewish society, even in present Orthodox Jewish society, the ritual act of eating and who you eat with, is really, really important.  So imagine if you will, these Pharisees who find constant fault with Jesus and his dietary companions listening to this story.  This story is so offensive on so many levels to a Jewish person…a young man, presumably Jewish, who becomes so desperate, so deplorable, that he eats with pigs.  I’m sure the Pharisees found this deeply offensive. 

We all know the story of the Prodigal Son. The players are familiar and the outcome is very familiar.  It’s like watching a favorite movie.  We love to see the same movie played over and over because of its beloved outcome.  However, I draw your attention not to the wasteful son and his father, but really to the older son.  Because as I look at the room here, we probably have a number of older, responsible, respectable older sons and daughters including myself.  I am that older son.  

I can say that because I, too, I am the respectful son; I’ve played this role.  And along with this responsible role comes the entitlement and bitterness as its companion.  Because I too have sat as judge and jury in the same way not only to others but also to my own sibling.  So, my brothers and sisters, I confess that to you.  But as today’s psalm says, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”  My sins are covered.  Our sins are covered.  

What is amazing about the story is not the predictable and loveable outcome of the younger brother, but really the father’s response to the older, responsible son.  Imagine if you will the father waiting for the longest time just to see his son on the horizon even a hint of the son’s return.  The younger son returns, in rags, humiliated, but more importantly, humbled.  Humility really means in root origins, “one who is close to the ground.” The younger son has truly been humbled.  Little does the son know, but the grace he is about to receive is beyond his hopes.  The younger son is embraced and kissed by the father, the ring off his father’s finger is given to him, he is dressed in finery, and there’s a feast even with the finest food reserved for something like Thanksgiving.  A feast much like the one Joshua and the Israelites have and a feast that we too will have.

After the older son’s self-righteous response, the father doesn’t ignore him.  The father doesn’t placate him or dismiss him.  Instead, in my opinion, he gives the older son the greater reward, for this is where the father reminds us of the promise of God’s love.  In verse 31, the entire gospel transcends itself, and if it were music, it would change musical keys. It is what Jesus does; he makes things upside down and inside out.  Verse 31, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” All that is mine is yours. All that is mine is yours. So, God shows up. God keeps God’s promises.  He loves us at our worse, the wasteful son, and at our best, the dutiful son.  God fills the empty hands of both sons.  God fills the hands of the Israelites with Joshua as they enter the foreign land of Canaan.  God fills our hands.  

I like to believe that the face of mercy is the same that led Joshua and Israel to the Promised Land, the face of the father in our Luke Gospel today, the face of Jesus when he fills our hands with love during communion, and the face of mercy found in the least likely place. My greatest prayer for all of us is that this face of mercy somehow sneaks into our hearts.  And once in our broken, contrite, and shattered hearts, we can also be God’s face of mercy in a weary and sad world so deeply in need for love, authentic love, and the love that helps us no longer be lost but found.