3.14.10 sermon notes
Robert Fulghum story – Hide and Seek/Lost and found
Hide and seek – it is a game many of us loved as children, and we find ways to continue to play it as adults (sometimes we literally hide, but more often, it is less obvious, hiding our feelings, covering up the truth). Here in our gospel lesson today, Jesus is actually telling three parables about losing and finding things. We only read the longest of the 3 today, but they all get at the idea of seeking something or someone lost and celebrating when we find it.
Remember, Jesus was responding to the scribes and Pharisees’ criticism about his eating with sinners and tax collectors – and not just eating with them, WELCOMING them! Making them feel equal! What nerve!
And in a classic Jesus response, he tells a parable. Actually, he tells three parables. One about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and then this one, about a lost son (which history has nicknamed the parable of the Prodigal Son – more later on whether or not that is the right title).
All three are stories about longing for that which is lost and the joy that comes when one finds it. But the third parable we have here is a bit different. With the lost coin and the lost sheep, the widow and the shepherd are frantically seeking that which they have lost. But the father in our story is not out scouring the region, looking for his son. Rather, he is waiting for him to return. And in this third parable, we have a third party in the mix – the older brother. I could probably preach a separate sermon about each character in this story – the irresponsible young brother, the reliable (and somewhat bitter) older brother, and the abundantly gracious and forgiving Father. We might see a bit of ourselves in one or more of these characters. We might even be able to imagine people we know and love, maybe even see our church in some of these roles. It is a very familiar text to many of us, but it is also one with so many rich dimensions, it merits some revisiting from time to time. We may hear it differently at different stages of life. We may identify with different characters, depending on what is going on for us. So I hope this is neither the first nor the last time you will encounter this text. Because there is no way I can do it justice in one sermon – unless you all want to stay awhile and risk missing the potluck.
As I said, this story is most-commonly referred to as the story of the Prodigal Son. But how many of us really know what prodigal means? It is not a word I use or hear very often in everyday conversation. The word has become so intricately connected to this story that many people simply assume that “prodigal” means “one who leaves and returns home.” But that’s really not what it means at all. “Prodigal” refers to something or someone that is wastefully or recklessly extravagant, which certainly describes the wayward son who insults his father by demanding his inheritance and then squandering it away inappropriately. But “prodigal” also can mean lavishly abundant; profuse – kind of sounds like the father, doesn’t it? After all, the father lavishly (some might say even, recklessly) gives his younger son his inheritance before he deserves it, and more importantly, the father lavishes gifts and this extraordinary homecoming celebration on his wayward son upon his return. After everything this younger son has done – insulting his father, wasting his inheritance, ultimately crawling back home only because he ran out of options, we might say, “Ok – you can come back, but you have to pay your dues first – it’s only bread and water for you, mister!” But the Father in this story does not respond that way – he offers the fatted calf and wine; he offers fine robes and sandals and a ring, and then throws a great celebration. Perhaps this story would be better named the “Prodigal Father.” That is where the real extravagance is demonstrated.
Or, we might want to rename the parable, “The Resentful Brother,” because much more ink is spent on the older, “faithful” brother who comes home to the sounds of a surprise party that’s definitely not in his honor. Scholars agree that the party itself is what angers the older brother, more than the shame brought to the family by the younger brother, more than the economic realities of splitting up the family farm: Fred Craddock writes, “It is that party which is so offensive. The older brother has a point: of course, let the penitent come home. Both Judaism and Christianity provide for the return of sinners, but to bread and water, not fatted calf; to sackcloth, not a new robe; to ashes, not jewelry; to kneeling, not dancing; to tears, not merriment.” The older brother wants nothing to do with this celebration, and can you blame him? And it is fascinating to me that Jesus does not fully conclude this parable for us. There is no mistaking the father’s clear joy at finding his son who was once as good as dead to him and “now has come to life.” The younger son is undoubtedly grateful for the mercy he is experiencing. But we really don’t get the end of the story for the older brother. We never get his response after his father explains his reason the prodigal celebration.
There is no question mark at the end of this story, but the parable ends with an implicit question: Will the older brother join the celebration? Will the Pharisees and scribes who questioned Jesus’ engagement with sinners join him in welcoming the outcast? Will we come to God’s table of reconciliation, where all are joyfully welcomed (not merely tolerated), no matter who they are or what they have done? What might it look like for us to be a prodigal church?
No matter who we most identify with in this story, ultimately I think it is about the love of the Father. His extravagant display of forgiveness and love to both sons is unlike anything the hearers of this story would have expected. One preacher poignantly observes the ways that both sons are lost to the father, one “to a life of recklessness,” and the other “to a more serious fate, to a life of angry self-righteousness that takes him so far away from his father that he might as well be feeding pigs in a far country.” This author describes the love of the father who “does not love either of his sons according to what they deserve. He just loves them, more because of who he is than because of who they are” (BBT). It is hard not to think of God as this character in the parable – loving us no matter who we are or what we have done, welcoming us home with a joyful embrace. Personally, I am grateful to be loved so completely by God, no matter where I am on the spectrum of relationship, from obedient to rebellious, from happy to sad, from appreciative to resentful.
So no matter how far we may go, or how close we may think we are, we all experience moments where we feel distanced from God. Finding our way back can seem nearly impossible. But the good news is that no matter how far away we go, God is not going anywhere. In Christ, we find a ready companion to take our hand and lead us home. Amen.