“Goodness Gracious” by Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! It is the fourth Sunday of Lent, and we are continuing in the gospel of Luke as each week reveals another aspect of who Jesus is, who we say Jesus is, and what that means for who we are. The text which — read from Luke chapter 15 is probably one you are familiar with. This is lectionary year C, when the Lent readings concentrate on those who have fallen away from the church, and this story — which we commonly call the story of the Prodigal Son — is a classic story of someone who has left and returned. Lost and found. Of course, it isn’t only people who are lost and found in our experience, it’s inanimate objects such as car keys, reading glasses, cell phones and what not. Or even animals like chickens or pigs or cats — whatever lives at your house.
You may know that Luke chapter 15 is entirely parables about lost and found things, except for a little bit of grumbling at the beginning. It turns out that grumbling is significant, because it gives us the context for the three stories which come right afterward. Here are the verse of Luke 15:1-2 which set the stage: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus] and the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Just a reminder, tax collectors and sinners are basically synonymous. A tax collector is a sub-set of sinners in general, a notorious kind of sinner who not only extorted money from people, but did it in cooperation with the occupying Roman government. Kind of like adverse weather events and F-5 tornadoes: bad and really bad. No respectable Jew would share a meal with riff raff like that, which is why the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling.
Jesus answers them with these three parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. A parable, as you’ll remember, is a story which tells us something about the kingdom of God. The last of these parables, about the lost son, tells us about the character of the lost son, the character of his older brother, but especially about the character of their father. Now whichever of these characters you identify with — and there are others actors, some pigs and possibly women of ill repute — regardless of the cast of characters, the first thing this parable tells us about Jesus is that he is a storyteller. When the Pharisees grumble about the company Jesus is keeping, Jesus doesn’t get defensive and try to justify himself or defend the sinners at his table, Jesus says, “Let me tell you a story. Here’s what it’s like where I come from.” It’s a disarming and clever way to deflect his critics and engage his audience.
The third story, about the lost son, appears only in the gospel of Luke, and it is the longest parable recorded in the gospels. There is a lot here, and I’m not going to be able to do it all justice. I want to concentrate on the character of the father, who I think we can assume is God, or perhaps Jesus himself, especially given the context of the Pharisees grumbling about a welcome for sinners.
What do you think makes a good father? Did you have or do you have a good father? Are you — and I know this applies to fewer than half of you — a good father? My father was a gifted, maybe even brilliant man, who was absorbed in his own work and his own needs. I’m sure he considered himself a good father because he provided financially for our family: everything else was up to my mom. I know that cultural expectations around housework and childcare were different 50 years ago than they are now, but as we’ll see, the father in Jesus’ story is all about overturning cultural expectations.
It starts at the beginning of the story, when the younger son of a property-owning father asks for his share of the property. Of course, this wouldn’t typically happen until after the father’s death, so it is a shockingly insensitive and disrespectful request. A couple days later, the younger son takes off for God knows where. Presumably he liquidated his share of his father’s property for some liquid cash. One of my commentaries noted that selling that property — the family farm, if you will — would have been as shocking to Jewish listeners as asking for his share the property in the first place. It wasn’t just that in a land-based economy that property meant prosperity; it was a religious system which saw the land as a gift from God. To be deprived of your family’s ancestral land was to lose God’s favor for yourself and for future generations. To not care about this legacy was an insult to the current and future family, and to God.
The father doesn’t seem to complain, and the younger son wouldn’t have cared anyway. He got his money and blew through it on dissolute living. Dissolute living is surely a euphemism for something — we don’t know what, exactly — but whatever it was, it was expensive and pointless. He ends up broke, friendless, and hungry, and doing the most demeaning menial work a Jewish boy can do: feeding pigs. Not only feeding them, but envying them:, the pigs are eating better than he is. The young man decides to go home, not as a son, but as a hired hand. And when he is coming up the road, rehearsing his repentance speech, “Father, there’s been a misunderstanding . . . Father, I’m sorry if you were offended . . . Father, I have sinned and am no longer worthy . . .” and while the son was still far off, his father ran to him and embraced him and kissed him. I don’t know how many of you have had your father run to you and embrace you — it certainly never happened to me — but this would have been scandalous, ridiculous, embarrassing behavior for a Palestinian man. To run and to show affection in public? That would be beneath the dignity of any respectable man.
And junior launches into his prepared speech, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you and I’m no longer worthy . . .” but his father jumps in and says to the servants, Quick, get a robe and a ring and the best food you can find, my son is home, and we’re going to celebrate.
And then there’s the older son. You know, the one many of us identify with: the respectful, dependable, hard-working one. Who also happens to be out on the property pouting , who is sullen and so angry about all his years of working like a slave, that he won’t come in the house to welcome his younger brother. So there. The father leaves the party — a notable breach of hospitality — and goes out to his elder son, and tells the young man that everything that belongs to the father has always been for him, too. Please come in and celebrate that your brother was lost and now is found.
And that is where the story ends. Does the younger son shape up and become a contributing member of society? Does the older brother ever go into the party and reconcile? We don’t know. Because this story really isn’t about the boys. Surely the tax collectors would have recognized themselves as the younger son, and the Pharisees would have understood that this disreputable rabbi, Jesus, had maneuvered them into the role of the older brother, and that maybe they weren’t looking so good after all. But what this parable reveals about the kingdom of God is the character of the father.
‘Prodigal’ is not a word I use very often — in fact, almost exclusively in relation to this parable. Prodigal mean spending money or resources freely and recklessly; being wastefully extravagant. The prodigal Finance Team would be a bad deal for any congregation. Surely reckless spending is not the character trait we are supposed to imitate from this parable. A second definition, having or giving something on a lavish scale, feels a bit better. Of course, it is not the character of the sons which reveals the kingdom of God, it is the character of the Father. This is the parable of the prodigal Father; God who gives to us on a lavish scale. God who loves us even when we are disrespectful and don’t deserve it. God who loves us when we are off pursuing our own . . . dissolute thing. God who loved us before we even came to our senses and headed for home. God who loves us even when we are sullen and angry. God who comes to find us when we are pouting and making ourselves miserable. God who comes to embrace us and celebrates when we come home.
It is not only men who are biological fathers who can imitate this character of God (although wow, what the world look like if they did!) There’s also a parable about a shepherd looking for a lost sheep and a woman searching for a lost coin. These are all images of God seeking the lost, and it’s good to remember that God can come in many guises. But whatever God’s outward appearance, it is the character of God that reveals the heart of God and who God is: generous on a lavish scale. Of course, this is the character trait we may most associate with God’s Son Jesus. Jesus dedicated his life to ministry: teaching, proclaiming, healing, and telling stories so that his disciples and others could learn about the kingdom of God. That’s admirable, but not exactly lavish — other good teachers and leaders have made ministry their life’s work. Jesus gave his life — innocent and without sin — allowed himself to be crucified on a cross so that we would know the depth of his love for the world, and the cost of self-giving love. That is a lavish, reckless, extravagant gift. If God is the good Father, then Jesus is the prodigal Son: prodigal in the extravagance of his love poured out for us on the cross. There will be a homecoming celebration in three weeks: the celebration of a Son who is returning from death to life in order to do the work of his Father. Our Fellowship Team will be sure that there is a modest feast prepared, you all can take care of the robes and the rings. Don’t miss the party pouting because you think somebody got more than their share: there is enough forgiveness and grace for everyone. None of us deserve it; it is the free gift of God’s prodigal Son, Jesus Christ. That is something for all of us to celebrate. Amen.