Below is my effort
Luke 15:11-32 RSV
And he said, “There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “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 servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
“I think my Dad lives here.”
Last Monday, at the Three Gs event, Lad Strayer talked to the men about the homeless in Lenawee County. He showed pictures and told stories. In one story, he said there were these three homeless people he met, two men and a woman. They walked to Adrian from North Carolina. That’s a long walk! When Lad asked one of the men why they walked so far, he said, “I think my Dad lives here. I’m looking for him.” The yearning to find your father, or your mother, is really a yearning to come home again. This man who walked so far to find his father reminded me of the Prodigal Son in our scripture, walking all that way to come home again.
I’d like to spend a little time talking about this familiar parable of the Prodigal Son. I am going to talk first about the younger brother, then about the older brother, and then I’ll end with a few thoughts about our image of God.
The Younger Brother
We know the story well. The younger brother goes to his father and demands his inheritance. He’s entitled to one third of his father’s estate. (The older brother gets two thirds.) It is an incredibly insulting request. The younger brother, we can tell, is enormously self-centered. But the father grants his request, and everyone in the family shakes their head. The younger son leaves home and goes far away. He’s got all this money. He buys a luxury SUV. He buys a big house. He buys an iPad. He buys ten iPads and gives them away! He buys all the things you want to buy when you have money. Pretty soon all the money is gone. Then there is an economic downturn. He runs out of money. He can’t put gas into the SUV anymore. The house is foreclosed. He has nothing. The only job he can find is working on a farm feeding pigs. Remember he is Jewish, and he is feeding pigs. His life could not get any lower. One day he finally comes to his senses. He’s so hungry. He just wants to go home again, not as a son anymore, but as a servant. He rehearses his little speech as he walks. At the end of his journey his father welcomes him home, as a son not a servant, and they have a party to celebrate his homecoming.
Philip Yancey retells the story in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? He makes the prodigal son a prodigal daughter. She is a teenager who lives with her family in Traverse City, Michigan. She has one too many arguments with her mother, and something inside her snaps. She runs away from home. She ends up in Detroit. She gets involved in drugs, and then in prostitution so she can pay for the drugs. After many months, she finally comes to her senses. She calls home and leaves a message on the answering machine. “Mom, Dad, I’ll be on the 7 pm bus tonight. If you’re not at the bus station, I’ll just keep on going.” Click. On the bus ride she realizes the flaws in her plan. What if her parents are out and didn’t get her message. Nothing to do but wait. At 7 pm her bus arrives at the station. She is very thin now. She has aged years in the last few months. She walks into the bus terminal, not knowing what to expect. Concrete floors, plastic chairs. She sees balloons, and her whole family there, with party hats and streamers. A big banner says, “Welcome Home.”
We can always come home. No matter who we are or what we have done, we can always come home. Not as a servant, but as a beloved son or daughter.
How do you come home? It’s a journey of the heart. In her book Beyond Ourselves, Catherine Marshall tells of a time when she lay in bed for a year and a half, recovering from tuberculosis. Her illness was a difficult time for her, her husband and their young son. Through it all she realized that even though she had been involved in church her whole life, she had never developed a personal relationship with God. So she did two things. First, she confessed her sins to God. She wrote letters to people she had wronged in the past, asking for their forgiveness. Second, she consecrated her life to God. She got up from her bed and stood at the window, overlooking a flower garden. Then she prayed, “God, my life isn’t my own anymore. My life belongs to you. Help me to know your will for my life, and give me the courage to follow you.” It was 10 a.m. on June 22, 1943. This is how we come home. We confess, we commit and consecrate ourselves anew.
The Older Brother
Let’s look at the older brother now. Let’s not be too hard on him. Think about his situation. He is out working in the fields all day. He is hot, dirty and tired. He comes back to the house and hears music. There is a party in his house, and no one bothered to invite him. When he learns who the party is for, he blows a gasket with anger. How dare this screw-up get such a welcome home! I am guessing he is not alone. There were probably other members of the family who were not happy with the overindulgent father. We see them today: adult children who have been shielded and protected all their lives from any consequences to their actions. The older brother cares, above all, about justice, fairness, equity. In the process, he has lost sight of mercy, faith, and grace. This has made him bitter. He sees himself as his father’s slave, not his father’s son. He doesn’t know who he is, and he doesn’t know know his father at all.
In Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, the youngest brother Alyosha goes to visit the home of an ex-army captain. His older brother Dimitri has humiliated and insulted this man deeply and publicly, and Alyosha wants to apologize and make amends. The captain is no longer in the army, and he no longer has a job. He and his family are destitute; they live in a shack. Alyosha talks to the man and says he is sorry for what his brother did. Then he tries to give the man money, 200 roubles; he makes it clear it comes from a third party who simply wants to help the man and his family out. The army captain holds the money in his hands and tells Alyosha all the things the money can do for him. He could get medical attention for his daughter who is ill; he could afford to buy a horse and go to another community where there is a job for him. This money could literally save the life of his family. And just when you think he will accept the gift, something inside him snaps. He throws the money down on the dirt and stomps it with the heel of his boot. He says, “My honor will not be bought!” As he walks away, it says that Alyosha looks at him with ‘exceeding sadness’.
Just like the father looked at his older son with exceeding sadness. Both the older son and the army captain were so consumed with justice and injustice that they could not see grace when it stood right in front of them.
The Loving Father
And now a word about the father. My favorite part of this parable is this, “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” What a beautiful image! The younger son doesn’t make it all the way home. His father is watching for him. Then he runs to his son, breaking all the rules of proper decorum. He embraces him and kisses him. To Jesus, God was burning with passionate love, desperate to get his family back. It’s an image that would have shocked the people in his time. Hopefully it can shock us as well. Perhaps your image of God is of a crabby scorekeeper writing down your mistakes in a ledger — replace it with the image of God who runs to you, embraces you and kisses you. Perhaps your image of God is a kind deity, benevolent but distant — replace it with the image of God who runs to you, embraces you and kisses you. Perhaps your image of God is an impersonal force in the universe — replace it with the image of God who runs to you, embraces you and kisses you.
Eventually God will run to the cross. Everything in Lent culminates with the cross and the empty tomb. But the cross comes first. I am not the first preacher to point out that when Jesus stretches his arms out on the cross, it is God embracing the whole world with love. On the cross God enters fully into our pain and suffering. On the cross God absorbs the terrible consequences of sin and evil in the world, shielding us from them and draining them of their final power over us. An image that comes to mind for me is one I read about in the news: a mother covered her small children with her own body as a torrnado passed overhead; she died but they lived. So also Christ died that we may live.
On the cross God took away the burden of sin and evil from us so that we could be set free to make our journey to God. And when we finally come home, we find there are arms of love to welcome us.