March 31, 2019

4th Week of Lent Year C 2019

Sometimes when the new season of a television series is coming up, I will watch the previous season’s finale to remind me where the plot line was when I left off last season. And when I’m in the middle of a series, but it’s been a while since I’ve watched an episode, I will go back and remind myself what’s going on. The same holds true if I’m reading a book and I have taken a few days or more off from reading, I need to go back and review the previous chapter to help me enter back into the story or reengage with the argument the author is making.

I’m afraid that when we hear the lectionary readings each Sunday and we aren’t familiar with the context, we may have a similar experience of fuzziness and confusion and may miss the point Jesus, or Paul, or one of the Hebrew prophets is trying to make. But in all likelihood, the Gospel text this morning is so familiar that we are likely to simply tune out because we have heard it so many times. We already know the moral of the story and so rather than tune in and hear something new the Spirit may wanting us to hear, we go somewhere else in our minds.

I do the same thing. Oh, I know what this is about, I’ve preached on this text so many times I could write this homily in my sleep. But what I try to do each week is to come to the text with new eyes and new ears and ask God to show me something I haven’t seen before. Some way this scripture might reshape my life and my relationships so that I might be more faithful to who God is and who God has called me to be. And that’s my prayer for you as well.

So today we have one of Jesus’ best known and best loved parables, commonly called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It is the third of three parables Jesus told in this section of Luke’s Gospel about finding lost things: the lost sheep, where the person in the story discovers one of his ninety-nine sheep has gone missing so he leaves the ninety-nine and goes searching for the one until he finds it, and when he brings that lost sheep home he throws a big party to celebrate; and the parable of the lost coin, where the woman has lost ten percent of her wealth, one of her ten silver coins has gone missing and so she lights a lamp and sweeps her house until she finds the lost coin and she also invites her friends over to celebrate.

In each of these stories Jesus concludes with the statement, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Now you may have missed how our lection reading of this morning’s Gospel begins, but you probably did noticed that it leaves out these first two parables I’ve just outlined - they occur at other times in the schedule of our Christian year. But all three parables are introduced by the author of Luke’s Gospel this way: 

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: 

Jesus’ third parable then begins like this, “There was a man who had two sons.” Jesus’ Jewish audience would have heard the beginning of this parable as a common beginning of several stories of their Hebrew heritage, beginning with Adam, who had two sons - Cain and Able; Abraham had two sons - Ishmael and Isaac; Isaac had two sons - Essau and Jacob. Oh, the crowd may have wondered, which story is Jesus’ going to tell?

But remember the context Luke begins with, tax collectors and sinners were being welcomed by Jesus and even having table fellowship with him, which meant that Jesus was not just being polite, but making them part of his social group, even his extended family you might say, and that was scandalous to the Pharisees and scribes who valued their outward show of piety and self-righteousness.

So these parables, and the prodigal son in particular, is about people who consider themselves better than others, the scribes and Pharisees, and the people they saw as outside the bounds of God’s love and care, people who see themselves as needing love and fellowship with this man Jesus whom they see as representing God.

Of course the younger brother in Jesus’ story represents the tax collectors and sinners, who have come to themselves and decided to throw themselves on the mercy of Jesus and Jesus, like the father in the story, runs to accept them. The older brother, who has done everything his Father has asked and has never asked for even a small party, resents the grace the Father extends to his younger brother upon his return. The older brother is the representative of the Pharisees and scribes.

What does the Father do when the older brother refuses to welcome his younger sibling back into the family? The father goes and finds his older son, just like he ran to the younger prodigal upon his return. He tells him he loves him and says to him whatever he has is his because family is not about things which can be divided up, but it’s about relationships we share. This father will never give up on having a relationship with his kids.

And that’s the point Jesus wants us to hear. The only way we won’t hear that is if we are like the Pharisees and scribes or the older brother, and see ourselves in a transactional relationship with God. God loves me because I do certain things right, I obey all the commandments, or I don’t do other things that might make God not accept me - I don’t cuss, or drink or smoke or go around with people who do. No! God’s love is not transactional, God is love. God desires relationship with you and with those we might think are less deserving than us - or more deserving than us. God simply loves, you and the one we see as outside the bounds of God’s love. And if that’s who God is, then that makes them our family too.

Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.