Sunday, March 31, 2019

"A God Who Never Gives Up On Us." A Sermon on Luke 15 on the Fourth Sunday in Lent.



Rembrandt, "Return of the Prodigal Son"

"A God Who Never Gives Up On Us"

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Writing in The Christian Century, Justo Gonzalez tells about a story that made him giggle when he was a boy, about a man who went to the movies. When he saw the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer roaring lion at the beginning, he decided that he’d already seen that movie and walked out of the theater. “Silly as the story may be,” Gonzalez says, “I now take it as a warning—because many of us do something similar when we hear scripture that we already know well.”
“There was a man who had two sons,” we hear in today’s Gospel lesson. We immediately recognize this as the beginning of the prodigal son, so there’s a temptation to decide that we don’t have to pay much attention, because we think we already know the story and its meaning. But when we really listen to it, scripture can surprise us. This is word of God.  When we read it afresh, God speaks to us and our circumstances, and helps us to hear a new word.[1]
The story we know as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” is one of three parables Jesus tells in Luke 15. The thing the three stories have in common is the theme of being lost. The shepherd loses a sheep, a woman loses a coin, and the father loses a son.
The introduction provides the context of the stories. They’re a response to how the Pharisees and scribes have been grumbling and criticizing Jesus, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and even eats with them!”  The parable is responding to the Pharisees and scribes—not primarily to those whom they consider sinners or outcasts.
            Jesus doesn't argue with them.  He just tells them a series of stories, about a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to fend for themselves while he went out after one stray...  about a woman who turns her house upside down in order to find one lost coin...  and about a compassionate father who deals graciously with his two sons. 
Now, I want to remind us that the Pharisees and scribes were deeply religious people. They were very concerned with obeying God and all the religious laws of Judaism. From their perspective, it was those other people—the tax collectors and sinners—who were lost. They were unlikely to identify themselves with the lost sheep or the lost son. They were more likely to identify with the ninety-nine sheep or the obedient elder son. So, they probably would have been shocked to hear in the story that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go searching for the one lost sheep…or to see the elder son missing the feast celebrating his brother’s return. These parables would have challenged their understanding that they were the faithful, obedient ones.
            All three stories address the Pharisees' concern that Jesus is condoning sin by keeping company with people they judge to be unacceptable.   All three parables reply that God is too busy rejoicing over found sheep, found coins, and lost children   to worry about what they did while they were lost. 
            Jesus declares: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance…. I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
            I was reminded this week of Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,”[2] and I spent some time meditating on that image.  I also re-read parts of Henri Nouwen’s book with the same title.[3] 
            Nouwen tells about his first encounter with the painting when he saw a poster in a friend’s office, and was deeply moved by it.  He said it made him want to cry and laugh at the same time. 
            Several years later, friends invited him to go with them on a trip to what was then the Soviet Union, and they made arrangements for him to spend a few hours at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg with the painting that been on his heart and mind for several years.
            The painting is hung in the natural light of a nearby window.  In the hours Nouwen studied it, the light kept changing, and at every change of the light, he would see a different aspect revealed.  I think Nouwen’s discovery in this painting points us to the amazing gift this parable is to us. No matter how often we hear it, there is always a new angle or perspective, a new revelation. 
            I think it would good for us to listen to the parable of the two sons, to meditate on it a few more times this Lent, and to try moving back and forth between seeing ourselves as the lost son who is welcomed home with open arms… and the obedient elder brother who apparently thinks he is more deserving. Lent is a good time to ponder both the grace of the God who seeks us and refuses to give up on us and welcomes us home and also the temptation that religious people face, when we think that we are better or more faithful than those other people.
            Luke the Evangelist tells the story so simply and in such a matter-of-fact way that it’s difficult to comprehend that what happens is un-heard of.  Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey says that the way the son leaves amounts to wishing his father dead.  Bailey writes:[4]
            “For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same…the conversation runs as follows:
            “’Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?’ 
            ‘Could anyone ever make such a request?’ 
            ‘If anyone ever did, what would happen?’ 
           ‘His father would beat him, of course!’ 
            ‘The request means—he wants his father to die.’”
            Scholars tell us that the younger of two brothers would have expected to inherit a third of the father’s property when he died.  Kenneth Bailey explains that the son asks not only for the division of the inheritance, but also for the right to dispose of his part.  Even after dividing the property and signing over his possessions to his son, normally the father still would have the right to live off the proceeds…as long as he is alive. But this son lets his father know that he can’t wait for him to die, and demands his money, which would have meant his father would have needed to sell off a third of the family estate.
            The son’s leaving is a rejection of his home and the values of his family and community.  He leaves everything to go to a “distant country.”  He squanders his property in self-indulgent, immoral living.  Then there was a severe famine, and he began to be in need.  He was so desperate that he—this Jewish boy—hired himself out to take care of pigs. 
            In time, the younger son hits bottom.  Out in the pigsty, he finally comes to his senses.  “Here I am starving,” he said to himself, “when back at home my father’s hired hands have more than enough to eat.”
            As he trudges along the dusty road toward home, he rehearses what he'll say to his father:  "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  So, treat me like one of your hired hands."

            Meanwhile, back at home, the father has been scanning the horizon, longing to see his son and welcome him home.   When he sees his beloved lost son trudging home, the father is filled with compassion.   He does a very un-dignified thing.  He hikes up his robes and runs to meet him. 
            When he reaches his son, he throws his arms around him and kisses him, before the son has a chance to say anything.  The son starts to apologize:  "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
            Before he can say any more, the father says to his servants, "Hurry-- bring out a robe-- the best one-- and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet." 
            In doing this, he shows that he's welcoming his son back as a son, rather than as a servant.   The son must have been speechless with astonishment.
            But the father isn't through yet.  "Kill the fatted calf," he orders. "We're going to have a feast and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again.  He was lost-- and now he's found!" 
            The household bursts into activity, and soon a joyous feast is underway. 
            The younger son never dreamed that his father loved him so deeply.  There were no "I told you so's."  This son's life was far more precious to the father than being right, or putting his son in his place.  The younger son finally saw deep into his father's heart that day--   and what he saw was pure love.                       

            When the elder son gets back from work, he’s surprised to hear music and dancing.  "What's going on?"  he asks one of the servants. 
            The servant tells him, "Your brother has come home, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound."
            The elder brother refuses to go in to the party.  Luke doesn't tell us why, but my hunch is that he wasn't angry because his younger brother came back.  Maybe he wasn't even angry because his father forgave him.  But the party-- that was another matter.
            Let the sinners come home, by all means.  But what about facing the consequences of your actions?  Where's the moral instruction in that kind of welcome? What kind of a world would this be, if we all made a practice of having a party for sinners, while the dutiful, obedient folk are still working in the fields?
            His father comes out and begins to plead with him.  "Your brother has come home, son.  He was lost and now he is found.  Come in to the party and celebrate with us!"
            Do you hear how he answers his father?   "Listen!"  he says.  "For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command!  I've done my duty and followed all your rules.  Yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!"
            God help him, the elder son.  God help all of us who understand his hurt and resentment that run so deep that we cut ourselves off from the very ones whose love and acceptance we so desperately need.
            "This son of yours,” the elder brother says, excluding himself from the family in those words.   This son of yours, who is no kin to me.  The older son believes his father has chosen the younger brother over him.
            The father knows that he has lost this son to a life of self-righteousness and resentment that takes him so far away from his father that he might as well be away in a far country.
            The elder son wants his father to love him as he thinks he deserves to be loved-- because he has stayed home and done the right thing-- the dutiful thing.  He wants his father to love him for all of that. 
His father does love him, but not for any of that-- any more than he loves the younger brother for what he has done.  He doesn't love either of his sons according to what they deserve.  He just loves them.
But the dutiful older brother can't comprehend a love that transcends right and wrong... a love that throws homecoming parties for sinners and expects the hard-working righteous people to rejoice.
            He can't stand it, and so he stands outside.  Outside his father's house and his father's love-- refusing his invitation to come inside to the party.
                But his father turns out to be a prodigal, too-- at least as far as his love is concerned.  He never seems to tire of giving it away.  "Son," he says, “you are always with me.  All that is mine is yours."
            "It was necessary that we celebrate and be glad," the loving father says to his older son, “for this your brother"-- not just my son, but your brother--” was dead, and is alive.  He was lost and is found."
            In other words, the father is saying, “I’m welcoming my son back because it makes me happy to do it.  I love him as I love you—not because of what either of you deserves…but because you are my children.  I’m thrilled and relieved to have him back home.  The only thing that could make me happier right now would be to have you with me too…to have the whole family at the table together.”
            I don’t think Jesus is telling us that we shouldn’t take sin seriously.  Our Reformed faith teaches us that we are all sinners.  But I believe Jesus is showing us that we need to take GRACE seriously.
            It is by God’s grace that we are all beloved children of God.  It is by grace that each one of us receives not the love we deserve—but the love God wants to give us.  Whether we see ourselves more like the older brother or the younger brother, we can rejoice because God loves us all abundantly, out of God’s grace.
            The parable doesn't tell us how it all turned out.  The story ends with the elder brother standing outside the house in the yard with his father, listening to the party going on inside.
            Jesus leaves it that way, I think, because it's up to each of us to finish the story.  It's up to you and to me to decide.  Will we stand outside the celebration of love and grace?  Or will our yearning for love win us over?
            We're invited to go inside and join the party.  Like the loving father in the story, God refuses to give us the love we deserve...  but persists in giving us the love we need… and rejoices over the return of every lost child.
            Thanks be to God for God’s amazing grace!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 31, 2019


[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, “What if we are the Pharisees?” in The Christian Century, February 26, 2019.

[2] Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669.  “Return of the Prodigal Son,” and oil painting likely completed within two years of the artist’s death in 1669.  The original is in the Hermitage, Museum in Saint Petersburg.
[3] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming.  Doubleday, 1992.

[4] Kenneth E. Bailey, quoted in Nouwen, Location 449 in Kindle Edition.

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