A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C
This morning we have heard a very familiar story – the story of a father and his two sons. Yet as usually happens with storytelling, you may have heard something in a new way or even heard something you never noticed before. Stories are like that. Audiences are like that too.
The audience to whom Jesus was speaking was no doubt like his typical audience – crowds of curious people, waiting to hear what this radical rabbi would say next. His disciples were in the crowd, along with members of the religious establishment, but also, no doubt, were those on the fringes of society – the poor, sinners and even non-Jews.
It is to these people that Jesus presents actually three parables of losing and finding – the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and this most famous of Jesus’ parables – the parable of the two lost sons.
Two? Haven’t we always called this the parable of The Prodigal Son? That is a title we have given to Jesus’ parable. If like good audiences do we are going to look at this with fresh eyes and opened ears, let’s think of this parable in a new way.
I want to draw my thoughts this morning primarily from the booklet we’ve been using for our Lenten study both here and on the campus, “From Fear to Love,” a series of readings based on the work of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a great lover of art and reflected on it in several of his many books. This booklet is a series of readings based on talks he gave regarding Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son. So just as we see new things in familiar paintings when we look at them again, let’s look at this story again.
There are three main characters – the Father, the son who leaves and the son who stays.
The son who leaves is the one so often called “The Prodigal.” Seemingly on a whim he asks his father for his share of the estate that he was to inherit. What we can’t here in the Gospel text as written is the audience participation. We often visualize a crowd in rapt silent attention, hanging on Jesus’ every word. More often than not, however, crowds were not silent, but rather reactive.
What we can’t hear are the audible gasps that must have come from the crowd. We can’t see the shaking down-turned heads. In middle-eastern culture, when the younger son asks for his inheritance, it is tantamount to this son wishing his father was dead. “Give me what is mine!” this younger son says. What a mistake! What a foolish act! But the story gets worse. Not only does this son demand his inheritance, but he leaves home and squanders his future on what could best be described as “loose living.” He lived like he had a pocketful of money and no responsibilities. Note that the famine doesn’t strike the land until after he has spent all he had.
Reduced to feeding unclean animals, pigs, who had more to eat than he did, this younger son has a moment of clarity. Even my father’s servants eat better than this! The son determines to return home, humiliated, hungry, begging for the crumbs under his father’s table.
Now who would stand in the way of someone so lost, someone so desperate? In this story, the elder son will have no part in welcoming his brother home. He stands outside the banquet hall, refusing to join in the feast. Nouwen uses some very strong language here, saying the elder brother winds up being “as lost spiritually” as his younger brother, but he is lost in a very different way. His heart is full of resentment, not just toward his brother but toward his father. The elder son’s question seems to be “How could you?”
This older son has always worked hard but has never known hunger. Because he is older he stands to inherit more than the younger son. He has a place of status and privilege already, and yet his heart is closed to the joy that has filled their home. He places himself on the outside looking in.
The central character in the story is, of course, the father, this father with two very different sons in his life. Who can’t hear about this man and not love him. He loves both of his sons so much. He does not stop, he does not even lecture the younger son when he makes this huge mistake. The father loves him unconditionally – he loves the son in his returning, but also in his leaving. This father makes a spectacle of himself running out to greet the younger son, the one who has returned. Fathers just didn’t do things like this. His joy is visible. His love is on display. But the father also loves his other son. When he discovers his older son is missing from the feast, he leaves the feast to seek out his other lost son and plead with him to join them.
Jesus has told a vivid story to the crowd gathered to hear him. Among his listeners were lost, rebellious daughters and sons, who hadn’t been home in years. In the crowd were angry, resentful older brothers and sisters who were always asking, “How could you?” And in the crowd there were those caught in between. There may have even been parents trying their hardest to love both their rebel and their resentful children.
But as is true with most of Jesus’ parables, there is a meaning for Israel at the center of it. The religious establishment had turned their backs on those they considered too sinful to have status in their society. Repent and return though they might, there was little room for those who had walked away. Jesus stood between the establishment and the outcasts. How many times had he shown mercy to the rebellious, lost children in their midst? How often had he called on the Pharisees to repent of their resentful, unwelcoming hearts?
It is to the feast that Jesus is inviting all of them: loving, forgiving fathers and mothers, rebellious and resentful sons and daughters. It is to the feast that Jesus invites us – this peculiar thanksgiving table, this means of grace.
Last week in her Adult Forum presentation on this story, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon asked us a simple question – what is the saddest moment in the story for you? I was quick to say, “When the older brother would not go in to the feast.”
In all the turmoil and upset we have been experiencing in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion lately, one might ask, “What is the saddest moment for you?” My answer would be the same – when Christians refuse to receive communion with other Christians. That is the moment when communion is literally broken, when communion is lost. When one Christian decides that another person who names the name of Christ is too sinful, too rebellious, too unworthy to be at the same table, to receive from the same chalice – that is a tragic moment, one that grieves not just my heart, but God’s.
When people start declaring winners and losers in a church that is being torn asunder by pride and power politics, we have lost something we once had – the love of a family, the love of a father who embraces all his children, a father who seeks out his children, no matter who they are or where they may be.
As we come to this table this morning, I pray we come authentically, who we are today – come as rebellious prodigals, come as resentful older brothers and sisters, just as lost as any rebel, come as a father or mother who longs to embrace all those who you love.
As Nouwen puts it – you are in this story. “There is a younger son in you that needs conversion, and an older son in you that needs conversion. There is also a father in you that needs to be revealed to you so that you can receive the younger and the elder sons that ‘return’ to you day after day. Somewhere at the end of it all God wants us to be present at the banquet. The banquet is not only because the youngest returned, but it is for the eldest too, and for the father. Together.”