The Pas Lent 4
6 March 2016
Psalm 32 BAS Pg. 742
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Eternal Lover of our wayward race,you open your arms to accept us even before we turn to meet your welcome; you invite us to forgiveness even before our hearts are softened to repentance. Hold before us the image of our humanity made new, so that we may live in Jesus Christ, your new creation. Amen.
Today’s gospel is one we know oh so well. It’s the parable of the prodigal son, also known as the parable of the lost son.
And we all know the story. A father has two sons at home, and the youngest wants to go out and experience the world. He’s just itching to see what’s beyond the fence line of their property, and can’t wait to get out there. He knows he’ll inherit half of the property when ‘dear old dad’ bites the dust, but really, with current medical technology, and a healthy lifestyle, who knows when this will be?
So he goes to ‘dear old dad’ and asks for his share of the inheritance now, and dad gives it to him. I’m sure it took a little while for the legal documents to come through in order to declare ‘dear old dad’ amongst the dearly departed, but in the end, the younger son heads out for the bright lights of the big city, and the older son, also having received his share of the inheritance basically calls him names behind his back, all the while bemoaning that he will be the one to keep the property producing, paying the bills, looking after legally departed, yet still breathing ‘dear old dad.’
For the first while, the younger son sends home postcards from the various places he’s visited, the places he’s learned about in his travels. The kind of post cards that say “wish you were here!” The kind that has ‘dear old dad’ sitting in one place and bemoaning the absence of his younger son for days at a time, while at the same time, the older son funnels his anger at his brothers irresponsible behaviour into keeping the household accounts, improving farming practices, and possibly building a new barn to replace the old dilapidated one. In the end his anger fueled efforts make the farm run like a well oiled machine.
But then the fortunes of the world change. The economy collapses and the inheritance that the younger son had been using for travel, accommodation, food, post cards and stamps runs out. Unemployment is high; job opportunities for good Jewish boys are low. So, starving and homeless, the younger son takes the first job he can – feeding pigs on someone’s farm. The pay stinks, the accommodations are a little worse than what the pigs are living in, and the food is worse than can be imagined. In fact what the pigs are eating is better than what the younger son is getting at the end of each long working day.
And into this comes the nostalgic memories of what his father’s dinner table would hold: the meats, the breads, the soups and salads – enough to fill one many times over and still there was enough that the entire household ate the same fare.
Into this comes the knowledge that he’s been rash, foolish, and headstrong in his dealings, and he’s not worthy to be his father’s son. But at least on his father’s property, he would have work that is befitting a young Jewish lad, he would have a roof over his head, and food in his stomach. He knows he’s squandered his rights to be considered a son, but he would easily settle for being one of the farmhands.
So he comes up with the idea of making his way home. And along the way he rehearses his speech, his apology, his act of contrition, all the while begging for forgiveness. He says, over and over again so he gets it right: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” (Lk 15:18b-19)
And along the way, he walks, he hitchhikes, he camps out at the side of the road, he panhandles for money for food to keep going, all the while rehearsing what he will say to his Father. He says it over and over again: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” (Lk 15:18b-19)
His feet are sore, his back and his legs ache. He’s hungry and dirty, he’s constantly tired, and all the while all he can think of is home.
In the meantime, the older brother is still working, and he’s still angry with his younger brother for the loss of the land that was sold to allow him to be irresponsible and to run away from responsibility. He’s striving to make a legacy for himself and his family, should he ever have the time to go and find wife. He’s dealing with ‘dear old dad’s maudlin state and days upon days of depression because the younger son is gone, and even the post cards have stopped coming.
But because of the older brother’s management of land and resources, they’ve not felt the burden of the economic downturn. The harvests have been good, there is money in the bank, the taxes and bills are up to date, and the farm is humming along with all of the industry of a well-organized bee hive.
He works hard, and as long as the farm hands. He makes sure ‘dear old dad’ is well looked after, and he uses his perpetual anger at his brother to fuel his energies around the property.
But then, early one morning, the sun is beginning to peek over the horizon, the mist of early autumn is in the air and hangs over the fields, and the harvest has begun. The older brother is in the fields already, busy sorting out workers and equipment, establishing the patterns that will bring in the harvest, and benefit the farm and all of its works. And the younger son arrives at the end of the driveway.
He just stands there, cold, hungry, footsore, and yet, now that he’s here, he’s not sure he can confront ‘dear old dad’ or his older brother. He’s rehearsed and rehearsed what he wants to say, but he’s also to the point of being almost in tears. He’s travelled so many miles, he’s wanted to come home, but now that he can see the land he has loved his whole life, he’s not sure what to do, or even if he has the strength to take that next step. He knows what he’s done, how he’s lived, and even the fact that he’s been made ritually unclean by caring for those pigs, in that distant land.
And he’s on the verge of turning back, turning away, when ‘dear old dad’ looks out the front window, his morning cup of coffee in his hand, and he sees the younger son. He sees the stooped shoulders, the lack of luggage, and the state of his clothing. He sees him bow his head and begin to turn away, and so he runs from the house. He rushes down the driveway, a confused servant at his heels, because he’s tasked by the older brother to care for ‘dear old dad’, and they encounter the younger son. And the father opens his arms wide and enfolds his younger son in a hug that conveys everything he’s wanted to say for years. He’s overjoyed to see him home, to see him alive, to see him standing there, and he cannot bear to let him go, again.
‘Dear old dad’ declares that the lost is found, that a celebration will be had, right now, right here, and that it will be a joyous occasion because ‘dear old dad’s heart is once more made whole; his son has returned to him.
The younger son tries to interrupt. After all, this is the speech he’s been practicing for weeks. He tries to ask for forgiveness for all that he’s put ‘dear old dad’ through; he tries to ask for employment as a farm hand. But he’s not heard.
Instead he’s crushed in his father’s loving embrace. He feels the robe put on his thin and bony shoulders. He feels a ring slid on his finger, and shoes put on his feet. He’s carried on the shoulders of those who work in the house, and he’s treated to the finest bath he’s had in ages, and when he emerges, clean and dressed, and honoured, he’s seated at the head of the table, in the place of honour, and ‘dear old dad’ serves him.
But we have a twist, as all good stories do. The older brother is still in the fields, and when he comes home, he finds his father with life in his eyes and more energy than he’s had in years. He finds the house in preparation for this feast, that a calf has been killed, that the kitchen is in an uproar because of the sudden plans, and he turns his back and storms out of the house.
‘Dear old dad’ goes to him and tells him that the younger son has returned, and they must celebrate because the lost is found, because he has come home, and they can be a family, once more; but the older son won’t come in, wont celebrate, would rather see his brother sent packing than to treat him with honour. He says he’s slaved away taking care of everything left to him, and left to him early because the younger brother wanted his share of the inheritance so he could squander it in distant lands.
He says he’s angry, and bitter, and hasn’t been appreciated by ‘dear old dad’ because he’s been too occupied mourning for the one who left; that he’s never even taken a day off to spend time with friends or seek out a wife.
And ‘dear old dad’ says: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because his brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Lk 15:31-32)
Jesus tells this parable, we are told, because he is eating with tax collectors and sinners, and a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law are standing on the sidelines making snide comments and not so quietly hinting that Jesus hasn’t washed under his fingernails, and should probably not inquire about the personal cleanliness habits of his tablemates, either.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law, standing to one side, can also feel the grumble of their stomachs as they look at the delicious meal set before Jesus, before the sinners and the tax collectors. And we can feel them begin to salivate as they complain that Jesus, a righteous teacher, shouldn’t be hanging out with such people.
We know that Jesus teaches us that God’s law is given to guide us, Jesus teaches us that to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is even more important. We know that Jesus comes as the fulfillment of God’s law.
We know that the sinners and tax collectors who are clustered around Jesus are also listening to the story he’s telling. They can identify with the actions of the younger son, easily identifying their lives with the one who has gone his way, but wishes so desperately to come home, and to feel the Father’s loving embrace.
But in all the times we hear this parable, what do we know of the older son? The one who stays home, who follows tradition, who does what is right in caring for his inheritance, in caring for his father, who is deemed dead in the eyes of the law.
Does he wish any less than the younger to get away, to live it up, to see the great sights of the world? And yet, when his younger brother returns home, he cannot greet him, he cannot be in the same room with him because of his anger, his discontent with the way life has given him responsibility and success instead of laughter and enjoyment.
Because of the way Jesus tells the story we often forget that there is an older brother at home, while the younger is away. We acknowledge that the grace of God is available to all, but at the same time, we see the older brother, so caught up in the right procedure, the right action, but not procedures or actions that are felt in the heart, we can see that he’s not ready to accept either God’s grace or the younger brother.
At the same time, we can see this in how we treat each other and ourselves. Only we can say if we can relate to the position of the younger brother, or even the older brother in and for our lives. We can understand the longing God has for those who have waked away, and the frustration that those who have been faithful may have toward those who newly realize their need for God’s love in their lives, and return to God’s loving embrace.
This is the season of Lent, the season in which we strive through action and prayer to prepare our lives, our souls for the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, for the death of death, the destruction of our burden of sin, all a part of the celebration of Easter. Since Ash Wednesday, we have been walking with Jesus toward the cross and the events of the cross that will come all too quickly. But at the same time, are we able to walk into God’s presence and accept God’s loving grace for us? Are we, like the younger son, prepared to say “Father I have sinned”, and to receive God’s loving embrace for each one of us in return?