March 5, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan
View, print or save PDF: Sermon.03.05.17.Prodigal Son
The Parables Lenten Sermon Series
“The Prodigal Son”
March 5, 2017
Rev. Melanie Homan
Luke 15:11-32 11Then Jesus[a] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But 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. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
The Gospel for today is what we typically call the parable of the Prodigal Son. Prodigal means “recklessly extravagant.” The younger son was recklessly extravagant. This could also be called the parable of the Prodigal Father. For the father is even more extravagant than the son. This parable of the Prodigal Son and the Prodigal Father is an illustration of reconciliation in story form.
It’s hard to fathom what the son does. He basically goes to his father and asks for his inheritance early, the unspoken message to his dad being, “I wish you were dead. I want my money now.” Can you imagine how it would feel if your child said something like this to you? We would probably have a few choice words for them in response to such a request. Instead of saying, “Are you out of your mind?!?” or “How dare you even ask such a thing?!?”, the father does what his son asks. We know what happens next. The father and son do become dead to one another. The son blows ALL of the money and ends up eating with pigs. This is what hitting rock bottom looks like.
When we hear this story, there are at least two different ways we can interpret what happens next. The first is to believe that the son is repentant, that the son recognizes what he has done to break apart his relationship to his father, and he’s sorry. The father sees that he is sorry and runs to embrace him before he can even get the words “I’m sorry” out of his mouth.
That’s one way to look at it. But, we might wonder how repentant this son really is, as he decides to go back to his father. In some ways, his response seems rather calculated. “If I say to my dad, ‘Dad, I have sinned, I am no longer worthy to be called your son, let me come work for you.’ my situation can only improve.” We are right to be skeptical of the son’s motivations, given his previous actions and choices. The story is ambiguous about whether the son’s repentance is sincere. We don’t know if this was a calculated response – a means to an end – or simply the truth.
Either way, and perhaps this is part of what bothers the older son…and us – regardless of the younger son’s motivations and level of sincerity, the father runs out to him. Filled with compassion and kisses and an embrace. An embrace that shows the younger son that all has been forgiven. ALL has been forgiven.
We just had our Ash Wednesday service this past week. The service is somber and reflective – it’s a reminder of our mortality…that from dust we come, and to dust we will return. We repent of our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness as we enter a season of prayer and fasting. We are subdued. And yet. The forgiveness of the father was not somber. Forgiveness was an act of JOY. The father’s forgiving embrace came before the son could even get the words of repentance he had practiced out of his mouth. It was then time to party! Time to celebrate! The parent and child were no longer dead to each other. Each of them had become a new creation.
In Paul’s letters to the early churches, he talks about reconciliation. He understood reconciliation to mean a return to right relationship…a restoration of harmony to relationships. If something needs to be restored, it must have existed, was broken down, and then brought back into being. Our relationship, humanities’ relationship with God, was broken. It needed to be restored, to be reconciled. You can agree with Paul or not, but he believes that restoration of our relationship with God is what happened when Christ died on the cross. Paul says, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” This is the prodigal father, the recklessly extravagant parent, embracing and forgiving the child who has not yet even said he was sorry. God doesn’t count our trespasses, because Christ has restored our relationship to God. WE are reconciled to God.
One of the interesting things about the Godspell portrayal of the parable is the ending – in the end, the two brothers “hug it out”. But in Luke, we have a more ambiguous ending. The parable ends with conflict. The older son doesn’t think there is anything “fair” about what’s happened. There’s a party going on and just as the father is about to celebrate the restoration of relationship to one child, his relationship to his child becomes broken. The parent has open arms, has an embrace that’s always been there, ready for this older child. But, we are left not knowing, wondering, if the older child will ever choose the embrace, if he will ever enter the party. We see these two children, polar opposites, with the parent wanting to embrace them both, and wanting them to embrace each other. Godspell gives us that embrace between the brothers. Luke leaves it open ended and we’re left wondering if they ever reconcile.
Is reconciliation possible for both sons? The father seems to want this. We are the ones who have a hard time with it. The human point of view is that those who disagree with us are our enemies. But in Christ, we have a new point of view. It’s the view of reconciliation. We’ve been reconciled to God, and now we are to work to be reconciled with one another – even when we see ourselves in the older sibling role and see the father’s forgiving embrace as “unfair”.
In all of our relationships with other people, the baseline consideration regarding others is that God loves them. Christ has reconciled that person to God, and it’s our ministry of reconciliation to work to repair our own relationship with them.
In what stance do you find yourself? Arms crossed in front of your chest? At your side? Open and reaching out? Moving all over the place because you’re just not sure? This ministry of reconciliation – it’s prodigal work! It’s recklessly extravagant work that we could hardly succeed at if Christ hadn’t already paved the way for us.
As we keep returning to God’s embrace, our work is to embrace others. This Lent, may God help us to live out this ministry of reconciliation, this ministry of restored relationships. Amen.
Resources used for sermon reflection:
The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on 2 Corinthians
Webster’s online dictionary
“Embracing Love” commentary by Kate Huey @i.ucc.org
Preaching the Atonement by Wright & Stevenson