Fourth Sunday in Lent Joshua 4:19-5:12, Psalm 34, 2 Corinthians 5:17-21, Luke 15:11-32
A young person grows up in the church, the family of faith. They were a devourer of hymnals and Sunday school curriculum. They always carried themselves well and made their parents glow with pride. The Pastor loved watching this young person mature, as a their parents faith became their own. The young person leaves their hometown town for university, and while away slowly ceases attending church and almost imperceptibly their views begin to change. Thanksgiving that year is tense – conversation is stilted. And then when Christmas comes the young person stands rigid in the family pew, disinterested. Imperceptible, indeed, yet this young person begins their adult life away from the family home on their own terms. To this young person’s family, this begins to look an awful lot like story Jesus once told, about a young person far from home, turning their back on the old ways. And so they wait, for the other shoe to drop and for this young person to find themselves in whatever metaphorical pig’s stye awaits. They have waited 20 years since those college days, but right now the bouncing grandchildren and smart home in suburbia and their community engagement in drug abuse outreach, do not look very much like a pig’s stye at all.
But you see the church always has those individuals who walk through the doors seemingly unprepared, life having taken a devastating toll on them. And such an individual may participate in the worship of the Church, and perhaps they may never tell anyone the terrible places they have been. For good reason, usually, because those wasted years will turn the heads of the kindly and earnest church folk. Bitter experience may have taught them that, though the story goes that there is much rejoicing when one who was lost, is found, when people are really face-to-face with such a soul who was once lost, they find it so difficult to comprehend that love is buried beneath a shroud of suspicion.
And yet amongst the people of God are those who are imbued with a grace of love mightier than doubt or fear. And in them we rightly place our trust. Such people easily become guides, leaders to us because they give form and shape to a love bigger than anything we could otherwise comprehend. We may attend a class or group they lead, or we may seek them out for counsel and encouragement. Often such persons are set apart in ordained ministry as Deacons, Priests, or Bishops so that the Church can see a named example of the love which God has for them. It is as the story goes, you see, that the life of a family finds its vigor in the generosity and grace of those who by character or charism are set in that place as a head. But woe to those upon whom that grace rests, for there are dozens of sons and daughters who stand ready to squander that which has been entrusted. Seems that in this life of a family of faith there are daily opportunities for the story which Jesus told to be true in our experience, over and over again. I have been the head of the household, watching over others and feeling the pangs when someone wanders. I have been the resentful older sibling, despising them for coming back. And I have been the one to take the love and trust of another set over me by priestly ordination and foolishly abuse it to bring disgrace on him, and myself.
This story Jesus told is about a foolish father, a wandering son, and an angry brother. This strange and dysfunctional family, is held up to us as a picture of the Kingdom of God. Let us again experience this story as Jesus told it, and let us find ourselves here.
Jesus tells this story after he was seen befriending sinners, or at least sinners whose lives were more obviously divergent from God’s laws than other peoples. There are lots of nice people in our neighborhoods, and those nice people prefer to consort with other nice people. They move to areas with nice schools and nice little shops and very nice houses. And these nice people know that there are not-nice people whose lives are more chaotic, who choose to live out of step with the normal, nice things.
In Jesus’ day the Pharisees were the arbiters of nice and considered it improper to regard as friends those who did not conform to their vanilla vision of family values. But Jesus goes out of his way to befriend the not-so-nice. He even asks a tax collector to become his disciple, Matthew. And all of this friendship looks a lot like Jesus is not encouraging people to live according to God’s law, which was the mission of the Pharisees. So they complain about the rogue rabbi who consorts with the unpleasant people.
And so Jesus tells three strange stories, stories which begin to shine a light on the Pharisees. It was prophesied to Mary by Simeon in Luke 2 that “the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” by Christ’s ministry. And so, he we have a reaction to Jesus’ ministry which may show us not only the truth about God, but also the truth about ourselves.
In the first story Jesus states it almost as a matter of fact that if you had 100 sheep, and you lost one, that you would surely go and leave the other 99 to find the missing sheep and bring it home. Or he gives an example of a woman who has lost one of 10 silver coins, who then tears the house apart until it is found. Jesus tells us that this is what it is like in the kingdom of heaven for the lost soul to find God!
The story he tells next is like the first two, inasmuch as it is about a restoration and a celebration, but this time the stakes are higher. In the first story we have 100 sheep and one missing, which is not a great loss. And in another 10 coins and one missing, a rather more significant loss, but again not the most devastating thing one could think of. But in this third story the stakes are high. This is a story about two boys, and the family which is torn apart by his loss. And this is where we will begin to see how God’s compassion is very different to human compassion. For Jesus knew that his hearers would easily understand the joy of recovering a lost sheep, or a lost coin, yet the people who have come to be friends with Jesus are not sheep or coins. They are people, and the nature of their lostness is not that of wandering in the woods, or falling through the cracks. The nature of their lostness has had devastating consequences for their community, for their families, and on themselves. But here is the first shock of ice-water to the faces of the Pharisees: How can you be glad over the small loss and small victory of the sheep and the coin, and not understand that a human being, a son of a father, has far more value than this?
In this third story Jesus names aloud the kind of lives those he had reached may have been living, when the Pharisees had only whispered about it with lewd accusation and baseless slander.
See, there was this father of two sons, and the father was a very generous and kind man. One of his sons came to him and asked to have his share of the father’s estate. This is undoubtedly a foolhardy request, absolutely naive and rash. The father could very well have refused this request, and it may have been wise to do so. Yet this father is a man of open-handed generosity who wants to trust his son to do right with what he is given. And so the father gives out the portion of the estate which, at that present time, was due him. Whatever had entered into this young man’s mind seemed to him to be such an important task that he wastes no time in leaving home to take the wealth of his father’s house and pursue whatever it was he had set himself out to do. As it turns out, whatever he had purposed to do was a dumb thing and he loses the wealth he had been given, at the most inopportune time, perhaps like attempting to become a landlord of a couple of extra homes in 2006.
The going is good right now but oh boy just wait until 08.
This man finds himself working with pigs, which for anyone else would be noble enough work for a young man down on his luck, but this son of Israel is, by the nature of this work and the prohibition against it in the Torah, now becoming ritually unclean and therefore unprepared to worship God and so estranged from his Maker. The kind of lostness this son experiences is somewhat like that of the sheep or the coin, who are lost by accident and circumstance, but also different inasmuch as he did put himself in a position he could not get himself out of. He realizes as much, and remembers that the father who was kind and generous to him, is also kind and generous even to the hired day-laborers in his estate. He knows his foolishness have wounded the trust between he and his father, and yet the fear of that broken relationship cannot drown out the clear call of his father’s love. He returns to his father’s house, ready to embark on whatever long discipline it will take to restore his trust, and yet the father has no such qualms about propriety, or trust, or payback. He is thrilled that his son has come home in one piece!
This could very well have been the end of the story. Throw a party. End.
But in this story there are three characters, not two. The 99 other sheep didn’t have much of an opinion about the one who went missing, and I do not suppose silver coins know they are lost, but human beings are more complicated than this so even a story of the reconciliation between a son and his father does not escape criticism from one who sees things differently.
The oldest son sees the celebration thrown for the youngest son’s humiliating defeat at the hands of his own folly, and confronts the father, practically screaming in his face, “when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’”
Now here the truth of the heart is uncovered. Where does the oldest son get that his younger brother wasted the money on prostitutes? He hasn’t even spoken to him! Could it be the case that all this time he has been missing, this older brother has seethed with such a resentment that he no longer recognizes his own blood? That he believes the very worst about him? That he has formed in his head a story to match just how much he despises him? Notice that at no point in the story are we told how the younger son used the money, other than that he wasted it foolishly, and the father certainly asks for no receipts. Yet the older bother keeps a logbook in his imagination, filled with supposed wrongs and vices he is ready to lay against the son which his father loves. And it is not even as though the younger son’s foolishness took away from the elder’s inheritance – remember the estate was divided according to presumably some kind of will or common custom. No, standing outside a party screaming at his father, the elder brother looks like the one who is truly lost.
For it was kindness, the overflowing love of the Father which granted the youngest son the freedom to dream, to do as he wished, despite the terrible consequences, and it was that sam outpouring of love which received him back, forgetting all that could have harmed their relationship. And whatever else the youngest son lost in his wanderings, he did not lose his deep trust in that love, for he knew he could come back and be cared for, even if from a distance.
Yet it is the older son who has lived a miserable existence this whole time, surrounded by the obvious signs of the kindness and generosity of the Father, the joyful hired hands who are well fed, the calfs always fattened and ready for a feast, the rich clothes always on hand, and yet he has lived as though he is an enemy of his father, the reason for which could only be a mistrust or even contempt of that generosity.
In the pattern of the previous stories, Jesus ends this one with a celebration, a celebration which points to the joy of heaven over those who are loved by God, and have been lost, coming back to the one whose love for them has never wained. But unlike the other stories there are those who are not celebrating over that which was found. The older brother believes that his father should have acted very differently. That it ought to be that this wayward son should bewail all of his misdeeds, and if he comes back at all, he should be disinherited and live as a hired hand.
Yet this is not what the father does, and this is because this story is a picture of the kingdom of God, where there is no room for resentment over the one who has dragged their feet or squandered the kindnesses given them. There is a celebration, a rejoicing in God’s family and all of his daughters and sons are invited, for the world is being saved and many souls have come to be reconciled back to him. Let us be vigilent to always trust in the generosity of the Father’s love, and repent of our shallow loves which would despise those who Jesus is drawing near. Soon it will be Easter, and many people will attend here or at other churches, strangers about whom we may be tempted to suppose many things. And yet when we do we are only excluding ourselves from a share in the inheritance of love and grace which is prepared for all of God’s children.