Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32: All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The 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.
A 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. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.
He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But 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! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘
So 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. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.
But 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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.'”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight o Lord, our rock and our redeemer…
Ah, the good old Prodigal Son parable. You know, I have to admit, I love the Prodigal Son story. I think there’s a myriad of interesting ways to look at it, and tons of theology to mine from it. But, to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t always my favourite.
In fact, I rather hated this story when I was young. Because I have a younger sister. And because she’s the baby, she always seemed to be getting things I wasn’t.
So, when I would hear this story in church, I knew, without a doubt, that the older brother was justified in his feelings. Here is a story about two sons, and the older brother doesn’t even get any real play, no character development, it’s all about the youngest.
And so, for years, I didn’t listen to the story. And maybe, when you hear “there was a man who had two sons” in the Gospel lesson today, you immediately recognized this as the beginning of the parable of the prodigal son and decided you already knew this story and its point.
But when we really listen to it, scripture can surprise us. This is part of what make the word of God a living word: we always read it in our own circumstances, and when we have brushed the scales from our eyes or opened our heart or maybe just experienced something new, we read it afresh and it can say different things to us. And I’m hoping that reading this passage within the context of Lent and all that we have journeyed with over the past few weeks can help us hear a new word.
Now, what’s interesting in this, and what we don’t get in our text this morning, is that the verses that serve as an introduction about Jesus eating and teaching sinners and the Pharisees grumbling about this actually precede two other parables. The parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin.
I’m not going into details on those, but I suggest you go read them, and see this passage in the entirety, as they tell us something about how we are to interpret this Gospel message.
Because it would seem that these three passages are about being lost, right? The shepherd loses a sheep, the woman loses a coin, and the father loses a son. This is clearly Jesus speaking to the lost and broken, teaching about hope and forgiveness and being found. And that is a wonderful and powerful message, one that it seems like the world needs right now. That God’s love is so great and abundant that we, lowly as we are, sinner though we may be, can be welcomed in.
And that is certainly one part of the meaning. But I think what these parables, in fact, what all parables do, is invite us into the paradoxical tension of being a human in relationship with God. Because while the nicest interpretation of this story is that we are all lost and we are all found in Christ, it completely ignores a big part of this text: what do we do with the older brother?
Now, we can do what I did as a kid and secretly sympathize because we know what it’s like to be treated unfairly, or we can dig a little deeper.
Because this is paramount to Jesus’ ministry and the building of the kingdom, it is foundational to our future as church, and it is the thing we are most likely to overlook.
Jesus was not only speaking to the tax collectors and the sinners that he was eating with. His parable is not aimed only at the poor and the marginalized, but it is a pointed comment in the direction of the Pharisees, and I think, us.
Because we all like to think of ourselves as the lost lamb, the lost son, Jesus is describing, I know I do; because we like to be reminded of God’s forgiveness. We all like to be granted that mercy, and while we like to talk about God’s gift of love to all, I think it’s harder to put that into action.
That is what is so compelling in this story. This parable calls us into a discussion of just what makes a sinner.
Because there is the obvious answer of the youngest son, the one who fritters away his inheritance and comes back in disgrace. That’s easy to see, and that’s exactly how the Pharisees would have seen it as well. But there’s also the older brother, the one who has held to social standards and conventions and when faced with someone receiving mercy and love, demands that he should have more because he is more deserving.
He believes that all the love and comfort and social status he has received from the moment he is born is somehow diminished because his brother is forgiven and restored. He can’t see all the privilege he has, all the power, he can only see that someone else is receiving a tiny portion of what he believes is his.
And I think this is the powerful crux of this story, Jesus is reiterating his constant message of love and hope, the building of the kingdom that is so different from the empire.
What I couldn’t understand when I was little was that love is not a loaf of bread, if someone gets a big slice it doesn’t mean you get less. When someone gets attention or forgiveness or grace or freedom or rights, it doesn’t take away from me. It makes the world better. It makes the world richer, and fuller, and it raises all of us up.
This is the beautiful message of Lent, of Easter, that God loves you so much, that he loves each and every one of us so much, that he is willing to do whatever it takes to be in relationship with us. Sometimes that is finding us when we are lost, and sometimes that is inviting us into the mission, inviting us into the party, and giving us lost siblings of our own to love and care for.
This church and the wider Anglican Church are in a time of discernment, we are in a time of searching for the right way forward into the future. And the challenge will be learning to look beyond what we want for ourselves, what makes us feel safe and comfortable, what we think is fair and equitable, what we feel we deserve; and finding a way to create the space for all our lost brothers and sisters to come home. We are being invited into an amazing love, one that moves between God and creation, so the question is: as we were once lost and now found, how do we share that joy with those who need it the most?