a sermon preached on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
ow 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.’”
That’s the crucial set-up line for the parable of the Prodigal, as for the two parables that directly precede it: the parables of the lost sheep and of the lost coin. It might even be better to call this one we read today “The parable of the lost son”, and then to ask which of the sons is the most lost.
You know the story. A father has two sons, the younger of which comes and asks his father to effectively drop dead: “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”
I’d like the inheritance now, thank you very much.
And the father effectively does drop dead – “So he divided his property between them” – and I suppose retires to the rocking chair on the front porch, maybe wondering where his parenting had gone wrong.Predictably, the younger son heads for the city, blows the money on what this translation calls “dissolute living” (you can use your imagination here… in a little while, we’ll see that’s precisely what the older brother does), and ends up in such a mess that he decides he should return home and beg for a job as a hired hand on the farm.
“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.” “I have sinned against heaven and before you”, which is an expression of guilt over what he’d done, followed by “I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” which expresses a more crippling shame over who he is; feeling guilty can lead you to take steps to put things in some kind of order, but shame like that just kills you.
But the father is having none of it. He’s in full celebratory mode already, setting things in motion to welcome that lost boy home with a feast and fine clothes.
And then there’s that other son. Hard working, well-behaved, and full of self-righteous and self-satisfied resentment. This son refuses to join the party, protesting that his younger brother, who has “devoured your property with prostitutes” is deserving of nothing. I think it is kind of striking that he makes this accusation about prostitutes, given that the parable says nothing beyond that phrase “dissolute living”. Like maybe that is what the older brother would have been doing himself, if he weren’t wound up like a spring?
The last time we read this parable in worship, we wove in a cycle of poems called “The Father Empties His Coffers” written by the monk-poet Kilian McDonnell. I want to read to you a bit from part IV of that cycle, called “No One Loves Me”. This is the voice of that older son:And now he’s back, hungry, broke, mauled by city cats, leaving a trail of chaos and copulation, licking self-inflicted wounds, scratching
at your front door to see if he had left some loot behind last time around.
Once more, the tattered plumage, polished tears. You suggest I sing the kid a Hallel psalm to celebrate his passing over. But, I, too was trapped.
For years I bled fidelity unsung. No new rags upon my back. Am I an alley mongrel?
No, I will not join the joy. I’m weary of forgiveness. Let the lost stay lost. Next month, he’ll be gone.
“I’m weary of forgiveness. Let the lost stay lost.”
“And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
Do you hear it? Sure, this parable is about the wandering younger son and his abundantly gracious father. But it is really about this older, equally lost son. In fact, as Jesus shapes this story, it is this older son whom the father seeks out, much as the shepherd seeks out the lost sheep: “His father came out and began to plead with him.” This older, well-behaved and morally righteous older brother is at least as lost as his prodigal brother, and maybe more so, because he has not the faintest clue of how lost he truly is.
“And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling.”
“So if anyone is in Christ,” writes Paul, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Tax collectors and sinners, prostitutes and Pharisees, prodigals and their big brothers; anyone and everyone, all made new and brought home to the great celebratory feast, fatted calf and all.
But of course, like the older brother with his resentments, the Pharisees aren’t interested in going to a party if that sort of person is going to be there. Which is really too bad for them, because it is the only party in town.
And honestly, we’re not always so sure either. We like the front end of this parable a great deal, and we love the idea of grace and mercy when it comes to ourselves and others just like us. It just gets a little more gritty when we’re standing out in the garden with the elder brother, thinking about who we’d maybe rather not have at the feast. How about the guy who sells crystal meth out in the alley behind the church? The person who is breaking into your house right now? The crack addict who just pimped her 12 year old daughter so she can get money for a hit? How about the money-manager who cheated your grandmother out of her savings? Anyone else you can think of who we might not be interested in feasting with, much less spending an eternity with?
Right. Which is why Jesus told this story.
And Paul is right, too, in talking about “new creation” and about the old “passing away.” But a big part of the old that has to pass away is our scruples about who is deserving of forgiveness and grace, because none of us are.
Which is why, in Christ, it is offered to us all.