Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 6th, 2016
Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 5:1-3, 11b-32
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This parable is one of the richest and most meaningful stories in the Bible, but when we read it we tend to focus on the younger son. Our traditional name for it is “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” which is part of the reason. But there are many other names for this parable, too. Sometimes it’s called the Parable of the Prodigal God, the Parable of the Welcoming Father, or the Parable of the Lost Sons, or the Lament of the Responsible Child. There are so many parts of this parable that we could focus on, and the part we tend to focus on is the younger son, the one whose selfish actions set the whole story into motion. Yet when Jesus told the story, he started by focusing on the father—“there was a man who had two sons”—and he spent a full third of the story detailing the older son’s reactions. And let’s not forget that he told this parable—and several others, right in a row—in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes, who were disdainful that “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
We tend to think of the Pharisees as the villains, because Jesus had so many clashes with them. But the reason that he did was because he spent a lot of time with them and they continually sought him out, invited him to speak, and brought them home to eat dinner with them. In fact, Jesus had many allies among the Pharisees, and they were for the most part natural allies. When we look at the historical record, the Pharisees beliefs and practices were in fact very similar to Jesus’ own teachings—making the differences even more noticeable. Israel of Jesus’ day was a nation under occupation, a culture under siege from outside forces that were trying to make Israel just another province of the Roman Empire, complete with pagan worship, secular values, and a disdain for the traditions and beliefs of their forefathers and foremothers. While Israel’s elite pandered to their foreign overlords, the Pharisees were the ones defending the faith from foreigners and straying countrymen alike.
The Pharisees were mostly middle-class, solid family-values people, who spent lots of time and effort working for God. They taught people God’s word, and how to interpret it. They stood up to foreign occupiers and their own leaders alike. They insisted that God’s Word and God’s commands were still relevant and deeply necessary for life. And, in so doing, they ran the risk of being discriminated against. They supported Jesus because he taught and preached about God, and even when they disagreed with him, they admired his ability to reach and inspire so many people.
The problem was, the Pharisees were jealous. Not of Jesus’ successes—no, that was all to God’s glory, and they counted him as one of their own. They were jealous of God’s love. After all, they had been slaving away for years—generations!—for God, in a world that was hostile to them and to the very idea that there was a God who actually cared about people enough to intervene in the world. They had stood up to hostile leaders and social forces tearing them apart. They had forgone opportunities for personal advancement and riches in order to remain true to God. They had, just like the elder brother, been working like a slave for God, and they were very aware of it.
And now this Jesus—this man of God—starts talking to tax collectors? Those stooges of the Empire, those unfaithful people who turned away from God and cheated their own people for their own personal gain? Not only that, he welcomes them? These traitorous parasites who are a manifestation of all that is wrong in the nation? And Jesus eats with them? He calls them friends? He accepts one of them—Matthew—as one of his own disciples? And all those other sinners, too, the people who have set themselves outside of God’s people by their own actions? Those thieves and murderers, those adulterers and addicts, those thugs and prostitutes, those con artists and scammers and parasites? And Jesus tells them that God loves them?
No. That is not acceptable. Not to the Pharisees. The Pharisees are the ones God loves. The Pharisees are the ones who have done the hard work and deserve the reward. These sinners don’t. These sinners are the ones who have thrown away and wasted the abundant gifts of God. These sinners have ruined lives—their own and other peoples’. These sinners have broken society, and they have hurt people. They don’t deserve God’s love. They deserve judgment. They deserve to be punished for what they have done.
So Jesus tells a story about a man who had two sons. Two sons who are very different, yet who both separate themselves from their father in different ways. The younger one is a sinner. He leaves the family behind and wastes everything he is given, until he is humbled by a famine, at which point he goes home to beg for mercy. Except he doesn’t need to beg. The father, overjoyed by the return of a beloved child he’s been worrying about for years, throws a party to celebrate and gifts the younger son with more than he could have dared hope for. The older son, also, separated himself from their father. He was a dutiful son, who did everything asked of him. And so when his brother returns, all he can see is how unfair it is—he’s the one who deserves the party, not his jerk of a brother! And so he refuses to come in. He holds his own sense of justice and righteousness more valuable than his brother’s life. And so he is angry at his father’s love. Can you blame him? He’s done all the hard work. He’s done the right thing, while his brother did everything wrong. He’s the one who deserves the reward. The father’s treatment of the younger son is unfair on every level imaginable.
Just like God’s treatment of sinners—forgiveness and welcome—is unfair on every level imaginable. Sure, it’s great and heartwarming if you’re the sinner, the younger brother, but it’s not great if you’re the righteous one, the Pharisee, the good Christian, the older brother. The whole point of grace is that it’s forgiveness for people who don’t and never can deserve it. It’s not fair. It’s unconditional love for the undeserving.
The problem is, the more we focus on fairness—the more we focus on who deserves God’s love and who doesn’t—the more we separate ourselves from God. The more we act like the older brother, the more we join him outside the party. And remember, in the Bible a feast or party is the most common metaphor for heaven. The older brother is right that it isn’t fair, but by focusing on what is or isn’t fair, he is separating himself from his father, from his entire family, and from the feast. He’s worked hard, he’s earned a celebration, and he’s keeping himself outside the gates because of his own resentment. The older brother took one look at the heavenly banquet and turned up his nose at it, because he didn’t like the guest list.
The father acts out of love. The father is more concerned with welcoming one he thought he’d lost forever than punishing him for leaving in the first place. The father loves both his sons, but he’s never needed to worry about the elder. This party is the action of one who has spent many sleepless nights staring at the ceiling and hoping and praying that his child is alive, out there, somewhere in the world. The party isn’t because the younger son deserves it; it’s because the father is so happy. He’s been happy about his older son the whole time. All this joy at the younger son’s return is spilling over at once—the joy at the older son’s goodness has been present all along, manifested in a thousand ways the older son either didn’t notice or took for granted or didn’t value. He spent all that time working for his father, and yet he doesn’t seem to value his father’s love and the gifts he’s been given. And so the older son is jealous. He resents that his father has any love for the undeserving brother. He refuses to come to the party. He refuses to come to his father. He wants his jerk of a brother gone again, or at least suitably punished. He wants everything to be all about him, even when he doesn’t need anything and his brother does.
There are two sons in this parable. One is a sinner, while the other is a good son. Yet the two are more alike than either wants to admit. Both disregard their fathers’ gifts, in different ways. Both are deeply loved by the father. Both separate themselves from their father. And the father comes out to seek both. There are many ways to separate ourselves from God. Some, like the younger son’s path, are obvious to see. Some are more insidious, like the older brother’s jealousy. Yet no matter why we separate ourselves from God, God loves us, and seeks us out. Thanks be to God.