Fourth Sunday in Lent

 

It’s impossible to say all that can be said about the Parable of the Prodigal Son in one worship hour. I remember a coffee shop in Milwaukee, near the campus of the University of Wisconsin, a popular hangout for graduate students. When I was a graduate student, my friends and I spent hours there doing nothing but drinking coffee and discussing ideas. One evening I was drawn into a conversation about this parable. It lasted into the early morning hours; in fact, it ended only because the coffee shop closed. There may have even been students who continued the conversation afterward at another venue, well into the morning hours.

 

Well, we promise not to continue this conversation into the early morning hours. Instead, we will limit our remarks to themes that we have seen in these past few Sundays—really since Lent began on Ash Wednesday. We have been seeing that we don’t choose what is good for us, but actively refuse it. What we need most, we reject. This is why we have to undergo a real change of mind, which we discovered is at the root of repentance. Life that is reconciled with God is the goal of repentance. “Be reconciled to God,” the Apostle Paul calls in our first lesson, “for in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us.” God invites us to turn to him for abundant life, which only he can give. The Parable of the Prodigal Son really brings these themes together, as we will see.

 

First, to refuse our own good—is this not seen in the lives of the two brothers? They do not realize how much they are loved. They don’t realize how great their father’s love for them is, how precious they are to him. They do not see this love and they do not choose to rest in it. And that is the source of their problems.

 

Consider the younger of the two. He wants to go out and spend his father’s inheritance. At first glance, this may not seem to us to be an act of rebellion. We consider it normal for a young man. Once he reaches a certain age, he wants his independence. He wants to see if he can make it on his own. He has hopes and dreams. “Outside the mysteries of life are beckoning, his pulses are beating, and his passions are seething. The elemental force of a healthy vitality is straining to overflow its banks. Isn’t it right to let all this get out and express itself?” to borrow the rather poetic language of the great twentieth-century German preacher Helmut Thielicke. 

 

But it’s probable that the first audience of this parable would have heard it differently. In their world, it was an insult for a son to ask his father for his share of the estate while his father was still living. It was the custom for the heirs to receive their share at the death of the father. By asking for his share now, the younger son, in effect, is telling his father to drop dead.

 

The father should have reacted with outrage and disinherited the son. He would have been within his rights. But he does not. He has to let him go into the far country. He allows him to follow the desires of his heart. Love is only love when it is free, not coerced. The father desires the love of his son. But he cannot force it; therefore, he must let him go.

 

The younger son ventures out. What motivates him? What motivates any of us? There’s a deep discontent, a restlessness, a lack that gnaws away at our insides. We go out into the far country in the expectation that we will find there that which will give us deep and lasting satisfaction.

 

I was listening to a podcast last week. The man, an accomplished writer, recounted his rebellious youth to an interviewer. Raised in the church, he came to a fork in the road in his late teens. Perhaps this is the age of the younger son. In any event, the man said: “I had to make a choice between the wholesome, nutritious spirituality on offer by the church and the fast food spirituality on offer by the world.” He went on to explain: “given the choice between what was good for me and chicken nuggets, I chose the chicken nuggets every time.” And make no mistake: “the chicken nuggets taste very good going down. But when they become a steady diet, the grease and the sodium begin to take a toll. In the end, they became profoundly dissatisfying, even to the point of making one ill.”

 

Thielicke, whom we mentioned earlier, reminds us, however, that none of those things on which the younger brother set his heart are necessarily bad. If everything he has comes from his father, how can they be? His body, which he adorns and uses, and which presumably the women in the far country loved, came from his father (and mother). His possessions, money, clothes, shoes, food, and drink—they came from the capital his father gave to him. In themselves, these are good things; otherwise the father would not have given them to him. But as he uses them, they become his undoing, because he uses them for himself, apart from the father, from whom he is now separated. “Everything that God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving to him” (1 Tim. 4:4). When we acknowledge everything we enjoy as a gift from God, then we enjoy it in the way it is meant to be enjoyed. 

 

The younger son squandered his inheritance in dissolute living. The word in the original for “dissolute” can mean wastefulness in regard to spending or lack or restraint in regard to living. (Parenthetically, it is from this word that we get the name of the parable: The Prodigal Son.) Whatever it was that his party lifestyle gave him, in the end it did not satisfy him. In fact, he is now starving, reduced to wanting to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating. 

 

And then there’s the older brother. He always stayed at home, but there’s no sense that that’s what he really wanted. We can live a drama-free life. We can follow in the well-worn grooves left to us by our parents. But if we did not self-consciously choose this path for ourselves when we started out, or if we did not own it for ourselves once we realized we were too far down the path to go back, then we will have problems later. We will develop a sense of a life “unlived” and have nagging regrets. In this light, we can say that the younger son has an advantage over his brother. We will not say that he is morally superior to him. He is, after all, the prodigal. But he self-consciously chose to leave home. And then later he made a deliberate decision to return home.   

 

The older brother is just as dissatisfied with life at home as the younger brother is in the pigsty. That comes out in his angry outburst at his father: “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command…, but when this son of your comes back…”

 

Listen carefully to his language. Notice that he never uses the words “father” and “brother.”  The younger son is willing to hire himself out as a slave to his father, but the older son has already been one. He boasts that he’s never strayed, that he’s always been the loyal son, but there’s no joy, no satisfaction. Now he accuses the father of never giving him even a goat that he may celebrate with his friends.

 

We noted that the longer we persist in our refusal of the good, the harder it becomes to recognize it and our need for it. The Bible calls this the “hardening of the heart.” The older son does not see his father as loving and generous, but rather as hard and stingy. His senses have become dulled, his perception distorted.

 

The way we live our own lives is determined by our view of God. If we have a view of God as loving and generous, then we will become loving and generous. Conversely, if we have a view of God as hard and stingy, then we will become hard and stingy. That is because as human beings we bear God’s image. The good news is that in virtue of our union with Christ through faith, God is at work renewing in us his image, so that we may reflect more and more his character as we grow, as we mature, in our faith.

 

The younger brother is on the way to faith. He came to himself. Other versions use the phrase “came to his senses.” That is to say, he repents.

 

In repentance, there is a moment of clarity. He sees clearly the state he is in. He also sees clearly that his father is good. “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger” We noted that our word “repentance” is a translation of a word that literally means “to change one’s mind.”

 

Once we repent, we see things differently. We see where we need to go. Then we turn, which is always a twofold movement. We “turn away” from the mess we have made of our lives, and we “turn towards” something better. “I will get up and go to my father…”

 

About the older son, we don’t know whether he ever came to his senses. His father said: “You are always with me, and all I have is yours,” but we don’t know if he came to his own moment of clarity, by which he might see himself as loved and his father as loving and generous. If he did, we should expect to find him waiting by the road with his father, waiting and hoping for his brother’s return (Mark A. Villano). But later, when the father throws a banquet in honor of his brother’s homecoming, he refuses to go. Here he is, surrounded by signs of his father’s love and generosity, but they have not changed him. They have not set his heart free.

 

The older son needs mercy too. He reminds us of all those who have served God faithfully and then wonder if it’s worth the trouble, when they get nothing in return. They too have to come to see that they do not have the status of slaves, but the dignity of children in the house of their father.

 

“I have sinned, I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me like one of your hired hands…” But even before he can finish his sentence, his father, filled with compassion, wraps his arms around him, and kisses him. The subsequent gestures, clothing him, giving him new shoes, placing a ring on his finger—all these confirm that he has always been considered a son, in spite of everything.

 

This illustrates a very important truth. We don’t forfeit our dignity as God’s children by what we do. Even if we have gone into the far country, God does not remove his love from us. He watches and waits. And when we come to our senses and return, he receives us with a warm embrace.

 

Pope Francis observes that this parable has become so meaningful to so many through the centuries, not least because it encourages us never to despair, never to give up. We think of the fathers and mothers who watch their children choose paths that take them down into the far country. Or of pastors and priests who wonder if their work is in vain. Or of those in prison who feel that their lives are over. Or of those who have made such a mess of their lives that they can longer can envision a future. We think of those who long for forgiveness and mercy, but believe that they do not deserve them. This parable is for them. Regardless of what we have done, we are never too far gone. We have a God who waits for us. We have a God who wants to embrace us with mercy and forgiveness. We have a God who wants to restore to us our dignity as his children.

 

“Get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.” We have said that God desires us to turn to him for abundant life. This is the goal of repentance. To describe this life, we have to rely on images. The feast is an image of abundant life. Life with God is like a table laden with the choicest foods and the finest wines.

 

No doubt the pods with which he longed to fill his own stomach is still a recent memory for the younger son. How much more did his father want for him! And if he had not turned back, he might have never discovered it! C.S. Lewis remarked that God finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because it cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

 

The parable remains open-ended. We are left in suspense. We do not know whether the sons accepted or refused the invitation to enter into the joy of their father. Whether we identify with the younger son or the older son or both, let us be sure that we enter into the house of the Father and share his joy. Amen.  

 

 

 

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