Sermon; Lent 4C; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The parable of the prodigal son is one of those parables that only occurs in Luke. It is one of those stories that has become so familiar that we sometimes miss what is being said. It's so familiar that we have to work to hear the story afresh, because we know it so well. Young, foolish son demands his inheritance. Leaves Podunk farm town for the big city. Spends all his money on sex and drugs and rock and roll. Gets a job slopping pigs. Comes to his sense when the pig slop looks appetizing. Goes home. Dad throws a party. Older son is resentful.
I think we tend to focus on the young son's actions and the overwhelming generous grace given by the father. We see ourselves as the younger son who has sinned – maybe not to that extent, but we have sinned. If we are honest, we know we sin on a daily basis in things done and left undone. So we recognize that and we repent, we ask forgiveness, and God the Father welcomes us back into his household with rejoicing. I'm reminded of the words in the final paragraph of the reconciliation rite (confession): “Now there is rejoicing in heaven.”
We sin. We repent. There is rejoicing. All has been made right again. While this is a good starting point – recognizing our sinful behaviors and the need for repentance as well as a need for forgiveness – it's not the be all and end all of the story.
Jesus told this parable in response to attacks on his character. Specifically that he not only welcomed sinners and tax collectors, but that he ate with them. In other words, his crime was to treat outcasts, those not like us, like us. He wanted to welcome the wrong people into the household of God.
While repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation are an obviously big part of this story, so is the unwillingness to recognize that those not like us are probably more like us than we care to admit. We are very good about seeing the sins of others while missing our own. We are very good at forgetting that everyone is a sinner – including us. Repentance and forgiveness are therefore important to practice.
But I think there's another aspect to this parable that we overlook and that's the ending. Maybe the reason we overlook it is because it hits too close to home.
The older brother heard the sounds of music and dancing coming from the house and asked what was going on. He was told, “Your brother has come and your father has thrown a celebration.” And he became angry and refused to go in.
When the father came out to beg him to come in, the son said, “I have been faithful to you all these years, never disobeying you, and you have never thrown a party for me. But when this son of yours who spent your fortune on drugs and prostitutes returns, you celebrate and give him all the best things.”
The father replied, “Son, all that is mine is yours. But we celebrate because this brother of yours was dead and now lives, was lost, and is found.”
Did you catch that? The older son was upset that the younger son did not live the life of which the elder approved. He then pawned off any relationship to him by calling him, “this son of YOURS.” But the father reminded him that he already had all that could be given and that YOUR brother resides once more in the land of the living. As the words of Eucharistic Prayer B say, “In him you have brought us . . . out of death into life.”
I'm convinced that this parable was told to the Pharisees not to remind them of repentance and forgiveness, but to show them they were the older brother who chooses not to accept the younger brother. The Pharisees saw themselves as the faithful servants or faithful children who never strayed, working for God and following the commandments. They were the faithful older brother. Now they were faced with allowing sinners and tax collectors into the household of God. Now they were having to deal with a God who welcomed people who had spent their lives wasting their inheritance and living selfishly and foolishly.
As time rolled on, this parable could be told to the Church. We have become the older brother. We have become the ones who resent the inclusion of sinners and tax collectors. We are the ones who have lived clean, faithful lives and are upset that those other people are welcomed without being punished.
The attack on Jesus was twofold: he welcomes sinners and tax collectors AND he eats with them.
For the record, I think we do a good job of welcoming people here. We have friendly faces at the doors. We help guide them through the service if needed. We invite people to coffee hour (COVID aside). In general, we do the first thing well. But it's the second thing where we have problems; and it's not just us, because this happens everywhere.
This eating with people is difficult. It implies getting to know them. It means taking time to learn about them and build a relationship with them. It means letting them into our lives. We do a good job welcoming people – we could do a better job at integrating them into the life of the parish. We could do a better job at not just saying, “Welcome – we're glad you are here,” but saying, “How can we include you this family?”
We are beginning to come out of a long pandemic. We are cautiously putting the dark days of COVID behind us. As we do that we will see people we've never seen before or whom we haven't seen in a long time. Our job is to not be the older brother. Our job is not to ask where they've been all this time. Our job is not to remind them that we have been faithfully working while they've been elsewhere. Instead, our job is to be the father. Our job is to happily welcome those people into God's house. Our job is to eat with them, share stories with them, and bring them home with joy into our doors so that they are no longer visitors but are our brothers and sisters.
The parable of the prodigal son, or of the resentful brother, or of the joyful father, is a parable originally told to the religious leaders of the day. In today's world, it is a parable told to the Church. But here's the thing about parables: they can be reflections on the way things are, and they can also be cautionary tales providing a basis for change.
May this parable always remind us to live as the father lived: eagerly awaiting the return of those who have been elsewhere, and to joyfully celebrate when they come home.
So to all of you here today, both online and onsite, to our long-time brothers and sisters and to those who have just arrived: Welcome Home.