An Opportunity to Come Home
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 30, 31, 2019
We are more than halfway through the season of Lent. We continue to consider variations of the theme “Opportunity.” We have thought about tempting and fruitful opportunities. Today we will remember that because of God’s love and grace, we always have the opportunity to come “home.” But, there is a problem and challenge for us.
Today’s story is so familiar that we can’t hear it anymore. Jesus begins: “There was a man who had two sons…” Verse 11 makes our eyes begin to glaze over.By the time we get to verse 32 we may be asleep.
So, I’m not even going to read it to you.
Can we really “hear” this story again? You know, the one about the young guy who gets an advance on his inheritance—not to get into a prestigious university…But to waste it all in “dissolute,” degenerate, depraved living? Then that severe famine hits and he no longer lives high on the hog—but ironically ends up having to dine with the swine. A lot of us think he gets what he deserves…but Jesus doesn’t.
He keeps the story going—lest any of us revel in self-righteousness—and Jesus seems to think people can change. The young man “comes to himself” and chooses to go home. He is ready to confess his waywardness and accept whatever place and well-deserved punishment his father gives him. We can’t forget the father’s reaction—it is flabbergasting!? The son humbles himself and says: “I have really messed things up with God and you. I am not worthy to be called your son.” Jesus also seems to believe in forgiveness, so he continues to tell us about the father’s overwhelming joy and compassion. The father becomes the true prodigal—the one who profusely gives rich, undeserved blessings—for the second time!
CAN WE REALLY “HEAR” THIS STORY AGAIN?
Let me ask you a few questions…
- How many of you are the oldest child in your family?
- How many of you are the youngest child in your family?
- Older ones, have you ever felt like your younger siblings got away with things you never could have done?
Parents, do we tend to be firmer with the first one? It’s natural and normal—we want to get it right. We play classical music to them in the womb. We sterilize everything with which they come in contact.
We use flash cards, educational videos, foreign language lessons, sign language—anything to help them be whiz kids in school. Then, we have a tendency to relax a bit with the second child.
They are tougher and more resilient than we thought. “Oh, that fell on the floor? Just stick it back in your mouth.” “Go to bed right now or I’m going to count to five…thousand.” Studies show that first-borns get pleasure from pleasing parents, while younger children tend to be more free-spirited.
SO, WITH WHOM DO YOU IDENTIFY IN THE PARABLE?
How many of you can relate to…The younger son? The older son? The father? The fatted calf? I had a friend who used to choose that last one. He felt like he was always being asked to make sacrifices in relationships so other people could have a good time! That’s an interesting perspective—but a whole different sermon.
Or maybe this parable is just supposed to point us to God?
If this father is a stand-in for God, then we have to wrestle with some pretty challenging, difficult theological questions. We sing “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” and “Amazing Grace”—but can it really be that wide and that amazing? Is God’s love really this extravagant, excessive and scandalous?
Well, there is certainly nothing new about the scandalous. It’s as old as the Garden of Eden and new as today’s news. We are bombarded with stories of scandal and shame every day. Politicians, performers, pastors and priests…the list goes on and on. So…perhaps scandal and salvation should be the church’s alternative? These stories from Luke during Lent describe a Scandalous God. But it is God’s scandal of love and forgiveness that stretch the limits of our comprehension and may seem outrageous. God continues to surprise and shock us at every turn. And sometimes we catch glimpses of that in God’s people.
In the midst of the scandal of the epidemic of senseless shootings and uncontrollable guns, we are sometimes blown away by the responses of the families. After one tragedy, a family offered forgiveness within hours. It will not surprise you that there were mixed reactions. One reporter said: “Hatred is not always wrong and forgiveness is not always deserved—how dare you forgive the killer.” But another journalist wrote: “Your love has helped to provide some healing we so desperately need; your compassion will reach beyond our community and help to change our world.”
I read a moving story about a teenager from Traverse City. She ran away from home and landed on the streets of Detroit. She soon found herself trying to survive—making money by selling herself—and spending it to keep the drugs coming. She became ill and recalled the innocence of her youth. She left a message on her parents’ answering machine. “Dad, Mom, I was wondering about coming home.” “I’m catching a bus up your way and should get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there—I will understand. I’ll just stay on the bus and go on to Canada.” During the bus ride she was consumed by doubt and fear.
“What if they didn’t get the message? Maybe she should have waited to hear back from them?” But she was able to collect her fears and rehearse her apology. She got off the bus and anxiously walked into the terminal.
She was shocked—not only to be greeted by her parents, but 50 other relatives and friends holding a “Welcome Home” banner.
DO WE NEED TO READ THIS STORY AGAIN?
We know how the story begins, progresses, and ends. The surprising reaction of the father is no longer a surprise. The response of the brother doesn’t catch us off guard. We may know it by heart, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that growing numbers of people have never heard it.
When we consider the tragic trends in our society of increased loneliness, depression, broken relationships and suicide…
When so many parents and children are separated for far too many reasons…
We have to remember to keep telling this story. Some of us know what it’s like to be the prodigal. There are things we deeply regret—times when we have let our parents down, times when we’ve let our spouses down, times when we’ve let family or friends or even God down. Even now, we may worry about the consequences of our past actions. But even so, there is a place at God’s Table—we are still God’s children regardless of where we’ve been or what we’ve done.
Some of us know what it’s like to go astray. Maybe we haven’t made a complete mess of our lives like the younger son—perhaps we simply wandered away from God? And some of us know what it’s like to be the older brother. Perhaps we have looked down on—even despised—those whose lives have not measured up to our expectations? Sometimes we pass judgment and get puffed up with pride. Perhaps we are not as Christ-like as we try to pretend?
So, is it possible that the bottom line—the Good News—is that we’re all prodigal people who are loved by a prodigal God? We get lost—whether we’ve turned our back on God or our sisters and brothers or sat in judgment of others. But there is one thing we need to realize. When we turn our hearts toward home, God is waiting. God says: “Let’s celebrate! You were lost—but you’re here!” God says to us, for the zillionth time, “I love you!” And Jesus, our older brother, says, “Welcome home.”
SHOULD WE READ THIS STORY AGAIN?
These questions and this parable stirred some memories of our own children—and some things we are seeing in our grandboys. Have you ever had the experience of trying to slip something by a sleepy child when you’re reading a book at bedtime? I tried on numerous occasions when our children were young. I would think: “I’m exhausted—and she’s just about asleep. I’ll just skip over that part about the pig that built the house of sticks and get on to the house of bricks.” And when I tried—I would inevitably get caught! My kiddo would say: “No, stop. You skipped a part!” Even though the story was incredibly familiar, our children were not comforted and at peace until the whole story was told.
This powerful parable of the prodigal has become a little like that for many of us—it is almost like an affirmation of faith about God. Some call it the greatest short story ever told. It is a story we like to hear again and again and again. It’s a celebration of the love of God for prodigal people. It is one of the treasured tales of the Gospel that has been lovingly passed along from generation to generation. And now it is time for the next generation to read it. Now it is time for a new generation to hear it. “There was a man who had two sons…”