4th Sunday in Lent
March 31, 2019
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
“How Does This Story End?”
Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15.
My dear friends,
So far, I have only seen 1 show at the Van Wezel; I saw some magicians back in 2018. If you’ve ever watched a good magician, the tricks will prompt you to ask, “How did he do that?” Magicians will tell you that much of what they do happens by way of distraction. If the magician can get you to look intently in one direction at what he’s doing, you won’t see what he’s doing elsewhere, and the result will leave you stunned. So, get ready for some sleight of hand as Jesus tells perhaps the greatest short story ever told – the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or the Parable of the Lost Son, the 3rd parable in a string of 3 consecutive parables.
To be “prodigal” is to recklessly waste and squander resources. The younger son does live up to that title! His request for his father to divide the inheritance was offensive, ludicrous, outlandish, and an implicit wish for his father’s death. Just as bad, he put the family’s financial health at serious risk by demanding that inheritance. Now the father has less working capital/land with which to conduct the family business.
Word of his shameful request no doubt had spread throughout the village as the younger son sold off the family’s land and possessions. The son doesn’t want land…he wants cash…liquid assets. The family is humiliated by the younger son’s offensive request followed by ridiculous squandering of all those resources through immoral living. Who of us wouldn’t think, “I hope this kid gets what he deserves!”
Jesus assures us that the young man did not escape the consequences of his foolishness. The only work he found was feeding pigs, a humiliating job for a Jew. No one, not one of his newfound party buddies, bothered to help him out, and as the audience, we celebrate his misfortune: “You got what you deserved!” If the parable had stopped there, we’d be reassured that the wheels of justice still turn efficiently.
But that’s not the end of the story…not by any means. Jesus tells us that the young man woke up. He had an epiphany; he came to his senses. “If Dad would take me back as a slave, my life would still be better than this!” So he packs his meager belongings and on the way back home begins to rehearse his apology. “Dad, I messed up. I’m not worthy to be called your son, but could you find it in your heart to give me a job as one of your hired hands?” If nothing else, we as hearers of the parable are certainly pleased that he has to “eat crow.” The prodigal son wanted pleasure, but he got pain; he wanted freedom, but he got bondage. His big plans for himself will only land him a servant’s job, if that. The magician certainly has our attention!
Then he draws our attention more forcefully. Just when you expect that dad is going to make this kid bow his face to the dirt and grovel for mercy, Jesus creates an unexpected twist: dad runs (1st century patriarchs don’t run) out to greet him as though he were the dignitary! Dad throws a filet mignon on the grill, arranges a welcome-home banquet complete with music and singing, and, in front of everyone, puts a ring (father’s) on the kid’s finger, Ecco shoes (father’s) on his feet, and a Brooks Brothers suit (father’s) on his shoulders. “Whaaat? Whoa whoa whoa. This isn’t fair!” we protest. But the magician smiles and continues. Here comes the slight of hand.
Because now it’s time to re-introduce the character with whom he knows we’ll be eager to identify: the older son. And when dad explains what all of the hoopla is about, the older son expresses his and our indignation. “Why, I’ve served you all these years. I never disobeyed you. Never gave you any grief. Yet you couldn’t even throw me a pizza party! I’m not celebrating the return of this son of yours as though he were some kind of hero. Forget it!” And we, the audience, are thinking, “Finally! Someone with a clear-thinking head on his shoulders! This clueless father needs a wake-up call, and, thankfully, the older son has the guts to say what needs to be said.” And the magician smiles even more.
“Son,” he begins. Now maybe the significance of this word escaped you because, in case you missed it, the elder son had just heaped quite an insult on his dad. “These many years I have served you,” but in Greek the word “serve” is also “slave.” “Really? That’s how you think of your generous dad—a slave master? You think I’ve treated you as just one of the hired hands? Only given you slave-quality food? Slave-quality accommodations?” And then there were the other words, “This son of yours.” “Are you saying you aren’t part of this family? Are you implying that he and you are not brothers? That you don’t have the same mother?”
But Dad has graciously chosen to ignore these insults. “Son,” he begins. And he then reassures him that this welcome home has done nothing to damage the relationship between them. “All that I have is yours. But we had to celebrate. For this brother of yours who was dead is alive, who was lost is found.” The previous 2 parables – the lost sheep and lost coin – feature celebrations not for the sheep or the coin, but for the one who found what was lost. The banquet is not a reward for the prodigal! No, it’s in honor and celebration of the father who found what was lost.
And now we know. Now we get it. The sleight-of-hand trick distracted us with this Prodigal Son stuff to sneak up on us and confront us with our own older-son sins of resentment, our own sins of begrudging forgiveness to those we don’t think deserve it, our own sinful disrespect for a Heavenly Father who continues to love us especially when we offend him and are unlovable. And thanks to his skillful storytelling, like a good magic trick we didn’t even see it coming which leaves us wondering, “how did he do that?
Speaking of which, how does the story end? The lack of an ending is intentional; how you finish it says a lot about you. If you think the older son should refuse to enter the celebration and begrudge his father’s grace, well, Jesus shakes his head in sorrow. You don’t get that you are in God’s family by the same forgiving love that sent the Father’s Son to the cross for those sinners you think are worse than you. It is fitting that those who do not forgive as they have been forgiven remain outside the party, because that’s where they will spend eternity—outside the endless celebration of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ. But those who rejoice with the angels over one sinner who had been lost but is now found will enter into the feast that knows no end.
Knowing that, so how does the story end for you? Amen.