4th Sunday in Lent
March 7, 2016
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
“The Greatest Play Ever”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today is the Gospel lesson previously read from Luke 15, what you probably know and love as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
Back in “the day” when my knees were still good and I still had some hair, I did a lot of acting. I played the role of a Bishop once in our high school’s production of “See How They Run.” In high school I also “trod the boards” with roles as a vampire hunter, a drunken Irishman, and a small-time crook. In college productions I have played the parts of a radio technician, a landlord, and a hot-to-trot real estate agent. The last role I had in a play was as an old witch…no kidding. I have had roles in cheesy high school productions, big-time college productions, and even community theatre productions. But never, NEVER, have I been a part of something as great as what we have before us today in the Gospel lesson.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is like a great play; a production that has story twists and turns and great characters and an ending so shocking that people are STILL talking about it 2000 years later! Let’s remember the context before the curtain rises on the greatest play ever. Jesus was teaching publicly when he was surrounded by tax collectors and “sinners,” much to the ire of the Pharisees in their midst. In response to their grumbling about the presence of these “sinners” and Jesus’ association with them, Jesus tells three parables, and we have before us today the 3rd one: the greatest play ever – the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Ssshh! (whisper) It’s starting…be quiet. And…lights come up.
As Act I opens, we meet the youngest son of a man who makes a wild request. He wants his portion of his inheritance. There’s just one simple problem…the father is not dead yet! Talk about greed! Talk about boldness! In the 1st century Jewish culture, the oldest son got a larger share of the inheritance and the younger son had less say in the matter, but this younger one wants his share and he wants it NOW! How dare he ask for his share while his father is still living! This is deplorable behavior! There is no way the father will go for this, right? But as Act I draws to a close, we are stunned – SHOCKED – to see that the father has agreed to this ridiculous deal! As the curtain falls, we see the Prodigal Son rushing off to a distant land with money just burning a hole in his pocket.
As the curtain rises on Act II, we see that youngest son again in a far-away country. We find out later (v. 30) where much of that money went, and it wasn’t for Girl Scout cookies…know what I mean? Anyway, the Prodigal – which means “reckless” – Son in Act II has lived up to his name. He has wasted away his inheritance. He began to be in need (v. 14), that is, he needed food and money. That’s not good…but to add even more drama, a famine hits the land.
Recap: he’s got no food, no money, and he’s far from home. His only option was to get a job feeding pigs. One of my favorite shows on TV is “Dirty Jobs.” “Dirty Jobs” is about the men and women who do the real nasty jobs that others will not do. Believe me…feeding pigs in the 1st century would have been the ultimate “dirty job.” To a Jew, a pig is the dirtiest, filthiest creature there is, but the Prodigal Son spends his days feeding them and wishing he could eat their food. As Act II draws to a close, things don’t look good for the “hero” of the greatest play ever thus far.
When the curtain comes up for Act III, we see that the Prodigal Son has “come to his senses.” That’s actually an English translation of a very awkward phrase in the Greek. Literally he “came unto himself,” whatever that means. He realized that he had foolishly abandoned his family and that he had sinned against heaven by his foolish behavior. Why would he stay there and be starving? Why not go back home? Aah…but how would he be received? The plot thickens; the drama intensifies! Getting up (v. 20), he left that crummy job to go back to his father…but what would his homecoming be like? And now we stretch for the intermission.
During this little intermission break – don’t worry, Act IV is coming – let’s consider the bigger picture of the parable so far. Even as the prodigal son always had the option of repenting and returning home to his father, so all sinners have the option to repent and turn to God in repentance and faith. This is why Jesus had no problem being with tax collectors and “sinners.” Like the prodigal son, they too need God’s forgiveness and grace in the face of their foolish past behavior. Okay…the lights have gone back down. Sssshh!
Act IV opens to the moment we’ve been waiting for. How will the father welcome him back? Will he have to pay the price for his reckless behavior? Before we can even contemplate an answer, we get an answer. The father, upon seeing his younger son returning, takes off and RUNS – scandalous behavior for the patriarch of a family! – in order to welcome the son back. This is amazing love and patience shown to an ungrateful child! By rights, the son should have been yelled at or punished or something! But that’s not the case. The father welcomes him back as a full son giving him clothes and a ring and sandals and a feast. Talk about grace! As Act IV ends we think everything is resolved, right; “and they lived happily ever after?” Oh no…there’s still one more act to go.
Like other parables, the Parable of the Prodigal Son has a higher, heavenly meaning. God the Father is yearning, looking, and eager for our return. 1 Timothy 2:4 says, “(God) wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” God is so eager to restore us that He comes to us. We don’t come to Him: John 6:44 says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” The bigger picture is that we, like the Prodigal Son, have sinned and need forgiveness from our heavenly Father. He offers it because He is gracious and loving and merciful. The price for this forgiveness was the body and blood of Jesus Christ which was lovingly given and shed for us. Without that sacrifice, we’d still be stuck in the sinful mud and muck of our lives feeding pea pods to pigs. But God calls us unto Himself that we be saved and have the promise of life everlasting.
When considering the “greatest play ever,” you CANNOT forget the final act. When Act V begins, we see the reaction of the oldest son, and he’s furious! Why this big commotion for that loser? The oldest son was grumbling and mumbling about the whole situation…just like someone else we know. Remember how today’s Gospel lesson began? “The Pharisees and the teachers of-the law grumbled, this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” Even as the older brother should not have begrudged his brother’s reinstatement into the family but rejoiced in it, so those who claim to be God’s people should be glad when He extends His grace to all. That was NOT the stance of the Pharisees. And that’s why Jesus provided the plot for the “greatest play ever.” Notice there is no happy ending to the parable. It was up to the Pharisees – it’s up to us – to make the ending happy.
Does that ever happen here? Do we ever grumble or mumble about this or that or another person…a person that God loves and that Christ died to redeem? Do we ever resent what God has done or is doing for someone else? God loves His people and He seeks to find those who cannot find or save themselves. Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution? The curtain may have fallen on the “greatest play ever,” but Act I is about to begin again, and this time YOU’RE the star in your own life production. What kind of ending can you help provide with the call and help of the Lord each day? Sssshh! It’s about to begin. Break a leg out there, my friends! And…action!