Homily for 3.10.13
Fourth Sunday in Lent
LUKE 15:1-3, 11-32
The Lectionary Reading for this, the fourth Sunday of Lent, offers us a preacher's paradise. How else can one describe Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son other than biblical material for which homilists dream.
We should add that this is obviously an extremely appropriate pericope for the Lenten Season, as well. If Lent is about a soul-searching return to the LORD, and if it concerns the call for the Son to again become the first-love of our hearts, there is no more fertile textural ground on which to till such a harvest.
However, to find the Lenten homily in this story, we must first discover Jesus' intention for the parable. And to do that we must see it both in its immediate context - it is one of three parables that Jesus tells (the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son), and we must see the occasion for Jesus speaking these parables in the first place, which the texts provided:
"Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such despicable people -- even eating with them! So Jesus used this illustration..."(Luke 15:1-3)
The context of the parable means us to know that Jesus had come to reclaim GOD's good world now marred by sin, and that his reclamation project included those whom the religious leaders deemed unworthy -- the sinners. Therefore, we must somehow come to see that GOD, the Father Almighty, looks on sinners as wayward sons, and that these sinners include both those who walk away and those who stay at home!
THE FATHER'S LOVE & THE FATHER'S JUDGEMENT
Having said that, we would add that the Prodigal parable never fails to astound. First, the younger son's request astounds us for it is tantamount to wishing his father dead:
A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
Kenneth Bailey, in his book, Poet & Peasant tells us:
"For over fifteen years I have been asking people from all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son's request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same...
'Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?'
'Could anyone ever make such a request?'
'If anyone ever did, what would happen?'
'His father would beat him, of course!'
'This request means -- he wants his father to die!'" (pg.160-161)
This means that the father's response is all the more remarkable as the wish of his son is granted. Bailey goes on to say that the older son, although not mentioned at this point of the story, is culpable because there is no reference to an attempt to reconcile the father and the younger son. This is an interesting thought.
But, notice, the love of the father is displayed by allowing the son his inheritance and his leave. And the father's judgement is displayed as well, for the father loves the son so much that he allows him to walk away from the safety of home into the exposure of the false-self and homelessness.
This tells us that GOD loves us so much that our freedom will not be violated, even though our decisions will move us to heartache and estrangement. This may be the greatest love of all, for what father moves against his own child by allowing them to self-destruct, and yet the Almighty allows just such a movement! Perhaps the writer of the Book of Hebrews can help us here:
5 And have you entirely forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you, his children? He said, "My child, don't ignore it when the Lord disciplines you, and don't be discouraged when he corrects you. 6 For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes those he accepts as his children." 7 As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Whoever heard of a child who was never disciplined? 8 If God doesn't discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children after all. 9 Since we respect our earthly fathers who disciplined us, should we not all the more cheerfully submit to the discipline of our heavenly Father and live forever ? 10 For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God's discipline is always right and good for us because it means we will share in his holiness. 11 No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening -- it is painful! But afterward there will be a quiet harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. (Hebrews 12:5-11)
THE DISCIPLE'S CONTRITION AND REPENTANCE
But, you do see, of course, that this heartache and this exposure to the false-self is just what the younger son needed. How else would he know the sinfulness of his own heart? How else would he know the willingness of his father to receive him even after squandering his inheritance through dissipation, which is a wasteful consumption.
The text tells us how it went for him:
“When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger.”
The key thought for our purposes is when we are told that the son came "to his senses," which offers us a unique look at selfishness and the life of the false-self, understanding it as a form of losing one's senses. His hunger and homelessness prompts him to return to his senses. He remembers life with the father, but could he go home? So many bridges had been burned.
It is at this point that contrition and repentance sting his wayward heart:
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
Please note that I have chosen the words contrition and repentance with care. Contrition is a bruising, a true, godly sorrow for my genuine sinful acts. Contrition is born in a godly, sorrowful understanding, for I now find an appreciation that what I've done by my own free will in choosing the wrong way and the wrong path has caused suffering not just to myself, but also and especially to my Redeemer. This means the story is mainly about GOD and not just about a wayward son!
Repentance is my true turning away from selfishness and the false-self, and turning toward the Father and the work of the Redeemer. Repentance is a change of mind and heart that leads to a change of actions and behavior.
Notice, contrition and repentance moves the attention away from ourselves and on the LORD who loves us and who has given himself for us. Contrition and repentance place the focus on the LORD, where it belongs, and his love and his work of forgiveness on our behalf. Or, said differently, godly contrition leads to repentance, repentance leads to confession, and confession leads to forgiveness and a renewal, a homecoming and a return to the world as GOD intended.
WALKING AWAY AND WALKING HOME
Finally, take note how the text reads:
So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
As I said at the beginning, this is a perfect tone for the Lenten season. The son must make the move to return. The son must move toward the father, this is the only way it will work for the son is the one who disdained his father and his older brother. And so it is with us. We, too, must walk away from the false-self, the selfishness of the false life, and return home by the Father's grace.
I need not imagine the bitter walk home the younger son makes, for I've been on that road of return. I know the sadness of failure and the grief of return. Here, I'm reminded of the old invitation hymn:
I’ve wandered far away from God,
Now I’m coming home;
The paths of sin too long I’ve trod,
Lord, I’m coming home.
My soul is sick, my heart is sore,
Now I’m coming home;
My strength renew, my hope restore:
Lord, I’m coming home.
Coming home, coming home,
Nevermore to roam;
Open wide Thine arms of love;
Lord, I’m coming home.
But notice, as the son bitterly journeys home the father is on the look out for him, rushes to greet him, and joyfully restores him to the family. This is amazing love, unheard of really. But this is just how it is with us. The Father, ever on watch for our return, seems to love to party over his repenting children, so precious are they to him.
We must ask what better way to experience this Lent, but by finding in ourselves a contrite and repentant heart, and by returning to the waiting heavenly Father, who never once wrote us off, who never once gave us up as lost.
If we could ever realize the steadfast love of the Father for his good world now marred by greed and violence and hate and sickness, and how this brokenness grieves him who is love from first to last; if we could ever come to grips with the truth that the Father moves toward us with the constant tug of a truth and hope that calls us back toward himself and home, and that we walk to that far country only to our own selfish destruction; and, if we could ever understand that the intention of the Father is the restoration of his good world -- including this broken humanity in which his love caused him to become a part, then perhaps we could grasp the how the Father's love for us sees beyond our sin and the false-self to the glorious moment when paradise is restored and when we are then before him in love and glory as he intended all along.
LUKE 15:1-3, 11-32
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them Jesus addressed this parable:
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”