Tuesday, February 17, 2009
The Prodigal Son
On the Orthodox calendar, Sun., Feb. 15 was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. This is my sermon from that morning. The icon above depicts the joyful return of the son to his compassionate father.
Epistle: I Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most popular of Jesus Christ's teachings. Who among us hasn't found ourselves at one time or another in the position of the prodigal? Or the older brother? Or the forgiving father? Who among us hasn't hoped for a home to go to when our lives have fallen apart? Who hasn't opened our hearts with forgiveness to someone who is truly sorry?
The Lord's words in this parable are so applicable to our human nature. Maybe more importantly, the parable reveals more about God's nature and mystery.
God is the Lord of grace and forgiveness. We may not see that sometimes. In truth, we may look at the Old Testament and think otherwise. Was it a God of grace Who...
...expelled Adam and Eve from Eden?
...witnessed the murder of Abel and cast Cain into the wilderness?
...destroyed the earth in Noah's flood?
...ransacked Canaan with Joshua's armies?
To read the history of the Hebrews and their Jewish descendants is to wonder where God's grace and forgivenss can be found.
There are a lot of people who think this way. They see violence and injustice, despair and disease, and ask: "How can a God of love allow all this to happen?"
I'm not here to defend God because God needs no defense. He is Who He is. In the parable of the prodigal son, the Lord gives us reason to believe and an avenue to understand that He is truly the God of grace, forgiveness, and love. Jesus Christ reveals this to us, not as a defense, but as a gift.
The obvious mysteries revealed are that God accepts the repentant sinner and celebrates his return home. God gives freely to His children because they are His children, not because of their merits. God allows us to squander the gifts of life because He knows we'll discover life's true value in Him. These are the obvious lessons and they are enough for us to ponder for a long time.
However, there is more. If we settle for the obvious, we will miss the subtle, nuanced, and priceless mysteries of God's nature.
Consider the fact that the father in the parable loves equally both the repentant son and the son who never left. His estate was permitted to go to both sons, not because one was good or the other was promiscuous, but because they were both his sons. His estate was for both.
You who are parents, don't you think the father in the parable had an idea that his younger son would wander? We know our children are bound for unique and different paths. Isn't it good to know that God also knows that His children will take unique and different paths?
Some of us will never stray from God. We may have minor infractions - a cuss word here, a short cut there - but over all, some will never stray.
On the other hand, some can't seem to stop straying. Like a smoker who resolves to quit on New Year's Eve and has a smoke after breakfast on New Year's Day, some of us simply can't seem to stay on the straight and narrow.
One of the things revealed to us in this parable is this: Being God's child is merit enough. Just as Proverbs reminds us that God causes it to rain on the just and on the unjust, it is equally true that He loves all His children without favoritism and without prejudice.
The prodigal son was loved by his father even when the son couldn't love himself. Whatever else was going through the prodigal's mind, as he wandered thoughts of his father's disapproval were most certainly a regular occurance. We see it in the path he chose. At first, arrogant and proud, the son ignores his father's disapproval and seeks his inheritance anyhow. As he spent his money on loose women, drunkenness, and debauchery, he certainly thought he was undoing his father's life.
His arrogance descended to self-justification when the young man's money ran out. He must have thought, "I can make it without the old man's help."
The futility of going on his own descended to desperation, a mode of survival: "My father hasn't approved of anything I've done so far, he's not going to approve of me now."
Desperation became defeat when the son became bound to eat with the pigs in order to sustain his body.
You and I know this cycle, don't we? We have been down this same path:
It is the universal human experience when we are left to our own devices.
In much the same way, we know that God loved the son who never left, even when he couldn't love himself, either.
He, too, was arrogant, likely gloating over the obvious folly of his younger brother. Didn't his younger brother appreciate what he had at home? Couldn't he see how the father's heart would break? Certainly he, as the oldest, would never dishonor the family this way.
The older son's arrogance also descended to pride. I imagine those first few weeks without his younger brother meant that the older's chores might have shone a little brighter. Little digs at his brother's wasting life came up at family dinners. Self-justification took shape in his own mind: "I am the good son, after all."
Self-justication spun down to desperation as the older son saw his father kill the fattened calf and send his best ring and robe to the returning younger brother. What's fair about that? How could he get away with it? Didn't the father know how foolish his brother had been?
The older brother's desperation finally spun down to defeat. The tone of verse 30 is clear: he was angry, frustrated, and disgusted with his father.
The path of both sons through arrogance, pride, self-justification, desperation, and defeat is a path that I'm familiar with, and I suspect you are, too. But always remember: Being God's child is merit enough. In His infinite grace and love, God cares for both we who wander and we who stay.
Another mystery of God that Jesus Christ reveals is that God gives us freedom to exercise our own will. The younger son knew full-well that is was rude and unconventional to ask for his inheritance early. (Would you have done it?) In asking, the younger son was exercising his free will; his will to go and be contrary to what his father wanted. In spite of the younger son's determined will, the father allowed his son the latitude to go his own way.
We may understand this better when we see our own behaviors in the same light. How often do we ask for our "inheritance" from God before it's time?
We want our prayers answered now.
We want our blessing now.
We will take from God whatever we can get, not the full inheritance He intends for us.
According to verse 13, the younger son took the money and ran. Could this describe your prayer life? "Yes God, I'll take your salvation. Yes, I'll take your kindness and love. But don't bother me with anything else."
Had the younger son stayed, he would have gained the life skills and wisdom of his father. He would have witnessed the finesse of his father's business. He would have watched his father age and he would have grown as his father matured. He might have followed his father's example, with a wife and sons of his own.
The son's loss in his short-sightedness wasn't only his squandered wealth but also his squandered life. In order to exercise his own will, the son lost the benefits of witnessing his father's will complete.
We also see this in the older son. In fact, the older son had strayed. He had the opportunity to gain the life skills and wisdom of his father. He witnessed the finesse of his father's business. He watched his father age and likely had his own wife and sons.
The older son's will was revenge. His own will was favoritism. His own will was fairness.
God will not force you to follow His will. God will not violate your will in order to accomplish His will. The way to gain God's true inheritance is to pray as we do each week: "Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done..."
Finally, the last mystery we're shown is God's unfailing compassion. Notice that the Lord doesn't tell us that the father spent all his days and nights looking for his wandering son. That would have been an act of enabling. He didn't track him down, send out spies, stalk his friends and messages. The father likely knew exactly what his younger son was doing: exercising his own will.
God's compassion is free enough to allow us our own way. As I Corinthians 13 states, His compassion "is patient and kind; it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud...it keeps no record of wrongs. It does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. [God's love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres..."
Compassion is not a smothering desire to inhibit someone else. It is the action of love to be there when someone else falls.
Compassion is not a judgmental "I told you so." It is a generous "Here, let me help you."
Compassion doesn't see us covered with the soil of the pig sty; instead, it runs down the road to meet us, it brings the best robe, the brightest ring, and sets the table for a celebration.
We see God's compassion best in His own Son, Jesus Christ. In sending Christ for us, God didn't stop sin from happening in the world. He didn't make the Virgin Mary obey His will. He didn't dictate to St. Joseph the direction of the Holy Child's life.
Because God has compassion for us, He doesn't become an enabler, chasing us down, spying on us, and stalking us. He waits for us to come home, His home.
There is one Cross, not many.
There is one Calvary.
There is one Empty Tomb.
When we are lost and wandering, He draws us home by the Holy Spirit, with open arms ready to meet us.
The parable of the prodigal son is truly one of the most popular in Scripture. Through it we get a better glimpse at God's nature. We see that being a child of God is enough to merit His love and blessing. We understnad that God loves us enough to allow us to exercise our own will in spite of whatever consequences we may face. We see that God's unfailing compassion waits for us to repent to find our way to Him, to Calvary.
Who among us hasn't found ourselves in the position of the prodigal son?
Who among us hasn't hoped for a home to go when our lives have fallen apart?
Who among us hasn't hoped for forgiveness from God and man when we are truly sorry?
God is waiting for you.