The Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 6th, 2016
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
How we see the world determines our reality.
From the proverbial dilemma between whether the glass is half empty or half full, to the partisan perspectives that dominate the news cycle during election season, so much depends on the way we see the world and our place in it.
Today we have the great fortune of exploring one of the most memorable and famous parables that Jesus ever tells.
It is known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, though it could just as easily go by other names.
The Parable of the Forgiving Father.
The Parable of the Resentful Brother.
The Parable of humanity’s struggle to receive God’s grace.
There are so many themes that cut across this parable, which is part of his popular appeal.
However today, I want to raise up the intersection between human free will, divine love, and relationship perspectives.
To begin let’s explore the immediate context in which this parable is offered.
Jesus’ public ministry has grown in fame and reputation, and the rejected masses, represented by tax collectors and sinners, are coming to him in hopes of sharing in this new kingdom he is proclaiming.
Having been shut out of the kingdom by the guards of religion, the Pharisees, and turned away by the increasingly limited, angry, and Roman-accommodating God they peddled, news of a man who could forgive sins and proclaimed a kingdom of acceptance must have been welcome news indeed to these rejects.
Imagine how hungry they all must have been for something real and for a renewed life beyond the condemnation and prison of their societal sins.
And imagine how much of a stake the scribes and Pharisees had in maintaining the categories of sin that marked some as undeserving of God’s blessing, and others as deserving.
Such categories are the ways governments keep law and order, control an unwieldy populace, and pass on social mores and norms.
As keepers of the religious tradition and those responsible for negotiating the tenuous balance with the pagan Roman rulers, I can see how the Pharisees and scribes might view such all-encompassing grace as a threat.
But the genius of the parable, is that Jesus describes how in God’s kingdom, unlike the world of the empire, both sinner and saint are bound to each other and have need of each other.
They are not so easily divisible into stark categories as the Pharisees presumed.
Both sons fall short of the glory of God the Father, but the path of reconciliation is different for each.
I can not stress enough how important I find the relational language embedded within this parable.
“There was a man who had two sons.”
From the first line, the bonds that matter most in the parable are established.
There is parity between the two sons, and neither is more or less beloved than the other.
But both sons have a hard time accepting the fullness of the kingdom their Father provides.
In the younger one’s case, the representative of all those straying tax collectors and sinners, he believes that life away from the Father will be more fulfilling than life at home.
And in asking for his inheritance up front in order to begin this life of separation and self-determination, the younger son in effect tells the Father, “I wish you were dead so I could finally just do what I want.”
Miraculously, the Father complies with his request, letting the younger son go his own way.
That is the first sign of divine love…love so convinced that free will is the only ground in which the tree of love and life can grow…that it is willing to self sacrifice and shoulder the pain of being wished dead…rather than limit our ability to choose.
Even when it is well aware that we are choosing poorly.
As we see, things don’t turn out so well for the younger son.
Life in the real world is often more cruel and difficult than we can bear.
Finally the younger son reaches his low…a good Jewish boy longing to eat hog slop because he is starved and desperate.
Who among us cannot identify with the younger son?
We know what it is like to fail and to flounder, and know the shame that accompanies us “coming to our senses” and realizing that we have come to a crossroads where we must make a change or die.
But the estrangement of the younger son doesn’t end with his failings in a foreign land.
He also underestimates the character and love of the Father in his attempt to return.
The prodigal son comes up with this elaborate plea for mercy, whose capstone statement is, “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”
I don’t doubt that the younger son, the tax collector, the prostitute, and all other manner of disgraced sinner feel unworthy of God’s love and kingdom.
If I am honest, I have believed this lie myself at times.
But the same divine love that allowed free will to reign, cares so little for retributive punishment, but rather the joy and celebration of a renewed relationship…a new Covenant we might even say…that it cannot even wait for the repentant sinner to utter this carefully rehearsed speech.
Divine Love reaches out… goes out beyond its own comfort zone and safe space to restore right relationship.
Instead of a reprimand, the prodigal son receives an embrace. Instead of a cold shoulder the returning son receives a party.
That is the priority of the God we love, follow, and worship.
Reconciliation. Return. Renewal.
But as I said earlier, both sons of the man are in need of such healing.
I am always pained and struck by the image of the older son waiting in the outer darkness, perhaps weeping and gnashing his teeth, while the sounds and light of the party call out to him from the open windows of the home he’s always lived in, but has never truly known.
Can you see him there in the shadows as I can?
His dutiful approach to the estate of his Father has left him with an inability to recognize why the kingdom exists in the first place.
And instead of a lost brother who has returned, he sees a spoiled free-loader who stole half his inheritance and whom he can’t believe his Father accepts back as a son after what he did.
“This son of yours.”
The Father goes out to the older son as well.
Leaves the lights of the party, reaches out to him too, and asks him to let go of that which prevents him from joining the celebration.
Begs him to rejoice and embrace life, rather than hold to a line of thinking and reckoning that keeps him from it.
The older brother is just as lost and just as dead as the younger one ever was.
But, until he recognizes that “this brother of yours’” return is worth celebrating, he cannot truly fathom the love, grace, and richness of the kingdom his Father is passing on to him.
Lent is a time to explore our spiritual motivations and assumptions…to get to the roots of our faith and make sure the tree of love and life that God plants in each of us has fertile soil in which to grow.
How are you being called to enter into kingdom this week?
Have you been too long in a foreign land and need to come back home?
Have you been at home so long that you’ve forgotten what home is all about?
Or have you been so blessed and enriched by the relationships and richness of the kingdom you have been called to proclaim that you can do nothing but go out….to reach out…and take the celebration and party to those who for various reasons feel undeserving of it?
Take time this week and season to find out.
Because in our response, we will discover the true nature of the Gospel in which we believe.