WHICH PRODIGAL? March 18, 2007
Delivered by Jim Eby at Summit Presbyterian Church Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
There is a lighthouse on a rocky stretch of the Massachusetts coastline. It's no ordinary lighthouse. Unlike other lighthouses, it flashes a message in nautical code. The message is "I love you." Years ago, the Coast Guard tried to install new equipment in the lighthouse that would not flash any kind of message. But there was such a protest that the Coast Guard backed off. The old equipment is still there, still flashing out it's message to weary sailors: "I love you."
I wonder if those who selected the Lectionary passages years ago recognized that in this middle Sunday of Lent, as we bend under the weight of what we discover when we critically examine the difference between what we do and what we were created to be, I wonder if they realized that, like weary sailors, we need to see God's light piercing the darkness proclaiming "I love you." I can't think of a better passage to choose to declare that message more clearly than this one we have come to call the parable of the prodigal son. That's our language, of course. Jesus didn't give that label to any of the three persons involved in this episode.
If you are going to call some one of these three persons "prodigal", how are you going to choose between them? Your dictionary will tell you that prodigal means "extravagant, lavish, unrestrained."
And obviously, there is that sense of the lavish, unrestrained spending of the younger son. He can be described as being a "spendthrift." Maybe I'm just an old softie at heart, but I want to believe that young man had very good intentions when he asked for his one-third of the inheritance which would have been his when his father died. He knew his older brother would inherit the lion's share of what their father had been able to gather in land and buildings and flocks. He knew he was going to have to make it on his own some day when his father died. So, this was as good a time as any to make the break. There certainly wasn't any future for him if he stayed at home.
I want to believe he fell for one of those "get-rich-quick" schemes that lurk in ambush for the naive. He was careless of his resources and ran through his inheritance the way water runs through open fingers. His plans and intentions were good, but the didn't have the experience or maturity to carry them out. There were no real friends, no thoughtful advisors for him in that far-away country, and when the famine came, he joined the unemployment lines and searched, desperately for a job, for now he had no home and no hope.
Finally, he got a job taking care of pigs. You know how horrible that was. Jewish law said: "Cursed is he who feeds swine." That was the lowest, most degrading job there was.
But a job was better than no job, so the young spendthrift took it. And now he reaped the harvest of the wild oats he had sown.
Then in the midst of that desolation and degradation, the prodigal son, the spendthrift son, came to his senses, came to himself, as some translators put it. The light dawned as he realized that there was the possibility of returning to work at his father's house as a hired hand. When he left, he gave up all rights and privileges as a family member. But there was the possibility that he might be hired as a day laborer. Anything was better than the awful situation in which he was living.
He came to himself. Aren't those wonderful words? It was as if he had been born again. He realized that his father had no intention of having a son live this way. His father wasn't punishing him for his fool heartedness. His father cared for him, in spite of himself.
And that's the gospel for each of us. That realization of good news brought the son to the point of repentance, so that the son who had been a prodigal, a spendthrift, could become humble and return home to work as a hired hand, ready to do his father's work. He renounced his pride, he longed for forgiveness and in the doing, experienced what true repentance is all about. He was sure of his father's love for him, and that freed him to grow so he could give up his egotistical claims to sonship and could confess he was a prodigal who had no right to claim special honor or prestige. He was a prodigal best described as spendthrift.
But there was another prodigal, his older brother. We don't often think of him as a prodigal, but he was. For there is a definition of prodigal that means wasteful. And the older son was certainly that. From the first scene of the parable when he refused to be the intermediary between his little brother and his father, to his reactions to the festivities occasioned by the return of his younger brother, it's evident that he was wasteful. From his foot-stomping tantrum, it's very apparent he had no real understanding of the full meaning of sonship and family and community and forgiveness. He had lived all those years with his father and had wasted the opportunities to learn what real sonship was all about. Instead of growing to understand the partnership into which his father invited him, the older son saw himself involved in slavery. He had fallen into the trap of believing he could buy his father's love with the coin of dutiful work. He had wasted the opportunities to see love in action, and now as the useless younger brother arrived back on the homestead, he chose to cut himself off from the reunion and celebration. Instead he chose to play the game of "poor me".
When the opportunity presented itself to love, to forgive, to celebrate, he was unable to do any of them. His anger even cut him off from his father as he snarled, "What have you given me?" His contempt and stone-heartedness cuts him off from his brother as he spits out the words: "But when this on of yours wasted all his property on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him!" The older, wasteful, prodigal son, can't even say "my brother"; he says 'your son", and introduces the accusation against the spendthrift when he suggests he must have spent all his money on prostitutes. The older prodigal son chooses to look for the bad in life and chooses to place his hurt feelings first and wastes yet another opportunity to grow in the understanding of the power of love.
One son is spendthrift. The other prodigal son is wasteful. But the parable isn't really about either of them, even though we see so much of ourselves in them. Do you remember the way Jesus introduced the parable? "There was a man who had two sons...." The parable is about the father, it's about the third prodigal who lives out the full meaning of the word prodigal which is that of extravagance. And the father in the parable was certainly that, wasn't he?
He was extravagant when he said "Yes" to his son's request for his share of the inheritance. The father was still living and the son asked him to act like he was dead. The father loved his second son so much he entrusted to him one-third of all that belonged to them as a family. And I believe he experienced a broken heart when the son left.
It was that broken heart that caused him to look with hope each day until the wonderful day finally did arrive. It was that broken heart that sent him on that very undignified scurry out to meet the figure that was dressed in rags. It was that love that can only come from an extravagantly loving person that prompted him to tell the family servant to bring his best robe and put his shoes on the bare feet and put his ring on the son's finger. All was forgiven. The son was reinstated as a full member of the family. Forgiveness was lovingly and extravagantly poured out.
And did you pick up on the father's loving response to the older, envious, petulant son? He wasn't willing for that son to be left outside the family circle as they celebrated. And he didn't send a servant to go out with his command that the older son present himself front and center. He himself went out, again, I think, with a broken heart, to seek the other son who was still lost, still estranged.
To both sons, the father gladly turns his heart and his home inside out. Nothing is held back; there is nothing asked as a condition or a contract. The love that is poured out is the love found only in a covenantal relationship. The father has extravagant forgiveness for the spendthrift son, even before it is requested -- and he gives it. The father has extravagant understanding and patience for the wasteful son, even before it's appreciated or requested, and he expresses it, hoping this will be the occasion for new understanding and new life and a new relationship of love and sonship.
Jesus leaves us with that scene of the father inviting the son he loves to come in a share in the celebration. I can imagine the father's right hand outstretched, palm up, waiting for the other son he loves to take his hand and come on in. What do you suppose happened?
Can you see the hand that God extends to you, outstretched, palm up, waiting for you to leave behind anything that would keep you from celebrating? And can you see that you are meant to put your hand in that hand, and then turn and stretch out your hand to another, to bring them into the family celebration of a parent who loves us all so much that our parent stands waiting for us to come to our selves and come home?
That is what evangelism is all about. Holding out your hand to another as you hold on to the hand of the one who loves you with a love that passes understanding, a love that will not let you go regardless of your prodigality. Evangelism is something about which you can be prodigal.
Look around you and see who needs to have your outstretched, open hand reaching out to them as a prodigal, one who is lavish in your concern for them. Invite someone to come join you for worship during Holy Week. Invite them to experience with you the acclamation of Palm Sunday, the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, the agony of the Black Friday we call Good. And then be sure they are here with you on Easter morning as we celebrate the awesome love and power of God that overcomes all that could destroy us. Why not invite those you love most? The worst thing they can do is say "No", and that's not life threatening.
The God who is lavishly, extravagantly prodigal, stands with hand outstretched. It is outstretched to those of us who are spend thrift, to those of us who are wasteful, and to those of us who are both. We need not stand outside all alone. The invitation is there for us to go in and take our place at the table with other forgiven sinners who are united with us by our relationship to one loving father, who refuses to give us the love we deserve, but cannot be prevented from giving us the love we need.
Dare we refuse? Let's hear and accept that invitation to become the joyful, forgiven, reconciled, extravagant children we are meant to be.
God, our Father, we give you thanks for the extravagant love you have demonstrated in Jesus, and for the way you patiently await the time when we will come to our senses and return to the kingdom work you have given us. Convict us of our spendthriftness and our wastefulness, so we can respond with repentance that leads to new life. In the name of our Savior we ask it. Amen.