This parable of the younger son and his brother from Luke, we also know as the story of the Prodigal Son, the story of two Brothers, the story of the loving father.
At the outset, the younger son asks for and receives his portion of his inheritance and takes off for the good life across town. Once the fortune has been dissipated and wasted, he has to go to work to keep himself alive. Then he realizes his mistakes and goes home to be welcomed in love.
Why does Jesus choose to tell this story to his followers? How is it different or even similar to the story which precedes it about the sheep? What does he hope they hear in this message? And today, what is it saying to us about ourselves and our journey?
We have heard this story before over the years and know what happens and yet there are still some questions to ask about it. Are we the son who has left home, made some choices which have bankrupt him and has to face returning home in shame ?? Are we the son who stayed at home, never wandering, always faithful, yet proud and unempathetic and marking time, not fully alive.?? Are we the loving parent who divides his wealth and watches his son depart in wary trepidation, only to greet him in joy on his return?? Or at some point in our lives have we been all three characters in the story.?? Where are we now in our journey and how far have we wandered from where God would wish us to be?
At its core the tale reminds us of our human condition of self centeredness. God has given us free will to make choices, some wise, others not, but that same God who grants us freedom, welcomes us home even after making those unwise decisions. Now we might not be spending our inheritance in riotous living, or even living with pigs, but have we strayed from a path that would serve us and God better? Have we severed relationships, not nurtured loved ones, taken our feet down a road that is going nowhere? Have we taken our inheritance- brains, good looks, advantage in society and said goodbye to God, I am going my way and I don’t need you! Turned our back on our father who gave us all that we have? Or, perhaps we wither away in the darkness of life without God, not by leaving home but by dwelling in entitlement and self righteousness.
The text now gives us that glorious phrase of hope and possibility. “But when he came to himself..” some translations say came to his senses… what an image of the moment of the chance for change. “ I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me like one of your hired hands.”
We are told of God’s love for us but until we are at the bottom, fully distracted from our true path, the extent of that love it isn’t always clear. It is as if our ability to choose freedoms can take us down a path that might not be wise, but if we did not take that path, we might not recognize how fully God desires us to be near him. To come home.
We have all engaged in some sort of behavior which separates us from family, and life and God. We know that something has to change. We have to give up our selfishness and return to the family. What is needed is a change of heart to produce a change in behavior.
Years ago I thought it would be cool to become a deacon in the new order being revived by Bp Grein. I had done all the other church jobs, I spoke well, I liked the costumes and surely God would want me to make him look good in his church. I was living in the land of my own glorification and ego and wanted to expand my audience of fans. Mercifully, the folks who were helping me to discern true calls from God from static on the line, worked in this case. Oh I was crushed when we came to the conclusion that I was not ready for the calling. Are they kidding, they took Suzie Jones and not me, who is in charge , well it’s just as well I am not part of that group if that is who they take.
But from stage right entered God’s grace and with it the realization that this was just what I needed. I came to my senses, not overnight by any means, but slowly determined that the rejection from the program by wise minds. was an opportunity to develop and grow as a servant. So I ploddingly put my feet back on the road home and started to learn how to serve our Lord with my heart, not my head. For ten years I tried to shed my ego and develop my intuition and listening heart. I had no goal at the time, just service to God. Of course I was welcomed home and you can see where that led. Now I am not suggesting that this will be everyone’s story, but it is mine. God took me in his arms because he wanted me with him, as I am, nothing more or less. He wants you too. The beauty of this is that of course I am not a finished product and I am still on a journey. I can stumble around and then come to myself time and again and still be welcomed home.
We don’t hear of the difficulty the son has in making this choice to take a turn for the better. Only that the realization of the depth of his poverty, emotional and spiritual as well as physical, prompts him to remember that even being a hired servant, would be better than what he has now. He had to admit defeat. While he could not know the true scope of the father’s mercy, he still knew to trust him.
“But while he was still far off…..get the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and celebrate… for he was lost and is now found.”
While the son had promised himself that he would tell his father to treat him as a hired hand, he didn’t even get to say that to his father. He had come home and that was the only thing to dwell on, what might come next did not matter. God awaits us just as lovingly and with one word of repentance from us we can be restored to our humanity and the place in the family. If a parent can love a child so much, can’t God love us even more? Perhaps we should rest our trust in that, more deeply, rather than dwelling on our guilt. Moving back toward God is an opportunity we are given rather than lying dormant in our pain. Each step back will be full of reward and joy once we arrive.
The father’s welcome is an outpouring of grace. Because of what the returning son saw in this love from his father, his heart became fully repentant. The new relationship with his father, is a gift. The only response the son can make is I am not worthy .
“ Now the elder son…became angry and refused to go in.”
Sometimes this is us at our real selves and core. The older son who cannot forgive his brother, is also ruled by his own self centeredness and interests
You never gave me a kid, all that I have is yours,
but he lived badly, I obeyed the laws, and you will have all of this at some point.
God doesn’t follow the same logic of justice the elder son seeks. God’s heart is ruled by love and mercy, not by what might be perceived as being deserved. That is the miracle uncovered for us in this story. We cannot know until we experience it, how mighty is God’s love for us and how lacking that love is in judgment and evaluation. He just loves us, he just wants us, he is hungry for us.
Now let us rejoice in the return of one who was lost to us both.
So it seems this story is of Sin Repentance Grace and joy
While we are wandering around astray from our true selves God awaits us on the porch looking down the road for the dust of our feet making a trail back to his loving and open arms. He greets us on the road, and with one word of contrition, takes away our sins and rejoices in our return.
Is there an aspect of our lives we need to leave behind? What stumbling blocks beset us on the path? Where are the opportunities for us to leave the famine land and retrace our steps home? For when we take the road back to him, he is always ready to embrace us on our return. I had to be put in my place and leave behind my ego and pride in order to engage in becoming fully God’s.
As we come forward to take communion empty handed we walk up to the altar just as hopeful of acceptance as the lost son who returned.
If we listen, God’s voice is calling us to turn our feet from their present treadmill, and run to his warm embrace, and relieved of our burdens and sins, celebrate. Kate Braestrup suggests, “Maybe the point isn’t to know precisely where or how to find God. Maybe you just need to know the answer when God at last finds you?” We may not be able to name the distractions that separate us from God, but we know they are there and in the way. Wouldn’t it be helpful if we could just put them down on the ground and start walking home? Does that sound like party music to you? It does to me.