Prodigal Son

The Elder Brother

Luke 15:11-32

If you’ve been to church much, you’ve heard the basic story of the prodigal son. The younger brother essentially says, “Dad, I wish you were dead, give me my inheritance.” Surprisingly, Dad complies.

The younger brother then runs off and squanders the money. (Thus, the description “prodigal.” For a time, the younger brother lived prodigiously, spending his newfound resources as if they had no end, like the stereotypical drunken sailor on leave.)

Finding himself feeding pigs to make a living, he decides to go home and at least be Dad’s servant. Instead, Dad greets him as the child for whom he has longed, restoring the wild boy’s status as son and throwing him a party.

The final twist: The elder, loyal son, the one who never left home, is really, really angered, complaining bitterly to dear old Dad.

It’s in the exchange of complaint and response between the elder son and the father that we find some important word play. The son’s complaint: “You have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

“But we had to celebrate and rejoice,” the father says, ” because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

“This son of yours.” “This brother of yours.” The first description, certainly spoken with bitter derision, looks back in time, trying to hammer the younger brother down into the filth where he had wallowed.

The second description, straight from the lips of one who so clearly stands for God in the story, looks to the possibilities of a future where the filthy young man is bathed in love. I imagine the father’s words spoken softly, gently, but with a mild hint of correction. The elder brother is invited to join in the restoration process of the younger brother simply by recognizing the relationship that already exists.

Anyone who has enjoyed the restoring power of grace appreciates the undeserved welcome the younger son receives. Most of us in church know we once stunk of sin—that we occasionally still stink of it—and that we are dependent on that welcoming embrace when we run back home. For Jesus’ first audience hearing this story, the unquestioning welcome offered by the father was the perplexing sticking point. His listeners would have struggled to digest the message, thinking the father a weak old fool.

Nearly 2,000 years of Christianity make it easier for us to understand the grace side of this story. We know the full story of Christ’s trip to the cross, how his suffering, death and resurrection paved the path back home to God for us.

I think the key lesson for churchgoers resides in the story of the elder brother. Like him, we can get used to what we begin to think of as our cleanness, our devotion, our righteousness, sometimes forgetting it is all a gift from God. And in the process, we can begin to resent those who have yet to come home or are just returning home.

We can even find ourselves annoyed by the restoration and presence of people who still carry the marks of someone who strayed far from home: the gay man with AIDS, the biker with the devilish tattoos, the unmarried pregnant woman, the recovering meth addict with bad teeth, the neighbor fresh out of prison.

God loves them, though. We’re to do so, too, particularly once our brothers and sisters have decided to come home.


A Holy Interruption

Luke 15:11-32

Let me talk for a few minutes, and then y’all help me with this one. Those of you who are reading this online are welcome to comment, of course.

We have before us what is probably Jesus’ most popular parable. The parable of the prodigal son, a young man we might today describe as a “wild child,” is a rich metaphor of God’s grace, a story we could unpack section by section for weeks.

It also is a good follow-up to last week’s Bible text and sermon, which reminded us of the need for vigilance in the face of sin. This week, we’re shown how God responds when we step away from sin and its sidekick, death.

You probably know how the parable of the prodigal son goes. The snot-nosed little punk wanted his way—now—and asked for his inheritance, implying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” Surprisingly, Dad complied; the son left to try a little “dissolute living.”

Any of you tried that? It’s fun until the money runs out.

The money ran out. The snot-nosed little punk was left with not so much as a hankie to his name, and ended up working at the nastiest job a Jew could perform, the feeding of pigs.

The reality of the pig sty was sobering; the NRSV says he “came to himself.” Hank Williams had not yet written “I Saw the Light,” but the filthy, mud-caked—wait, is that mud?—young man must have been humming a Jewish version of it as he headed home.

On the way, the rehearsal began. He had to let his father know he was sorry; he had to show proper repentance. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” I’m sure he practiced that act of repentance not once, but dozens of times, on the long walk home.

Rembrandt's Prodigal Son

Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son

God—excuse me, I mean, Dad—saw him coming from far away. That means God—whoops, there I go again—that means Dad was scanning the horizon day after day, seeking his beloved child’s return. Are you seeing this: The rude, filthy child finally turned toward home, and Dad ran to him.

The son tried to get the words of repentance out. He started them, but he never made it as far as his offer to work as a hired hand. Dad was already calling for robe, ring, sandals and banquet, presumably all to be preceded by a bath. A celebration was in order!

“This son of mine was dead and is alive again,” the father said. “He was lost and is found!”

There’s more to the story, of course. There’s an older brother, filled with anger and jealousy when he sees the father’s ridiculously gracious response. Today we’ll just acknowledge that such people are out there. Don’t be one, and don’t let them bring you down.

Let’s instead focus on this repentance interrupted, this grace that tackles us and wraps us in love before we can even finish our “I’m sorry.” We are all deserving of death. We’ve all been snot-nosed punks who at some point wanted our own way rather than God’s way. But God grabs us, God restores us. All we have to do is head for home.

When did you receive the ring, robe and sandals? What was your banquet like?

And if you’ve not yet gotten them, do you want them? Turn toward the risen Christ, and see him running toward you.

City of the Blind

Mark 11:1-11

The story of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem proves it is possible to celebrate the right person for all the wrong reasons.

Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a colt. People lined the road, covering it with their cloaks and palm branches and crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

In other words, they greeted him as a king. In our day, we know this was appropriate. As people who understand the full story, we know that God in flesh, the very source of salvation, rode before them.

But at the same time, we must remember that the cheering crowd and the disciples who walked with Jesus were blind. The people were blind to what was about to happen, to the way salvation would be made possible.

Their blindness didn’t happen because Jesus had left them in the dark. Three times he had told his followers the truth: that the Messiah must be condemned, mocked, humiliated and killed before rising from the dead on the third day.

No one wanted to see this picture he had painted, however. Instead, prestige, power and instant gratification were on the minds of Jesus’ followers.

Jesus told the truth about where the colt was leading him, but not long before the ride, James and John instead tried to maneuver themselves into seats alongside the earthly throne they believed Jesus would soon occupy. I want to scream across 2,000 years and warn them, “Open your eyes, see what’s coming—blood and violence and a cross splintered by nails driven through flesh.”

Jesus told the truth about the road ahead of him, but during the ride, the crowds that would abandon him in just a few short days cheered him onward, believing he would conquer both the corrupt Jewish leaders and their Roman puppet masters. If only they could have seen Jesus’ humiliation and suffering to come at the hands of these earthly powers.

Jesus told the truth about the need for the Messiah’s death and resurrection, but not long after the ride, even nature failed him. Hungry as he left Jerusalem for the evening, the creator of the universe rightly expected a part of his creation, a fig tree, to provide him sustenance. The tree failed to see to the needs of the one for whom it was made, and withered under the creator’s curse.

Everyone had something he or she wanted from Jesus, but no one for a moment seemed to consider what God wanted through Jesus. What God wanted was a complete and total solution to the problem of sin, a repair to the gap between God and the people made in God’s image. God didn’t want Jesus to storm a fortress. He wanted Jesus to retake and ultimately remake the universe.

This solution goes beyond earthly kingdoms, beyond who gets which title once Jesus takes control. It’s a solution no human could see because no human could imagine how far God was willing to go to redeem us and live in harmony with us.

We do know something of the mind of the man who rode that colt into Jerusalem. Philippians 2:5-11 helps. Here, we see the infinite mind humbled, reduced and emptied of any sense of entitlement.

The crowds cheered, but Christ knew he rode toward death. Did the trip into Jerusalem at any time give Jesus a clear view of Golgotha? The cry of “hosanna” must have contrasted sharply with the shout Jesus knew would come just a few days later—”Crucify him!”

But as I’ve said, the people lining the road and walking with Jesus could not see what was in the mind of Christ, and even his closest disciples refused to hear his words. They wanted what they wanted, standing as a cheering mass, thinking they knew everything but actually knowing nothing of God’s plan.

To understand, they would first have to wonder at a stone rolled away from a tomb and see a battered and broken body restored to life. Only the cross and the resurrection would allow them to “come to themselves,” to borrow a phrase from the parable of the prodigal son.

Let me ask you this:

Do you really grasp what God has done through Jesus? Do you know he rode to his death for you, for your sins, the sins committed years ago, the sins committed yesterday, the sins still to come?

Do you cheer and cry hosanna for the right reasons? Do you cry hosanna with every moment of your life, conforming yourself to the one who has saved you? Is your life now his?

Thank God for Easter Sunday and the blindness it heals.