Luke 15: 1-3; 11-32: Coming to Ourselves

Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 31, 2019

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons; 12 and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And [the father] divided his living between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. 15 So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.

17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ 20 And he arose and came to his father.

But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; 23 and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. 27 And [the servant] said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’

28 But [the elder brother] was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ 31 And [the father] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”

I bet, if we were to take a poll among ourselves, most of us here today would identify with the elder brother in this story. Look at us: we all try to be good Christians. We’re the ones who bother to get up early on Sunday morning and come to church. We are active in the Butner Church Council. We feed the hungry through the church council and also through our blessing box and our participation with Urban Ministries of Durham. We are responsible citizens. When I scan the congregation, I see many of us who serve on one or more civic committees. We participate in other secular activities that are intended to help others be similarly responsible and productive in various areas of life. We either work hard or are enjoying a well-earned retirement. We pay our bills on time. We vote, we pay taxes, we take good care of our families.

Often, when I read this story, especially the father’s words at the end of it, my heart goes out to the elder son:

‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’

Sometimes when I hear these words, I read between the lines and hear the father actually saying something like this:

Son, you are always with me, and I take it for granted that you always will be with me. All that is mine is yours, or at least will be when I die, and if your brother does not squander it. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found. And it is not fitting to make merry and be glad for your steadiness, obedience, and responsibility. You were only doing what was expected.

As Chris said when we were talking about this story yesterday: “The elder son gets hosed!” We are beside ourselves with indignation at the unfairness with which the father treats the elder son. And, of course, this is exactly why Jesus tells this story. This is one in a series of stories that are prompted by the exact same indignation of the scribes and Pharisees when they see Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable:

The Pharisees are beside themselves with outrage and disbelief that Jesus, who calls himself a rabbi, a healer, and the Son of Man, should rebuke and refuse the company of those who are righteous and respectable and spend his time with tax collectors and sinners. In response, Jesus tells stories about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. And with each story, he says what the Scribes and Pharisees—and we—fear most:

There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Perhaps, like Chris and me, and the scribes and Pharisees, you are disposed to respond, “See? This just goes to show that the elder son is right: the father loves the prodigal more and takes the elder son for granted.” Maybe, like Chris and me and the scribes and Pharisees, you are beside yourself with indignation, outrage, and disbelief at the unfairness of the father.

If so, then you, like Chris and me and the scribes and Pharisees, are ripe for repentance—the kind of repentance that the prodigal shows, the kind of repentance over which heaven rejoices, the kind of repentance for which the father celebrates so lavishly.

Both the prodigal and his older brother suffer three conditions that make them simply human: They have a deep aversion to their present circumstances. They crave some other thing that they think will make them happy. They suffer delusion about who they are with respect to their father and each other.

The prodigal son is deeply averse to his present circumstances. He sees life on the farm as constraining and believes that he can make his life better by grasping at the thing he craves: a life unconstrained by the demands of farm work and the expectations of his father and his older brother. And while he thinks he knows what makes for a happy life, he soon finds that he is mistaken. He hits bottom when he is reduced to longing for the food that is good only for the most unclean animal in God’s creation.

The elder son has his own particular aversions, cravings, and delusions. He detests his brother and his father because he sees their reunion as valuing everything he is not and rejecting everything he is. He craves the adoration and respect, not of his father, but of his friends. And in these aversions and cravings are the roots of his own self-delusion: that he himself has always been faithful and never disobedient, and that he has never received as much as a kid from his father. Of course all of these claims and accusations are lies. Who of us can ever claim to be always faithful and never disobedient? As the firstborn son and sole heir, he is entitled to everything that his father owns. There is no need for him to ask for a kid from his father—they are his already.

There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Who among us does not need repentance? If there is anything that distinguishes the two sons, it is their ability to see who they really are. It is their ability to see their own need for repentance. The prodigal is actually helped along towards repentance by his foolish choices. If he has chosen unwisely between his cravings and aversions, it is this very foolishness that helps him wake up to who he really is and who he has become. The elder son has yet to hit bottom. He still does not see his own self-delusion in thinking himself to be always faithful, never disobedient, and never the object of his father’s joy.

I imagine the father in this story as being always on the lookout for the prodigal to return home.

While [the prodigal] was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him.

I see the father working behind his team of oxen, but with his eyes always scanning the horizon for the return of the prodigal. Likewise, I imagine that even in the midst of the celebration over the prodigal, the father was always on the lookout for the elder son to join them.

His father came out and entreated [the elder son].

And I see the father seated at the head table, but with his eyes on the door waiting for the elder son to come in and make his joy complete.

The kind of repentance that the prodigal experiences and the elder son needs is what Lent is for. We are called into the practices of almsgiving, fasting, and self-examination through prayer so that we learn how to embrace those for whom we have aversion, how to quiet our cravings, and how to look deeply and honestly at ourselves and see our need for repentance. In practicing almsgiving, we stretch our hearts and our horizons so that we can see and make room for those whom we ignore. In practicing fasting, we become keenly aware of our cravings for the food that does not nourish and does not satisfy. And in prayer, we come to see our own impermanence and the limits of our sight and our self-awareness.

This is the very point at which the Father comes running. Putting aside all dignity, all judgement, and all expense, the father lifts his robes and comes running. He takes on the indignities of flesh and blood, opens his heart in an outpouring of love and compassion, and offers up his very self for our sins. Let’s join in the celebration! Amen.