Preached March 10, 2013 (Lent IV)
Text: Luke 15:1-32
The Story, Ch. 23 & 24
Some years ago, in another congregation, I was at a choir party at the home of the choir director. The party had ended and I – and some others – were gathering dishes and helping to straighten the kitchen. Standing at the kitchen sink, I noticed a small strip of paper, water-spotted and yellowed around the edges, taped onto the windowsill above the sink. The faded blue ink read:
Let’s have a feast and celebrate!
It obviously mattered, because someone had taken care to put it there. But it wasn’t immediately clear to me why it matter.
Pat must have seen me glance at the paper, because she leaned over and said: “Luke 15:23”
“Huh?” I heard her well enough, but I didn’t catch the context.
“Luke 15:23. The prodigal son comes home, and dad throws a party. I’m still waiting to throw my party. That verse gives me hope that my daughter will come back to us someday, and I’ll get to throw a party too.”
That’s what I think of when I hear this story: A water-stained, crinkled up piece of paper taped to a kitchen windowsill. A mother, doing dishes at the end of a another long day, holding out hope that she will get to throw her party someday. A mother’s heart, full to overflowing with love for a child who is running the other way.
The parable of the prodigal son is so familiar that I’m sure most of us have our own set of memories and emotions attached to it. For some of us, the image that springs to mind is our own moment of ‘coming to our senses,’ like the younger son. For others, it is the longing of the father, straining to see down the path. Or maybe it is the frustration of “all these years” that we did what was asked and expected of us, without recognition or reward. Most of us have lived all three of these roles, in one way or another, during our lifetime.
This is a story, though, in which the whole is truly more than the sum of its parts. It is a story about more than a son coming home, or a father’s joyful welcome. It is a story about a community restored, and the extravagant, abundant joy that flows from such a community.
We call this story “The Prodigal Son” because of the younger son’s lavish lifestyle. He spent his inheritance going after self pursuits and immediate gratification. He was ‘prodigal’ in every sense of the word – extravagant, reckless, luxurious to the point of being wasteful.
The result of his lavish lifestyle was more than just personal ruin. By demanding his inheritance while his father was still living, the son brought shame on the father. He also left his brother with all of the responsibilities of home, denying him the help he would need to carry on the family business. He left his mother – silent in this story – without a son to care for her in her old age. He tore at the fabric of community by flaunting its customs and rules. The younger son’s prodigal lifestyle left a whole host of casualties in its wake.
But he isn’t the only one who might be described as a ‘prodigal’ in this story. The father’s love, we learn, extends far enough not only to receive his son back, but to repair family ties and restore the whole community.
In mid-eastern culture at the time of the this story, a son who brought shame on his family would have been banished from town. The people would gather for a formal ceremony in which they cursed his name and declared him as good as dead.
The only way for such a man to return would be to restore all that he had lost – and then some. If he came back at all, he would be expected to host a banquet for the whole town to prove his wealth and restore his family’s dignity. He must honor them as extravagantly as he shamed them.
We know, of course, that isn’t what happens to the young son in our story. He comes back not with riches but with rags. He would never be welcome in the community again, and his mere appearance, in his current state, would bring further disgrace to his already shamed family.
But the father – the prodigal father! – would not allow it to be so. We call this parable the prodigal son because of the boy’s lavish lifestyle, but it is the father who really goes to extremes here.
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor describes the father’s response in her sermon, “The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family”:
If the father can get to the son before the village does, then he can save his son from being cut off. He can save his relationship with his son and his family’s relationship with the village all at the same time. This reconciliation will cost him his honor—his greatness in others’ eyes—but that is a price he is willing to pay. The father runs like a girl to greet his son, before anyone can treat him like a hired hand.
Then he turns to his slaves and tells them to bring his son the best robe in the house (which would be his own robe), to put a ring on his finger (a signet ring, perhaps?) and sandals on his feet (only slaves go barefoot). Next he orders his servants to kill the fatted calf—not a goat, or a lamb, or a dozen chickens, but a calf–a clear sign that the celebration about to take place is not a quiet family affair but a feast of roast veal for the entire village. It is a feast to restore the family’s honor, as well as a feast to restore the family’s son. It is a banquet of reconciliation for anyone who will come.
The power of the father’s love here is not only the affection with which he welcomes his son home – but his willingness to take on himself the debts of the son. He throws the banquet his son cannot. He restores the son’s honor – and in the process, the well-being of the whole community – when the son is absolutely powerless to do so.
The Father cared so much about being in relationship that neither being comfortable (the younger son’s goal) nor being right (the older son’s goal) mattered.
In this sense, the parable of the prodigal son foreshadows the cross. It is a story of God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves – taking on himself the shame and pain of our sin, and restoring us to wholeness and relationship. It is a story of reunion and renewal of community.
We read this parable today in the middle of the season of Lent. Lent is a time to take stock of our excesses, and reign them in. We give up chocolate or caffeine; we restrain our eating or our TV watching or whatever else it is we consume in excess.
This parable invites us to go further: not just to restrain ourselves for the sake of self-discipline, but to trade our excesses of comfort and conveniences for excesses of love and relationship.
What would it look like to lavish attention on those we love during lent? What would it look like to open ourselves to receive such lavish love and grace from God this season? What would it look like to rejoice in God’s lavish love and grace for another person – even if we don’t think they deserve it!
That’s the invitation of this parable in Lent – not to avoid excess, but to receive it with grateful hearts and revel in restored relationship with God and one another.