Steve Lindsley

Luke 15: 11-32

There are stories in the Bible we know of, and then there are stories like the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  To say that this story has taken on a life of its own would be quite the understatement.  So entrenched it is in our collective psyche that even our non-religious sisters and brothers can recall it with ease – the tale of a son who wastes all he owns and, in the depths of his despair, is nevertheless welcomed back by his loving father, in spite of his ticked-off older brother.

Jesus tells this story to the crowd who had come to hear him that day, and it might be worth noting the makeup of that crowd.  Here’s how Luke describes it: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!”  And it’s when Jesus sees their grumbling that he launches into this parable of the “prodigal son.”

And while it is true that there are three characters in this story – the father and two sons – it’s the younger brother who gets the majority of the press time, even earning the distinction of having the story more or less named after him.  Some might be unaware that the word “prodigal” is not some kind of name – the parable of the prodigal son – but actually means “a person who spends money in a reckless, extravagant way.  This person who, in the relieved words of his father, was once lost and now is found.

It is nice to be found, isn’t it?  It’s good to experience grace first-hand, to be forgiven for whatever it was you did wrong.  It’s nice to be embraced by the one you love most; the one who loves you most.  And it sure doesn’t hurt to have a welcome home party thrown in your honor with no expense spared.

I guess that’s why you and I, and everyone I know, finds themselves not just drawn to this parable of the prodigal son story, but specifically to the prodigal son himself.  Because that’s who we instinctively identify with, is it not?  After all, is his story not the underlying theme of the entire Christian narrative?  The one we sing about in hymns like: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me / I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.  The one evangelists eagerly preach on street corners reciting the ABC’s of faith: Accept that you’re a sinner, Believe in God’s promise, Confess Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Is that not the Prodigal son story in a nutshell?

It absolutely is.  And it would also be accurate to say that this narrative is a very intoxicating narrative as well.  Intoxicating because, well, we’re the good guy here – we are the one who is forgiven, we are the one who is celebrated and welcomed home.  Who wouldn’t want that?  As a colleague of mine once quipped about this parable, “we become the star of our own Hallmark movie.”

And while it is true that grace and forgiveness absolutely should be part of our Christian narrative – and thanks be to God for that – it is far from being the only part.  Because there’s something very important at this juncture that needs to be acknowledged:

The parable does not end here.

The parable does not end with the prodigal son welcomed home.

Although we tend to think it does, don’t we?  If you ask the average person to paraphrase the parable of the Prodigal Son, chances are they’ll wrap it up with the homecoming party.  Because it feels like a completed story at that point.  Because it’s a great place to end it!   Because, for most of us, that’s where we want it to end.

But Jesus doesn’t end his story there.  And I like to imagine him pausing at this point, perhaps looking somewhat expectantly at his audience; an audience that, as previously noted, had all kinds of cultural dynamics at play.  Sinners and saints, those who were commonly thought of as “out” and others who were more than eager to draw those boundaries with thick, broad strokes. I have to think Jesus paused at this point, just to see if they thought the story was done.  Just to see if him continuing on would catch them by surprise.

The older brother was certainly surprised, to put it mildly.  Remember him?  This older brother very casually mentioned at the parable’s start, merely to set up the estate-dividing.  We forget about the older brother after that.  But we need to remember him, because he is very important to this story, more important than we might realize.

The older brother lays into his old man, insisting that his “father’s other son,” as he puts it (what does it say that he cannot even bring himself to call him “brother” here?) his “father’s older son” had done absolutely nothing to deserve an honor like this; while he – the loyal, faithful son; the one who never left, the one who always did as he was told – had done everything his father asked. If anyone should have a party thrown in their honor, he claims, it is him.

And the real rub of this parable?  He’s exactly right.  He had done everything right.  His brother, meanwhile, had done everything wrong.  And to add insult to injury, the father doesn’t just ask the older son to accept that the party is happening; he actually invites him to the party.  He has the audacity to invite his faithful son to a party thrown in honor of his unfaithful brother.

How do you think that went over?  Well, here’s the thing: we don’t know.  We don’t know because this is where Jesus chooses to end the parable.  Not at the party – which would’ve been a perfect ending – but here, with the father’s invitation lingering in the air, unanswered: Son, please, come to the party.  Will you just come to the party?

It’s an awkward ending, isn’t it?  No Hallmark movie here; no resolution. Why did Jesus throw in this little bit about the older brother in the first place?  And why did he end the parable here?

Could it be because the story he tells is a story that is still being written?  I wonder.  I wonder because, while this parable may be largely about the prodigal son, I’m not sure that’s who this parable is for.  Remember again what prompted Jesus to tell this story in the first place: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!”

This parable is for all the older brothers out there.  Those who pretty much live their lives the way they’re supposed to.  Those who play by the rules, earn an honest living, make good grades, pay their taxes, adhere to the “golden rule.’  Sure, they’re not perfect; sure, they mess up from time to time.  But this parable is for all of those who generally lead good lives.  Just like the older brother.

Just like you and me.

And like the older brother we are inclined to think that the world should operate in a particular kind of way.  That if we lead this kind of life, all should go well with us.  It’s not surprising when someone lives this way and experiences a generally good life.  It’s also not surprising when someone doesn’t live this way and “suffers the consequences of their actions.”  Call it karma, call it reaping what you sow, call it cause and effect – whatever you call it, this is the expectation we have of how things generally work in the world.

And that is why we struggle when things don’t work this way – when those who don’t play by the rules, in our opinion, do not get what they deserve.  What truly bothers us, if we’re willing to admit it, are those people who we feel, for whatever reason, are not worthy of God’s love – and get it anyway.

We are the older brothers whom Jesus is telling this parable for.

As I mentioned before, this Lent we are looking anew at our church’s mission statement.  Last week we looked at what it means to be a church rooted “in the busyness of life on Providence.”  Now we come to one of the things our mission statement calls us to be – and that is a church that “loves one another.”

Love one another.

Note that our mission statement doesn’t specify who “the other” is.  It doesn’t say, “love the one who is like you,” or “love the one who thinks and acts the same as you.”  It doesn’t say “love the one you already love” or “love the one who loves you.”  It doesn’t even say “love your other church member.”  It just says “love one another.”

That’s a lot of people to love!

That means loving people who don’t look like us.  That means loving people we don’t necessarily agree with.  That means loving people the powers-that-be tell us don’t matter, or are less than human, or are “illegal,” or lack any real value or worth to our world.  That means loving people even if it’s dangerous to love them.

It was Ernest Campbell, former pastor at New York’s Riverside Church, who liked to say that the biggest problem with American Christianity is that we have a ‘loving father’ gospel in an ‘elder brother’ church.  Think about that – a “loving father” gospel in an “elder brother” church.  Our God is ready and willing to accept and love everyone; it is the very essence of the divine.  And yet for whatever reason, there are some in certain circles of Christianity who have a problem with that.  They draw lines, create hierarchies, commodify acceptance.  And the worst part?  They do it in the name of Jesus.  In the name of Jesus!  They dare to place limits on God’s love – this love that makes a business of throwing parties for the very people they are inclined to keep out.

And that is why, as those seeking to embody the hands, feet, and heart of Jesus, we must resist the urge to identify solely with the younger brother in the story Jesus tells.  Because when we see ourselves as the younger brother, we feel we’ve already arrived, we’ve made it.  And so we do nothing.  Nothing at all.

But when we identify with the older brother, the audience Jesus is speaking to, the story is not over.  In fact, we get to be part of writing its ending.  God is telling us that there’s a party going on and wants us to come to it.  So we get to choose – do we stay imprisoned in our older brother world, depriving ourselves of the gift of grace God is so eager to share?

Or do we choose to love one another?  Do we lean into God’s love even when we may not fully understand it or even agree with it?  Do we speak out for those who have no voice, those who are maligned and even villainized by a culture where the worst parts of our humanity seem to be rising to the surface? Do we break the cycle we’ve been imprisoned in for far too long and go to the party?

The party.  If you were to describe that party, how would you envision it?  I’ll tell you how I would.  In fact, I saw it right here in our sanctuary a couple of weeks ago.   Ash Wednesday, which was also Valentine’s Day.  Rebecca and Reta Phifer and I leading chapel for a hundred or so Weekday School kids that morning, sharing the story of Ash Wednesday and Lent in language a child could understand.  Which, if you think about it, boils down to love – a wonderful, amazing love of God for God’s people; a love intended to be shared among the people themselves.

As the kids filed out that morning, in lieu of ashes, we gave each a stamp on their hand that simply said, “You Are Loved.”  Now kids love getting stamps and I’m sure some of their excitement came from that.  But I also sensed that part of the smile on their faces came from three of the most powerful words in the English language: you are loved.  And from that, love one another.

I know the ink washed off their hands the next day.  I’m hoping the stamp on their hearts, however, remained much longer.  All those children, knowing they are loved, knowing they should love one another.  All of us, knowing the same and living lives that reflect it.  Can you imagine the party?

Beloved, I’m here to tell you that we can.  Jesus has shared his story.   We get to be part of finishing it.  Tell me, people of God – what kind of ending are you going to write?

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.