(Luke 15: 11-32)
Ah, the Prodigal Son parable. A perfect candidate for the last installment of our sermon series, “Sound Familiar?” Like it’s Lukan cousin, the parable of the Good Samaritan, we also know this one by heart. Even our non-religious sisters and brothers can recite the story of a son who wastes all he owns and, in the depths of his despair, is nevertheless welcomed home by his loving father.
But in this sermon series we are making a point of digging deeper. We’re acknowledging the fact, as I said in my first sermon, that sometimes the familiar has the effect of becoming unfamiliar, where we settle for the surface meaning instead of the greater, more challenging one that lies within.
Which is why we’re looking at the Parable of the Prodigal Son today. Because let’s face it – when we read and hear this story, and when we ponder what life-application we’re meant to take from it, we inevitably assume that the story of significance for us is the story of the Prodigal himself. It is, after all, the underlying theme of large chunks of the Christian narrative – the story of one who receives their inheritance, their life; then utterly wastes it and throws it away; then begs for forgiveness and repentance and is welcomed into the embrace and grace of none other than God’s very self.
It is, of course, a very true narrative. For all of those things are indeed part of our understanding of the Christian journey, and our relationship with the God who loves us and the Jesus who guides us back home. It is also, however, a very intoxicating narrative – because it makes things, quite frankly, all about us. And no matter where the story begins or where it goes, it always ends the same way – with a huge party thrown in our honor.
We see this narrative played out over and over again in large swaths of North American Christianity; the kind you hear espoused by TV preachers or talked about in the grocery line. What some call the “ABC’s of Faith:” A – Accept you’re a sinner. B – Believe God’s promise in Jesus. C – Confess Christ as Lord and Savior. It’s the journey of the Prodigal, no?
And that may be the entirely of the narrative of the Christian faith, and it may all boil down to nothing more than a huge party thrown in our honor and punching our ticket to heaven, were it not for one very simple fact:
The parable doesn’t end there.
Although we tend to think so, don’t we? If you ask the average person to paraphrase the Prodigal Son story, chances are they’ll stop at the homecoming and party. Because it feels like a complete story when you end it there. Because for most of us, that’s where we like it to end.
But it doesn’t. And I imagine Jesus maybe pausing here a bit and looking somewhat expectantly at his audience; an audience that, as we noted a few sermons ago, was comprised predominantly of fellow Jews. An expectant pause just to make sure they didn’t miss what was coming next.
They were, I imagine, probably as surprised by the older brother as we are. This older brother very casually referred to at the beginning of the parable, strictly to set up the context of the father dividing his estate. We forget about him after that. But now he’s back, and he’s ticked. Because he doesn’t think his younger sibling should be the guest of honor at any party, much less one thrown by their father. The brother lays into his old man, insisting that his father’s other son (did you notice he can’t even call him “brother” here?) that he had done nothing to deserve such an honor while he – the loyal, faithful son – had done everything right. If anyone should have a party thrown for them, he contends, it is he.
And the real rub of this parable, y’all? He’s exactly right. He speaks the truth! He had done everything right. His brother, meanwhile, had done everything wrong. And to add insult to injury, the father doesn’t just ask his older son to understand the party, but to actually come to it. 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?
We don’t know, actually. Jesus stops the story right there, right with the father pleading with his son, please, come to the party. Will you come, please? Just come to the party. We don’t know whether he winds up going or not – Jesus doesn’t tell us.
Which, the more I think about it, the more I realize that’s the whole point. Because the story ends not with the younger brother but the older one. Because the older brother is who Jesus wants his audience to identify with, who he wants us to identify with. Because the question Jesus wants to leave with them and us is rather simple: if we were in his shoes, would we have gone to the party?
It is not by chance, sisters and brothers, that this question would’ve been appropriate for those living at the time Luke’s gospel was written. Middle-late first-century Palestine, the church was growing beyond its original Jewish community into Gentile, non-Jewish areas; and the question that would inevitably come from that: do non-Jewish people need to first become Jewish before becoming Christian?
Seems like a silly question in our day and time, I know. But back then, it was huge. So huge that many scholars over the years have wondered if the church as we know it today would even exist if the decision wasn’t made, as accounted in Acts 17, to allow Gentiles to come to Jesus without Judaism as a prerequisite. The “party,” in other words, was for everyone – even their Gentile “prodigal” brothers. Perhaps Jesus knew this would be inevitable, as his gospel and love spread outside Jerusalem. Perhaps he knew the “older brothers” of the crowd would need to hear this parable to come to terms with the reality that God’s grace and love extends to all people, even and especially those we feel are undeserving of it.
We often think the parable of the Prodigal Son is about confessing sin and receiving forgiveness. Which it is. Just not the sin and forgiveness we might think. Because once again, it is not the younger son we’re meant to align with. It’s the older one. And when that starts to sink in, friends, that’s when things get a little uncomfortable for us!
I mean, look at us. We are, for the most part, good people. I would even venture so far as to say “great people.” You are worshipping in this sanctuary or listening and reading this sermon online on a holiday weekend, folks! We live productive lives, we’re law-abiding. We work hard, we study hard, we earn a fair living. We treat others with kindness and respect; we contribute to our community and to this church. Sure, we’re not perfect; and we mess up from time to time. But all in all, we lead good lives. Just like the older brother.
We also tend to think – like the older brother – that the world should operate in a particular way. You lead a productive life and adhere to the “golden rule,” and all should go well for you. It’s not surprising when someone lives this way and is successful in life. It’s also not surprising when those who do not live good lives “suffer the consequences of their actions.” Call it karma, call it reaping what you sow, call it cause and effect – whatever you call it, there is this understanding of how things work in the world.
But what really gets our blood boiling is when people don’t play by the rules and, 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 mercy – and get it anyway.
Ernest Campbell, former pastor at New York’s Riverside Church, used to like to say that the biggest problem with American Christianity today 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 open and ready to accept and love everyone, and yet we in the church take issue with that. We draw lines, create hierarchy, mitigate acceptance. And isn’t it interesting that our location in all of that is always on the inside of the lines, always at the top of the hierarchy, always one of the ones accepted? We are more inclined than not to place limits on God’s love – where we are its recipients and others are not. This love, from the same God who makes a business of throwing parties for the very people we’d rather keep out.
A minister once told the story of a friend from childhood who grew up attending a very strict Christian school. One day, one of her teachers, Mr. Roberts, said in class in no uncertain terms that all people who were not “true Christians” were going to hell, especially Lutherans and Episcopalians. That afternoon, when the young girl got home, her mother asked the question she asked every day: “What are you thankful for today, my dear?” On this day the perceptive young child replied, “Well, Mother, today I’m thankful that Mr. Roberts is not God!”
A loving-father gospel in an elder-brother church. That’s the message here, right? Which makes we wonder why in the world we call it the parable of the Prodigal Son. Because the story is really not about the younger brother. It’s not even about the older one. It’s about the loving father who welcomes both children. Says to the younger son, “I know you’ve messed up, you’ve abused what I’ve given you, but you are still my child and I love you!” And says to the older son: “Son, you’ve served me well; I am so grateful. I know you’re upset at your younger brother, but my love is big enough for both of you. So please, come to the party!”
The party. What kind of image comes to mind when we think about this party, this cosmic celebration where God’s love puts an end to exclusion and segregation and encompasses and embraces everyone?
I’ll tell you what comes to my mind. Fresh memories of my week in Portland, Oregon, serving as a commissioner for the 222nd General Assembly of the PCUSA. It was an honor to represent this church and presbytery there; to be with 600 of my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ from literally every corner of the country and globe; to experience first-hand the richness and diversity of all gathered there, crossing all kinds of divides we human beings are so skilled at creating. I was struck by the hardcore Democrat and life-long Republican who will undoubtedly cast different votes in October but in June could hold hands and sing the Doxology together. I was struck by the 90-year old commissioner attending their tenth GA and the 17-year old commissioner, rising high-school senior; a youth elder at her church in the same way that I hope one day our youth will be able to serve here.
But hands-down what I was struck by most was the fact that, at week’s beginning, we overwhelmingly elected, for the first time in our denomination’s history, two women co-moderators, one of whom is African American. And at week’s end overwhelmingly electing, for the first time in our denomination’s history, a non-white male to serve as our Stated Clerk.
Now that’s a party, people! But there’s more. In another historic move, we elected to add a new confession, the Confession of Belhar – a confession from South Africa advocating racial equality and reconciliation, marking the first time that our denomination’s Book of Confession will contain a confession from the Global South, where Christianity happens to be growing the fastest. We also adopted language expressing regret over the ways our previous actions as a denomination have hurt or harmed members of the LGBT community.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been more proud to serve as a minister in the PCUSA. With broad and bold strokes we added to the party invite list. Actually, that’s not right. We’re not the ones creating the list – that’s God’s job! We’re just acknowledging the amazing thing that God’s doing in our world and choosing to be part of the party that’s already going on.
So – what do you think? Will you come to the party? Will you come to the party, knowing that God’s invite list includes everyone, including those you don’t think should be there? Will you come to the party, even though you can’t make heads or tales of this holy mystery we call grace; of the outlandish ramifications of God’s love? Will you? Will this church, and all churches, put aside every aspect of an elder-brother church and grab hold of the loving-father gospel we are meant to live into? Will you come to the party and forego judgment for joy, condemnation for community, animosity for affection, fear for faith and loathing for love? Will you? Will you come to the party?
Because you know what? It’s already going on. And we’ve been invited. And we can hear it in the distance. And all bias aside, it sounds like a really awesome party! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 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.