Luke 15; 1-3,11-32
Laetare Ierusalem. The first words in the traditional Latin Mass Introit for this Fourth Sunday in Lent. Laetare Sunday, as it says on the front page of the leaflet: Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled . . . .
Something of a resting place along this highway of Lent. Think how that great multitude of Hebrews must have felt as they passed from the desert wilderness into the first lush valley of the Land of Promise. Their journey wasn't over. Not by a long shot. But what a wonderful time to pause and take in the beauty all around them and to feast on the riches of the land.
Sometimes called “Refreshment Sunday.” Also in England called “Mothering Sunday”-- and in the Downton Abbey households of the great aristocracy a day when the upstairs family would fend for themselves and the downstairs staff would be given the day off to go home for a family visit. In churches where Lent is observed with a more rigorous discipline, the one Sunday in Lent when you might have flowers on the altar and something more than coffee on the refreshments table in coffee hour.
Not a time to throw all our Lenten observance overboard. Not yet a time for the trumpets and feasting of Easter. But a time to relax the disciplines just a bit, perhaps. A reminder that we aren’t earning our salvation here, but simply learning, learning to practice our mindfulness in the presence of the Lord whose property it is always to have mercy. To learn again and again that it is only by his grace and love that we can have any hope for this life or for the life to come.
But on into the week ahead, with the continuing invitation to the keeping of a Holy Lent, by Self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. So continued prayers of encouragement along the way, even as we pause here for refreshment. Laetare Ierusalem. Even in the middle of deepest Lent the hymns of Easter rumble underneath us. “Jesus lives! Thy terrors now, Can, O Death, no more appall us. Jesus lives! By this we know, Thou, O Grave, canst not enthrall us.” Laetare Ierusalem. with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled . . . .
The parable in our gospel reading from St. Luke this morning probably the most familiar or at least one of the most familiar of all the stories that people remember Jesus telling. Certainly an appropriate reading from scripture for the middle Sunday of Lent, with the great themes of Sin and Judgment, Repentance, and Reconciliation much on our minds and in our hearts. These great objective themes that are for each one of us as well deep personal challenges. Sin and Judgment, Repentance and Reconciliation.
Traditionally called the “Prodigal Son,” though we soon find it’s not a story about one son, but about a father with two sons. This a familiar set up for Jesus. In Matthew 21 Jesus tells the priests and elders of the Temple this story and asks a question: “A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
So, two kinds of sons, here in Luke. One good, one not so good, so it seems. One son, the younger son, says, “Dad, I’m tired of sitting around here in the sticks waiting for you to die so that I can get my inheritance. How about you figure out what that’s going to be and give it to me now so I can go and live my life the way I want to live it?” Breathtaking, of course. [Reminds me of a moment at the family dinner table many years ago when in the midst of normal “how was your day?” conversation our maybe 10 year old Daniel looked up and asked, “Dad, do you have life insurance?” I've always wondered about the train of thought that led to that question . . . .]
Within the deep culture and traditions of ancient society, of course, the respect of a child for the parent is absolutely foundational. First of all, as a younger son he isn’t actually assured of any inheritance. Whatever he would receive would be as a gesture of generosity and love, and not strictly according to the rules of inheritance. So it’s interesting to see what he simply assumes here. And the lack of compassion. Filial piety. The Father here not really a person to the son, but an object, to be used.
We might expect the Father to explode in anger, deeply offended. But that’s not what happens. Instead—I suppose we might imagine, with a heavy heart—instead, he agrees. Divides the assets. And as we recall, the son then heads off to the big city and a distant land and in short order squanders all he has on wine, women, and song.
He hits bottom. Totally without resources. Tries to get a job, but all he can find is work that is the most humiliating and demeaning that can be imagined, especially in the context of pious Judaism. Feeding pigs. And so hungry and so poor that he finds himself actually envying the pigs for the food that they’re eating. We think, “that’s the moral of the story. What happens to bad sons.” The whole crushing reality, the devastating humiliation, finally crashes down on him, his irresponsibility, his arrogance, his thoughtlessness, and without being able to envision any other option, he determines finally to return home, tail between his legs. Is it too late? Not knowing what to expect but hoping that he won’t be turned away, as he knows he deserves. Even his father’s servants have it better, and perhaps at home he’ll at least be allowed to eat and be clothed.
And then, of course, we remember the return. And how even before this younger son gets to the front door his Father is flying down the road to greet him and lift him into an embrace. Forgiveness and mercy, generosity. Kill the fatted calf! Feasting and rejoicing. The deep spirit of reconciliation that in Old Testament Hebrew is encompassed in the word Shalom. Peace.
And we’d expect the story to end here. Let that be the moral of the story. “All is forgiven.” Which is of course strong and powerful in itself, and often our conversation about this parable does end there. But of course the story goes on. Another turn. Still one more son, we suddenly remember. The older son, the heir, the good son, so we think, the son who has remained respectfully with his father. Who is following the rules. Who kept his nose to the grindstone. Always with a smile.
But then all of a sudden the story takes this new energy and direction, with a sudden explosion of the older son’s anger, hurt, and jealousy. For all his loyalty, for all his faithfulness and respect and hard work. Never has he seen his father so full of love than in this moment. But not for me. You never even gave me a goat to barbecue at a party for my friends, and now look what you do for him.
Turns out there was something more going on here than we had expected. Still waters run deep, I guess. The genre is such a comfortable one. The bad son and the good son, the moralistic example. A template for judgment. Be like this one, not like that one. But suddenly the room is spinning and we aren’t sure just where we are.
What is Jesus communicating here? To the Scribes and Pharisees, to his disciples? For his church? For us? These two sons looked so different at first, but now, the more we look at them, the more alike they turn out to be. Both of them entering the story with this surging sense of grievance. This sense of entitlement. A vortex of self-centeredness. The younger son speaks first. Give me mine now. And off he goes. The older son hasn't been saying anything, apparently. Sucking it up. Perhaps for years and years and years. But in the end he reveals what he has been thinking and feeling all along. He’s been keeping score. You bet he has. For both the Father is simply a means to end. It’s all about them.
Good son/bad son stories are perhaps a little easier to understand. But somewhere in this story Jesus seems to expect us to see ourselves. Somewhere. Or perhaps everywhere.
I remember thinking one time—I saw this $100,000 recreational vehicle rolling down the interstate, a smiling silver-haired couple sitting in the front. And on the back, a bumper sticker: we’re spending our children’s inheritance. Just thinking to myself, with a little bit of a smile, I wonder what the kids think when they see that. I’m sure all smiles and hugs on the outside. Hi mom! Hi dad! Great to see you! Tell us about your latest trip . . . . But deep down. I wonder. In any event, it would certainly be understandable if they didn’t sigh inwardly from time to time. The way Martin Luther described Man’s sinful nature. Incurvatus in se. The human being “turned in on himself.” The refrain of what is really important at the end of the day: I, me, mine; I, me, mine; I, me, mine.
And through the whole story, of course, the story of the Two Bad Sons, there is the Good Father, who doesn’t just wait for either one of them. Who is generous even when he knows the score with the younger son, and rushes out the door and down the road to reach him as he is returning. Who doesn’t condemn or punish, but who goes out to the older son, who is out sulking in his self-pity. Comforting, embracing, forgiving. Inviting both sons to come to the table and to feast at his banquet of celebration. To know his love.
Hold that image in your mind. For all you’re worth, hold that image in your mind.
So just to note that before this story, in the first half of this 15th chapter of Luke, there is this whole series of parables: the parable of the Lost Sheep, of the Good Shepherd who leaves 99 in search of the one wanderer. Probably not the favorite story of the insurance agent who wrote the policy on the flock. “You left all ninety-nine in order to find just one?” But Jesus says, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” And the parable of the lost coin, the woman who turns her house upside down to search for that coin and then, when she finds it, throws a big party to celebrate, with a catering bill ten times the value of the coin she has just found.
And then the Parable of the Two Bad Brothers, and the Parable of the Father who goes out for them. While they are still bad. Before they've apologized. He goes out to them. Hold that image in your mind.
Turns out that from the Father’s point of view there aren't good sons and bad sons. Simply his sons. His dear children. Whom he loves. For whom he will do everything he can, whatever it takes, to bring them home. Go the extra mile. Go two extra miles. Leave the flock and run after the lost. Turn the house upside down. Climb up on a Cross, if that’s what it’s going to take. That’s the kind of Father we’re talking about here. The kind that doesn't give up on us, no matter how far away we go.
I read this somewhere the other day, and I think in a very simple way it points us to the bottom line of this Parable of the Two Bad Sons. Which is to get the right point in focus, of Parable of the Father. When we arrive at heaven’s gate and St. Peter meets us with the great register recording all our life, and asks us, “why do you believe you should deserve to enter the Paradise of God,” if our answer begins, “because I . . .,” then truly we are lost. “Because I . . . .” In any case we will have missed the point of this Lenten journey, and our path once again this year to Jerusalem and Holy Week and Good Friday. Not “because I,” but “because he . . . .”
Continuing this Lent, and to hold this parable in our view for a time. Sin, Judgment, Repentance, Reconciliation. Let me see if I can see myself in this picture. As St. Paul says, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” If he was going to wait for us to come around first, it was going to be a long wait. We love him, because he first loved us.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.