Embracing Love

Sunday, March 31, 2019
Fourth Sunday in Lent Year C

Focus Theme:
Embracing Love

Focus Prayer:
Eternal lover of our wayward race, we praise you for your ever-open door. You open your arms to accept us even before we turn to meet your welcome; you invite us to forgiveness even before our hearts are softened to repentance. Hold before us the image of our humanity made new, that we may live in Jesus Christ, the model and the pioneer of your creation. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”

All readings for this Sunday:
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Focus Questions:

1. In this Lenten season, in what ways do we feel alienated from all that is going on around us, perhaps even from those we hold most dear?

2. Do you find the younger son’s repentance troubling? Why or why not?

3. Are there people whom we consider deserving of their fate, who do not “deserve” forgiveness quite so easily?

4. How do you think a “prodigal church” would behave?

5. We all know that Lent leads to Easter; what is the resurrection you long for in this season?

by Kate Matthews

We might wonder why Jesus’ well-known but often under-read parable in this passage from the Gospel of Luke is commonly called “The Prodigal Son,” when it might better be named after “The Prodigal Father,” if “prodigal” really does mean “recklessly extravagant.”

Yes, the son wastes his inheritance on a good time in a distant land, but his father seems just as free and even wasteful in lavishing his wealth on a son who seems to come home not so much in sincere repentance as in calculated self-interest and desperation.

Oddly, this little story can cause as much discomfort and discontent in the heart of the listener as it describes among the characters in the story. Return to relationship–reconciliation–is a powerful theme in today’s focus scripture, but it is not an easy homecoming. While “Welcome home” may sound all warm and fuzzy, this return home itself presents all sorts of challenges.

A lack of respect?

Once, when members of the news media brought up to Prince Charles the prospect of his ascending to the throne of England, he stopped the conversation cold when he said, “Gentlemen, you are speaking of the death of my mother.” The younger son in today’s story exhibits no such sense of respect or even affection for his father.

One might imagine that he was always impetuous, as second sons often are when they follow a responsible, hard-working firstborn who stands to inherit the lion’s share of the estate anyway. Scholars say that the older son would receive two-thirds of the estate, with the rest divided up between the other heirs, enough of an injustice perhaps to turn a boy’s mind toward other pursuits than working for his big brother.

[One commentator, Timothy Shapiro, may steer us away from interpreting this text through birth order theory, but many commentaries do just that, perhaps because so many of them are written by those who say they are first-borns! Full disclosure: this reflection is written by a middle child, which would probably need a different parable.]

Honor and shame

In fact, this younger brother isn’t just impetuous–he comes across as a master manipulator who, Richard Swanson writes, knows how “to play the old man like a fiddle.” For example, we never quite feel confident that the younger son’s repentance is “true”; Margaret Aymer calls his conversion more stomach-driven than heart-felt.

Scholars often mention the words “honor” and “shame” when writing about this story, and there seems to be no end to the shame brought on the father (and presumably the family) by the self-centeredness of the younger son. Not that the boy’s behavior is unheard of: the Apocrypha warns parents not to become dependent on their children (Sirach 33:20-24), even though one of the Ten Commandments instructs children to “honor” their parents (Exodus 20:12). In so many ways, human nature has not changed throughout the centuries.

The family and the community

We live in a culture very different from the one in which Jesus told this story, but families today still need to be protected, and parents should still be honored. However, we seem to move farther and farther away from the idea that we have responsibility to the community around us as well.

In her wonderful book, Reading Jesus, the author Mary Gordon says the younger brother “seems to have the lack of self-consciousness of the irresponsible user,” and indeed, he apparently has no regard for the suffering of his father, brother, other family members, or the wider community that would have been affected by the sale of land held by a family that no doubt contributed to the surrounding economy.

The sale itself was a shameful thing, Leslie Hoppe writes, in a land-based economy in which Jewish families would not have sold their lands because they were a gift from God. No wonder the father throws a party for the whole town: it surely helped to ease some of the anger and resentment the community felt toward this wayward and irresponsible son.

As a servant, or as a beloved son?

About that conversion experience of a Jewish son sitting with the pigs, envying them their food: who can measure the boy’s purity of heart, even as he practices the speech he hopes will restore him to his father’s home, perhaps as a servant, but maybe, just maybe, as a beloved son?

When the young man “came to himself,” shaken by hunger and by just how low he had fallen, he began the long hard climb back, and his words, “I will get up and go to my father” remind us this Lent of resurrection, restoration, and new life.

Daniel Deffenbaugh suggests that the boy returned with a measure of hope, still able to call his father “Father,” as he did when he first arrogantly asked for his inheritance. This is one of those times when “Abba” would sound particularly sweet.

The heart of a father

Mary Gordon does not find it difficult to imagine how the father’s welcome might have felt to the boy: “I was the child of an ardent father, so I could imagine the heat of a father’s embrace that was led up to by a yearning run: the unseemly speed of the father who could not wait to see his child. Who runs for him, unable to bear the slowness of the normal progression, the son’s ordinary pace.”

On the other hand, a male writer sees feminine imagery in the warmth of the father’s words and actions: Bernard Brandon Scott compares the father’s behavior to that of a mother, because “[f]athers in the ancient world,” he notes, “were remote and distant from their sons.”

Who is the prodigal here?

We could also rename the parable, “The Resentful Brother,” because much more ink is spent on the older, “faithful” brother who comes home to the sounds of a surprise party that’s definitely not in his honor.

Scholars observe that the party itself is what angers the older brother, more than the shame brought to the family by the younger brother, more than the economic realities of splitting up the family farm: Fred Craddock writes that the older brother would find sackcloth and ashes more fitting than a feast for this penitent sibling.

Younger brothers, older sons

We sometimes villainize those old Pharisees and feel all self-righteous about ourselves, as if “our” Christian faith in some way contradicts or corrects the deepest beliefs of our ancient ancestors in faith. However, Bernard Brandon Scott offers a most provocative reflection on this story of two brothers, reminding us of the recurring theme in the life of Israel of younger brothers displacing older ones (think of Jacob and David).

And then Scott startles us by claiming that we Christians stole this story from Israel, because God has been the “prodigal father” throughout its history: “It is Christian anti-Semitism that sees this story only as the essence of the Gospel.”

He also injects a moment of humor with his observation about the father’s pledge to the older brother, suggesting the younger son’s unpleasant surprise at hearing that everything his father has is now promised to his older brother.

“It’s not fair!”

This story is powerful on so many levels, and it uses the most human of feelings to make its point. Mary Gordon writes that the great scholar Raymond Brown called Jesus “a creator of fictions,” and that reminds me of a definition of fiction that I once heard, as something that didn’t necessarily happen but could happen.

We may not know many fathers like the one in this story, but many of us, and many in our congregations, know what sibling rivalry feels like, and can resonate with Gordon’s description of the older brother’s anger as the kind that evokes “the child’s first ethical statement, ‘It’s not fair.'”

Who gets the party?

Barbara Brown Taylor’s delightful reflection on the older brother recalls what it felt like to be the oldest child herself, watching younger ones get away with so much more than she had: instead of the punishment, or at least discipline, the younger son so richly deserved, he got a party! It’s just not fair, right? “What do you have to do to get a party around here?” Here she poignantly observes the ways that both sons are lost to the father, one to irresponsibility, and the other to self-righteousness.

Taylor describes the love of the father who, like any good parent, gives his sons unconditional love instead of what they have coming to them. She then suggests that we who imagine ourselves in the older brother’s place will end up on that doorstep, too, struggling with our own self-righteousness, and will have to make the same difficult decision to join the party, or to stay out in the cold with our principles. Principles, and resentments, rarely keep us warm.

An alien in his own home

Even though this story is a familiar one, its power increases each time we hear it. Perhaps we pick up something we missed before. John Stendahl suggests that the son makes himself an alien by leaving his home and his own country, and becoming a stranger in a strange land, but the older brother, ironically, makes himself an alien in his own home, remaining outside and refusing to be restored to his brother.

In this Lenten season, in what ways do we feel alienated from all that is going on around us, perhaps even from those we hold most dear? How might we have contributed to that sense of alienation? If Lent is a time of repentance, of turning back, how can we find our way back home again?

Another story of new life

Or perhaps we might think of the experience of being dead and then restored to life; the son, the father says, “was dead and has come to life,” but he’s not the only one. The father, too, is restored to life, as parents in all ages are when their children come home. The prodigal, wasteful-in-love, father, “rejected and helpless in love with his child,” experiences a kind of resurrection in his son’s return, Stendahl writes.

We all know that Lent leads to Easter; what is the resurrection we long for in this season? Where are the dead places, the lifeless experiences, the heavy burdens that block our new life?

Lost and then found again

Perhaps the most compelling image is that of being lost and then found. Is it any wonder that we love to sing of it in “Amazing Grace”? If we begin at the beginning of the scene, we have a clue about how the lost-and-found figure in Jesus’ thinking. There he is, when chapter fifteen opens, eating with sinners and tax collectors.

These are not people we might think of sentimentally, kindly, as sweet, innocent people on the edge of society, rejected and alone. They were people who evoked visceral reactions from those who had made “better” choices, or indeed, had even had the privilege of making choices about their lives.

Tax collectors and other “sinners”

Tax collectors, for example, weren’t simply government officials who contributed to the workings of society; they were seen as traitors colluding with the hated Romans while they were separating people from their money. Sinners were people who were outside the “proper,” acceptable community because they had violated religious laws, and all of these folks were definitely “the lost” in the eyes of the watching Pharisees and scribes. (We have and are, of course, our own version of these folks today.)

The religious authorities complain about the company Jesus keeps (after all, you can’t be sitting down to eat with just anyone), and he responds not only with this story but with two other parables of lost-ness, about a sheep and a coin both precious in the eyes of their owners, both lost and then found, and both celebrated with a party, with everyone invited, that is, everyone who is willing to rejoice.

Examining our own lives

And then, this beautiful and beloved story about a precious son lost, and his father lost, and, in a way, his big brother lost, too. It’s especially appropriate for us to reflect on this story as more than just a good illustration of one of Jesus’ teachings, or a really effective comeback to the self-righteousness of the religious authorities.

We’re deeply into the season of Lent now, a time of reflection and self-examination (what we used to call “an examination of conscience” in the tradition in which I was raised). Where do we find ourselves in this story? How are we counted among “the lost”?

With whom do we identify?

Why do we so often identify with the older brother, rather than the penitent returning home to ask for grace? It’s only fair, right, that he should be angry that his “good-for-nothing” brother gets a fatted calf when he doesn’t even get a goat when his friends want to party! Why do we think that we’re the ones who have been faithful and hard-working, and deserve everything we have?

Did we deserve the lion’s share of the estate in the first place (a rather good illustration of privilege and entitlement)? But did we notice that “our father” came out to us, just as he came out to our brother (that son of his, we’d rather call him), seeking us, reassuring us, spreading this largesse and mercy all around?

Scarcity v. abundance again

Are we, like the older brother, perhaps stuck in scarcity thinking, when we’d be much happier, much freer, operating in abundance mode, which is clearly the mode of the prodigal father? Rodney Clapp describes abundance thinking particularly well: “Every time God’s active, stretching, searching, healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us. It means there is more. More wine. More feasting. More music. More dancing. It means another, and now a bigger, party.”

It may be tempting to judge the older brother and associate him with the Pharisees (we love to judge them every chance we get, it seems). Perhaps it’s a good idea to assume the place and feel the feelings of the older brother. Are there people that we feel tempted to find “deserving” of their fate? Are there people who do not “deserve” such free-flowing forgiveness?

What about people whose behaviors have been destructive of others? How do we wrestle with the reality of reconciliation with them, and how do we welcome home those who may be desperate but not yet truly sorry? Do we include ourselves and our own sometimes-clumsy attempts to repent and to reconcile in all of that?

Does our community throw a party?

An especially challenging perspective on this text is offered by Margaret Aymer, who sees the father as an image for the faith community as well. As an example, she reflects on how we respond to the hungry who, like the younger brother living in a distant country, are desperate for food and at the end of their resources.

How do we respond to those in need, no matter the reason for their situation? Are we miserly in our giving, or do we throw a metaphorical party and shower those in need with abundance, Aymer asks, filled to overjoying to have them back in our midst?

Imperfect contrition

There is, of course, no perfect repentance. The contrition of the younger son and his turning toward home seem motivated by a calculation of benefit (and a state of desperation) rather than a heartfelt recognition of where he went wrong or how he had hurt others.

And yet, despite a repentance we might describe as faulty or incomplete, the father extravagantly forgives his son, runs out to meet him (a totally undignified thing for a grown man in that culture), and showers him with gifts and love.

How do you respond to mercy?

Do you find the “repentance” of the younger son to be troubling? He may be sorry, or maybe he’s desperate, but does that even matter to his father? What does matter is what happens inside him when his father welcomes him back not in judgment and limited, reserved, conditional acceptance, but in extravagant feasting and rejoicing.

We might wonder when the real moment of repentance occurs, in the pig pen when he “comes to himself” and decides to return home, or quietly, within himself, when his father wraps his arms around him.

A question of forgiveness

For some time now, I’ve been wondering if we address the issue of forgiveness often enough in the church. While we’re addressing the larger, communal issues of justice and transformation and inclusion, we might neglect the core values and personal challenges of Christianity.

Jesus preached forgiveness, mercy, grace and non-violence, while many of our listeners on any Sunday are sitting before us, struggling deeply with family issues, long-held grudges, a sense of woundedness, and even a need to repent. Do we help our congregants shine the light of the gospel on these struggles?

Love that waits for us to return

We fret about the young man’s sincerity, and our own, but John Stendahl says that, not surprisingly, what matters is actions, not words. That is, the turning home itself was all it took, the bringing ourselves into range, so to speak, of God’s love, which sets us free but waits and watches and hopes for our return.

Did the father do the math on what his younger son had cost him? Stendahl suggests not, and focuses instead of the overflowing joy of the welcome home the boy received. Fortunately, he says, we benefit from this extravagance, and a party waits for us, too.

We are the sinners and the tax collectors, the wandering and wasteful son, and perhaps the resentful older brother, too. Can we let ourselves be received and honored at the party, and can we bring ourselves to attend? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Can we even begin to imagine it?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief, 21st century
“Sometimes I think my papa is an accordion. When he looks at me and smiles and breathes, I hear the notes.”

Jodi Picoult, 21st century
“What I really want to tell him is to pick up that baby of his and hold her tight, to set the moon on the edge of her crib and to hang her name up in the stars.” (in My Sister’s Keeper)
“‘I always wondered why God was supposed to be a father,’ she whispers. ‘Fathers always want you to measure up to something. Mothers are the ones who love you unconditionally, don’t you think?'”

Abraham Lincoln, 19th century
“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“[The one] who is devoid of the power to forgive, is devoid of the power to love.”

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 21st century
“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”

Gordon B. Hinckley, 20th century
“The willingness to forgive is a sign of spiritual and emotional maturity. It is one of the great virtues to which we all should aspire. Imagine a world filled with individuals willing both to apologize and to accept an apology. Is there any problem that could not be solved among people who possessed the humility and largeness of spirit and soul to do either–or both–when needed?”

Jodi Picoult, Mercy, 21st century
“Three months ago, if you asked me, I would have told you that if you really loved someone, you’d let them go. But now…I see that I’ve been wrong. If you really love someone, Allie, I think you have to take them back.”

G.K. Chesterton, 20th century
“For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”

Graham Greene, Brighton Rock. 20th century
“You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

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