At Saint Andrew’s we have, with our Bishop’s permission, stepped away from the Revised Common Lectionary so that we might explore three readings from the Gospel of Luke during our Annual Stewardship Campaign.
Last week Mother Dorota Pruski preached an excellent sermon
on The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
This week’s sermon is on The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
People of status, stature, privilege; people who have resources and power don’t come to us. They wait for us to come to them; behind their walls, behind their gates, through multiple entry rooms they sit behind their desk and wait for us to come to them. Their lack of concern, their lack of urgency reinforces and is a sign of their power over us. Well-bred people of status in first century Palestine, people of status rank and authority didn’t run anywhere. And yet in this story we have a father, a man with some means and some wealth, hike up his robes and race down the dusty road towards a son who is returning from a distant country. A son who had said to him, “I can’t wait for you to die. Give me my share of the property now! I wish you were dead.” A son who had taken resources that the family needed to sustain itself, forcing them to liquidate their herds and their land, so that they could give a share to this son who then took it to a foreign place and squandered it on dissolute living. I’m sure that anyone who saw this father racing down the road to greet his son was scandalized and scandalized yet again.
They had been furious and scandalized by the son’s behavior and the son’s departure. They probably felt bad for the father and then, after a while, began to ridicule the foolish decision he had made. His behavior, offering his son a share of the inheritance before his own death had probably reduced his status in the community. “What kind of a fool does that anyway?” And now here he is running down the road hurrying to greet this terrible son! I’m sure that their view of this father was about as low as it could get in that moment.
But we need to remember that Jesus is telling a parable here. We need to think about what’s happening and the reversal that he is putting us through in this moment. A parable Jesus uses things that are common and familiar, with which we can identify, that we understand, to teach us about God and about ourselves. And so this isn’t really a story about an earthly father and his sons and his property. This is a story designed to help us to understand God’s care and love and compassion for us. Even when we squander the gifts that God has given us: our freedom, our liberty, the love and the compassion that God showers upon us, even if we take that off to a foreign country and squander it in dissolute living… God is anxious for our return. God wants nothing more than for us to return and be in communion, in God’s presence once again. God’s not even going to wait on the front porch and watch us come up the driveway. God will race to us in thanksgiving, in joy, and all of heaven will celebrate the return of one lost child.
There’s another piece to this parable that Jesus tells this morning. He has shown us something about God’s true nature and God’s love for us in God’s willingness to embrace, forgive, and to take us back and now Jesus continues the parable to teach us something about ourselves. There is a second son, the elder son, and he is out working in the fields when this prodigal returns. He arrives late at the party. He hears the music. He hears the voices. He knows that people are dancing. He refuses to go into the room because he’s angry. He’s bitter and he’s very, very upset.
So the same father that rushed down the road to greet the son gone into a foreign country now comes out and pleads with his elder son. “Please come in and join us. Come and be with us here in this place.” The son says “No! For all the years I’ve worked for you. I’ve done everything you asked. I’ve never disobeyed your command. And you never gave me even a young goat… and look you kill the fatted calf for this awful person!”
Okay. Here’s where we jump back in and we reassert the fact that this is a parable. Jesus is reaching out to us with a circumstance, a situation, a set of events that we will identify with, that we will recognize, that we can find ourselves in the midst of, to teach us something that’s beyond us at this moment. And the great words of reversal come from that loving father. “Son you are with me always all that I have is yours.”
If it’s God speaking those words to this angry and bitter son standing at the door suddenly we have to ask ourselves what he’s holding out for a young goat? Please! He’s with God always and all that God has is… and he wants a goat? What has happened here? I think that this elder son has failed to recognize the gifts that he’s already been given. He’s failed to recognize the gifts that are constantly being showered upon him just by virtue of his presence, his communion with God there in the vineyard as he lives out his life in light and love.
Jesus has told us this parable to teach us something about God and he’s told us this parable to hold up something about us. It is a real and present danger that we might fail to recognize that what we have is a gift.
This morning at the 8 o’clock service, as we do every week when the offering plates come up the center aisle, the acolyte or the altar server holds them up and we say, “All things come of thee O Lord; and of thine own have we given thee.” All things come of thee. It’s difficult I think to hear those words and to recognize how foundational and how important they are for our relationship with God. We don’t hold them up and say, “Here’s what I earned this week. This is mine and so I’m begrudgingly going to give you a little…” We hold them up and we say, “All things come of thee.” The share of the inheritance that might be ours has already been handed over. And we are free to work in the garden or to travel to a foreign land. But we have been given those gifts already. The younger son takes his share of the inheritance and makes some very poor choices. He goes off into a foreign country where he almost dies before he recognizes what’s going on, before he comes to himself, and returns home. The older son takes those gifts and he goes into a country that is no less distant, no less foreign, than his younger brother. By failing to recognize the gift, by failing to rejoice in what he had been given, he has allowed himself to become embittered and angry. He can’t even celebrate the fact that his younger brother who was dead is now alive!
Thinking back on this foreign country that the older son has entered was he late to the party because they didn’t go to tell him that his younger brother was there? Was he late to the party because he was working hard in the field and couldn’t tear himself away from his work? Or was he late to the party because his bitterness and his anger had so alienated him from the rest of the household that he was out there in the field grinding his teeth? The noise of those teeth grinding against one another drowned out all other sound.
We gather in this place every week for the Eucharist, the great Thanksgiving, and it is that giving of thanks, and that offering of ourselves here at this table, that keeps us in the light and love of the father who offers us the vineyard for our very own. It is a spiritual discipline and exercise to give of what we have been given. And to offer it so that it’s not the young goat that becomes the most important thing in our understanding of God’s economy. We need to give back to God because it is good for us to do so; to knowledge gift as gift, to get back with joy and thanksgiving, and to not allow ourselves to focus on the things that get in the way of our relationships with one another and with God. We won’t say those same words at the service that we use at the 8 o’clock. We won’t hold the gifts up and say, “All things come of thee O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” But we will sing a hymn that I invite you to hear in a new way this morning. Hear God calling us to share in the work of the vineyard. Hear God showering and raining gifts upon us. Hear God’s feet racing down the road to greet us when we return home. And know that it is because we live in this vineyard and serve the loving God that we give back with joy gratitude and Thanksgiving.
The Offertory Hymn at the 10:30 service is verse 3 of Hymn 705 in the Hymnal 1982
With gratitude and humble trust we bring our best to thee
to serve they cause and share they love with all humanity.
O thou who gavest us thyself in Jesus Christ thy Son,
help us to give our selves each day until life’s work is done.