(Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21)
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
(watch here: https://youtu.be/2S9Q5Hhpvoo)
1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 11b“There was a man who had two sons. 12The 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. 13A 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. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But 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! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ‘ 20So 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. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But 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. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But 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. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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.’ ”
There’s an ancient Zen Buddhism story that goes…once upon a time a big monk and a little monk were traveling together. They came to the bank of a river and found the bridge was damaged. They had to wade across the river. There was a pretty lady who was stuck at the damaged bridge and couldn’t cross the river. The big monk offered to carry the pretty lady across the river on his back. The lady accepted.
The little monk was shocked by the move of the big monk. “How can big brother carry a lady when we are supposed to avoid all intimacy with females?” thought the little monk. But he kept quiet. The big monk carried the lady across the river and the small monk followed unhappily. When they crossed the river, the big monk let the pretty lady down and they parted ways with her.
All along the way for several miles, the little monk was very unhappy with the act of the big monk. He was making up all kinds of accusations about the big monk in his head. This got him madder and madder. But he still kept quiet. And the big monk had no inclination to explain his situation. Finally, at a rest point many hours later, the little monk could not stand it any further, he burst out angrily at the big monk. “How can you claim yourself a devout monk, when you seize the first opportunity to touch a female, especially when she is very pretty? All your teachings to me make you a big hypocrite.”
The big monk looked surprised and said, “I had put down the pretty lady at the river bank many hours ago, how come you are still carrying her along?”
This morning we continue along our Lenten journey with one of Jesus’ most well-known parables—the parable of the prodigal son. It is a parable that confounds both Jesus’ immediate listeners and us after nearly 2000 years. We can’t help but wonder why the father not only welcomes his wayward son home but throws him a party as well. The older son is simply dumbfounded by his father’s actions…why is his younger brother receiving the royal treatment? Hadn’t he pushed his father into giving him his inheritance early so that he could only waste it away in foolish living? Hadn’t he brought shame on his father through his careless actions? Why was he being treated so well? We, like the older brother, can’t help but fixate on the injustice of the father’s actions and reactions. We, like the older brother, can’t help but demand answers for the father’s behavior. We, like the little monk from that story, can’t help but dwell on the wrongness of the parable. Oh, the injustice!
Alas, there are more perspectives in the parable than simply the younger son’s. There are the father’s and older son’s perspectives to consider before quickly judging the younger son’s perspective. We are too quick to judge the younger son. We are too quick to condemn the younger son for his foolishness. Hadn’t the older son and father acted foolishly in their own actions? The younger son would have never been able to squander his inheritance if it weren’t for the foolishness of the father. The older son foolishly allowed pride to contaminate his relationship with his father. It was his pride that made him question his father’s decisions. It was his pride that made him believe he was more worthy of his father’s love and affection than his younger brother. It was his pride that made him believe his righteousness would save him. No, all three characters in the parable behaved foolishly in their own way. All three characters deserve equal judgment and condemnation. Let us not be too quick to judge the behavior of the younger son.
After all, it was the younger son who eventually came to his senses and repented for his foolishness. Neither the father nor the older son ever claimed their own foolishness, at least not according to the story we heard. Perhaps in different versions of the parable the father and the older son came to each other and the younger son asking for forgiveness for their own foolishness. But in our version, in the Bible’s version, we aren’t blessed with such repentance. No, we only get to witness the repentance of the younger son and because of this we come to love him the most out of the three. We respect the younger son for sucking up his pride and seeking mercy from his father. It isn’t an easy thing to suck up one’s pride and ask for forgiveness. If it was easy, we’d all be doing it. When we witness a person doing it, we appreciate them and love them all the more for doing it. Besides, it wasn’t as if the younger son stole the inheritance or lied about what he was planning to use it on. His request and subsequent squandering was all aboveboard…nothing sneaky about him.
So what is Jesus teaching us through this parable? Perhaps first and foremost he’s teaching us that a father’s ways are mysterious and can seem foolish at times. Our heavenly Father’s ways are mysterious and seemingly foolish. But they are always rooted in a deep, unconditional love. They are rooted in grace and mercy and forgiveness. If we assume this about our Father’s ways, then they become less foolish, less mysterious. They become quite understandable when seen through the lens of love. Of course, love itself is a very mysterious and foolish thing so the lens play their own tricks! But don’t confuse the mystery and foolishness of love with the sensibility and reasoning of our Father’s actions. We heard in last week’s reading from Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God’s ways are not our ways but they are not devoid of rationality. Indeed, they’re simply saturated with love…a most irrational emotion at times! It is the same reasoning that caused the father in the parable to behave the way he did and the big monk to behave the way he did. Love has its own rhythms, its own logic, and its own justification.
Equally important lessons to be learned from Jesus’ parable come from the actions of the two sons. Learn from the younger son not to be so eager to run out and burn through life. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Take your time, enjoy the ride. The older you get, the quicker life seems to pass through your fingers. Take it all in and be comfortable knowing that God’s lessons are taught in God’s time. The blessings of this life come to those who are patient. How about the older son? What does his perspective teach us? Appreciate your situation in life. You don’t have to be happy with it…you don’t have to be unhappy with it…but simply be appreciative of it. Be grateful for the small blessings, like being able to work side by side with your parent. Nothing lasts forever so appreciate whatever situation you find yourself in and know that God wants you to learn something from it. God gives us situations for reasons. When we appreciate our situations, we quickly reveal God’s purposes.
Lent is a season to help us be more appreciative. Lent is a season to help us be more patient. Lent is a season to help us be more loving. Jesus’ parable helps us to be all three of these things. It also teaches us how our Father has given us so very much over the last year and how quickly we forget all the blessings. Life can get away from us like it did for the younger son. But our heavenly Father will always be waiting for us with outstretched arms and a lavish feast. Our Father eagerly forgives and gladly loves. So what are you waiting for?! Go, humble yourself and go!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.