I’ve had four opportunities to travel to Europe and the Middle East and let me tell you, each of my journeys showed me a world you don’t find here in Weatherly. When you travel to a foreign country, you have a chance to enjoy and to experience a culture by being fully immersed in it. You hear the language, you meet the people, you experience the surroundings.
I remember visiting Dresden in Germany and Galilee in Israel and thinking all of this is so old. Galilee is the same Galilee from Jesus’ time and in Dresden, we find the mother church with the statue of Martin Luther standing in front of it. When you visit these places on vacation or on tour, time stands still. We are held in the stillness of God’s time, as our experiences wash over us and change us forever.
Although these experiences are typically called vacation, they are little windows into the realm of God’s world. I believe God helps hold us still, in quiet, so we can experience God in each of these places. Whether I was visiting churches in Greece or mosques in Bahrain and Turkey, it’s clear that we have found special ways to worship God within our own religious parameters. This is important, because we are all people of the Bible. All of our religions got their start there and God’s protection for God’s people started with Abram, who became Abraham, who was the father of both Ishmael and Isaac. God doesn’t love us because we’ve found the perfect way to honor or love or worship God. God’s love, mercy and forgiveness happens because God the Creator cares for, loves and nurtures the creatures that God made. God is the perfect parent, who loves perfectly, lavishly, even recklessly. And that brings us to our gospel lesson today.
This story of the prodigal son is a favorite story, a very familiar story, but maybe for the wrong reasons. I thought a prodigal son was a repentant son, a foolish son who saw the error of his ways. Doesn’t it make sense to think that in Lent a son would see his foolish ways and come back to his father to ask for forgiveness? We keep hearing, Return to the Lord, repent, change your ways. But prodigal is not about repentance. The word prodigal means wasteful, reckless, out of control with no thoughts for the future. It’s not just spending lavishly, it’s about giving as lavishly. The prodigal bug has bitten every member of the family-young son, older son, even the father.
Now, most of the time, we take a superficial look at the characters in Jesus’ story, the arguments between them and then we get down to the real point that Jesus is making. It’s Jesus who is the Savior and Messiah. Today’s lesson tells the true nature of God, who eats with tax collectors and sinners.
The lesson shows how God interacts with the creation God loves. It’s an unusual story for us, but it’s typical of God. Maybe this story is here in the middle of Lent, just before the cross and crucifixion, to help us better understand, worship and love the God who so loved the world.
Let’s start with the youngest son, the baby in this prodigal story. Life is good, but life might be better somewhere else-in another country or another culture. This guy is all about himself-self serving, self absorbed, just plain selfish. If he honored his father, like a good Jewish boy should do, he’d wait for his small share of the inheritance and bide his time working in the family business. But he wants his money-now. He wants his share-now. And his foolish father agrees, cashing in stocks and bonds, taking a hit in this market. He gives the kid his money and off he goes. He’s cut himself off from his family forever through his disrespect for his father. He is as good as dead to his family and may never be seen again.
While the younger boy is out spending his money, the older son is home, running the family business like a good son should do. With his brother as good as dead, this will all be his someday. It’s a good investment of time, to work hard. Just build up the business, work the farm and property dreaming of one day running the whole business the way he wants to run it. But that will be after he’s buried his father; for now, he follows Dad’s advice.
Off in another land, the younger son has had his fun and his money’s run out. His friends have disappeared and he’s alone and hungry, but he’s too proud to beg, so he takes a job. No good Jewish boy would ever take this job, but right now, his need and his hunger override his religious views. He’s living in a pig barn, taking care of pigs, eating the pods that the pigs eat.
Now that the party’s over, he’s got a lot of time to think. This is a miserable way to live. No one should have to live this way. Even my father’s slaves are living better than me, eating better than me. This is no way for a Jewish man to live. Wow-suddenly he’s stopped thinking of himself and he’s thinking about his faith, his father, his religion? Or is he thinking about his homelessness, his hunger and his fear? Could he be thinking about both?
He makes a plan to go home, to ask his father’s forgiveness and to live as one of the hired hands. It’s a big step down from beloved son to hired slave. But it’s a big step up from disobedience to obedient, from sin to salvation, from lost to found. Even while the son rehearses his speech, his father sees him coming in the distance, his heart rejoices that his son is not dead, but alive and he rushes to greet him, to hug him and pull him back into the family again. He’s not dead, he’s alive. It’s party time! Pulling out all the stops, the slaves prepare a banquet, the father throws a big party and greets his son like the royalty that God sees in all of us. Think about that line-the father greets his son like the royalty God sees in all of us.
Now the older son comes from the field, sees the party and is furious when he hears who the party is for. This son has his own selfishness going on and throws a tantrum for his father. I’ve worked like a slave, I’ve never disobeyed, I’ve never been given. Stop, his father says, what’s mine is yours. You’ve always been with me and you’ve never been lost-until now? The question is will one child leave God’s side simply because God loves another child just as well? We have a very big God with lots and lots of children and a reckless way of loving and forgiving, even before the words are spoken. Jesus asks the religious leaders, Can you live with that?
Has there ever been a time when you’ve really been lost to God-when you feel cut off or abandoned or forgotten? Has there been a time when God has reminded you- it’s been awhile. Let’s talk-we’ve got a lot to talk about.
I believe we can rest in the same assurance as the apostle Paul, who reminds us in Romans 8; We are more than conquerors through Christ who loves us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That’s the good news, that’s the gospel. Amen.
Rev. Dawn Richie