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The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 10, 2013
The Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Sermon: "The Prodigal Father"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So Jesus 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.'"
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Prodigal Father
“A father had two sons.” Thus begins the world’s best known story of sibling rivalry. Charles Dickens once called it, “the most touching story in literature.” It is most commonly named The Parable of The Prodigal Son. Though it does tell us a lot about prodigal children, and about their elder siblings, it also tells us something critical about ourselves, and even more importantly, something critical about God. These critical meanings can change your life and mine. If you and I can catch what Jesus is telling us this morning it will change us from the inside out, it will change our relationships with each other, and it will change and deepen our relationship with God. So, what are these critical meanings that could so radically alter our understandings of ourselves and God?
Here is the first: You and I are both of these sons, in one way or another. We so often approach this text as if we are to choose which of the two sons we are most like at this point in our lives, and then understand our relationship with God on that singular basis. Most of us like that because we are more comfortable identifying with one rather than the other, and then being able to be thankful that we are not like the other. The truth is, though, that we are all of us both of these brothers at one and the same time in different areas of our lives.
Take the younger brother. One day he comes to his father, demands his inheritance, and off he goes into a far country. While there, Jesus says, the boy engages in “dissolute living”. Though Jesus doesn’t expand on this, feel free to supply whatever forms of “Dissolute living” appeal to you: loose sex; loose money; chocolate cake.
Loose living invariably appears more interesting in imagination than in reality. Eventually comes the hangover, empty pockets, wake-up, Monday-morning disaster call. This reckoning comes for this younger brother as well. So, we’re told, he “comes to himself.” In other words, that basic training he did receive at home before he left wasn’t all wasted. There is that, which is still in him, that knows right from wrong, even if he resents it; even if he doesn’t want to have to acknowledge it or live by it. He comes back to himself saying, “Wait a minute. What am I doing here? I wasn’t meant to live like this.” And he turns back toward home.
You and I are like this younger son. Within each of us there are areas of ourselves, our lives that are off in a far country, removed from God’s presence; areas that we do not let God have access to, areas that we have never let God have access to. Ways of thinking, ways of acting and behaving that are shameful, but which we have never “come to ourselves” about and repented of. We know that it would not do to expose these areas to the light. Like some closet in the house that is never opened with company present for fear of what might fall out.
It may be that our far country is emotional; an abusiveness of others, a desire to control others. It may be financial; something that just isn’t quite on the up and up. Our far country may be sexual, or chemical, or relational; something we just wouldn’t want others to know about us. Our own consciences may have already convicted us, but we are not yet at bottom, we still have some sense of control, or we can still rationalize it enough. We have not yet had to come to ourselves-to repent-to give it up. Yet, remember this, control is not freedom. Pleasure is not fulfillment. The hidden life is not a worthy life. We are like the younger son.
You and I are also like this elder son. Can’t you just see him out there in the field as the evening grows darker around him? Nostrils flared, look of indignation: “Music! Dancing! Levity! And on a weeknight! What’s going on?” he asks a servant. “Your kid brother’s home and your father is throwing a feast for him.”
“A feast!? Doesn’t that old fool know that we’ve got turnips to dig? How does he expect me to keep down overhead when he goes and blows everything on a party to welcome home this son of his who blew his hard-earned money on prostitutes?” One moment! Jesus didn’t say anything about prostitutes, did he? Jesus just said that the younger son blew his father’s money on ”loose living.” Perhaps all that means is that he slept in late and ate high-cholesterol snacks. Obviously, it is more than that, but see!? The converse of the older brother’s “See what a good boy am I,” is always “See what undeserving slobs everyone else is. I’m so much more deserving of your love and respect than he is; than they are!”
Like the elder brother, there are attitudes and actions we indulge in that keep us out in the dark field, apart from God as well. You don’t have to leave home to be living at a distance in spirit. What are some of these distant places of spirit? There is the dark field of resentment, of envy and jealousy, of unkindness, of un-forgiveness, of anger and wrath, of self-pity. All of us suffer from one or more of these dark fields of spirit from time to time. It is normal, human nature to react this way when we have been slighted or offended, rejected or injured by someone else. When we dwell on it, though, and do not forgive and let go; when we nurse the grudge, keep it sore, open and bleeding with the acid of resentment, talk it up, keep rehearsing our sense of being wronged, it is then that we become the elder brother.
We are so convinced of the correctness of our self-righteous indignation that even God’s entreaties will not bring us into the light of his joy. O yes, it is quite possible to create a far country out in some darkened field of spirit and still look like the dutiful, obedient, and faithful one. Yet, no matter what strange good feeling we may garner from our self-imposed exile, remember this, self-satisfaction is not joy. Righteous indignation is not happiness. Such living is not a life of peace. The warm beckoning light of God’s loving presence is just as alien to our senses as it is for the one who has truly rejected everything and gone off into a far country.
Within each one of us are the conditions and attitudes of both of these sons. That is Jesus’ first critical meaning for us this morning. But wait! There is Good News here in this Scripture passage too. This is Jesus other critical meaning, and this is it: God is our loving parent; The God of amazing grace. You see, this story is not so much about these two sons and their weaknesses as it is about the Father and his desire to bring them home. Jesus said, “A Father had two sons.” This is not, then, the story so much of our sins, as it is the story of God’s ability to heal us and restore us. This is the story of God’s grace. Grace! Do you remember the definition of grace? It is unmerited favor, underserved good will, unearned love. God loves each of us with a love that none of us has ever even approached deserving. God does not love us because we are so wonderful and delightful and worthy and perfectly perfect in every way. None of us is anything like that and we know it. No, God loves us because he is our loving parent: faithful when we are faithless, loving even when we are unlovable, forgiving when we are unforgivable.
One artist captured this in a painting that shows the moment of truth at the prodigal’s return. While the boy is still far off, the father spots him. The father has been waiting at the gate watching for him all along. But the father doesn’t just stay there. Upon the first glimpse of return, the father deserts his watch post and dashes down the road to grasp his child. He runs with such abandon that one of his sandals works loose and is literally flying off his foot; so much does the father care for nothing but the retrieval of his child.
We call this the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it’s really the story of the Prodigal Father. To be prodigal means to give away one’s treasures with abandon. The father’s love is more extravagant than either the younger brother’s loose living or the older brother’s moral rectitude. This is the story about a parent who meets us when we drag in from the far country after good times go bad; who comes out into the lonely darkness of our self-righteousness and begs us to come into the party.
Note that this story doesn’t have an ending. Jesus doesn’t end the story because this is a story that you and I finish ourselves. The one on whom the father is waiting, the one whom he is begging to come in to the party, is you and me. I do not know by which of these paths you are here this morning. But I do know that your journey has not been alone, whatever it may feel like to you. There is One who names you, claims you, has plans for you, awaits or prods, invites and blesses you.
We are well into the season of Lent now. In fact, only two weeks remain. If you have not already begun to do so, then now is the time to devote yourself to conversation with God; to prayer and regular study of your Bible. If you want a guide, then use the Daily Office readings in the back of the Prayer Book. Get a devotional guide with daily readings and prayers. Start the Bible Challenge, if you haven’t already, and read the devotionals posted daily on-line. Do not forsake gathering together with your sisters and brothers in Christ. These, together with worship, are the road home, the path out of the darkening field.
Open that closet and clean it out; have done with that way of living that enslaves you. Come out of that darkness of spirit and put those relationships right. Step onto the road. Step out of the field. For you the father waits. To you the father calls. If you will do these things now, then this Easter will dawn for you with a resurrection of joy and life such as only Christ can give.
“A father had two sons.” Whether you are coming back from a far country or whether you are coming in from the darkness, the greeting is the same. “Welcome home my daughter, my son. Come inside.” Come to the feast. Come!