Sermon given March 27, 2022
One of the things that make this parable great is just how relatable it is. Even two thousand years later, it is easy to connect with the characters. Who speaks to you today? Is it the younger son, coming to his senses and returning home? Is it the father rushing out to greet him and celebrating his return? Or is it the older son who is upset over the celebration? Maybe you connect with one of the servants, watching it all happen and trying to process the family dynamics.
I titled this sermon “It’s a Prodigal Life” when I was writing the church bulletin for the Ledger and Times. I was being clever because I really had no idea what I was going to say about this parable. But just like how the movie It’s a Wonderful Life shows the impact of an individual on a community, this shows the impact of the younger brother on his community. This story is relatable because it’s all relational.
The younger brother wants to live life to the fullest, he wants to have as much experience as he can. That’s not a bad thing. But he is prone to desire excesses in life. That’s why he’s called a prodigal. He’s wastefully extravagant in his spending. He reminds me of someone struggling with addiction. There appears to be a compulsion, something he finds hard to control pulling him away. He breaks apart loving familial bonds in order to get what he craves. He soon ends up broke, starving, and miserable. This is not a person who had fun and is now coming home without consequences, as his older brother supposes. This is a person who is trying to live a sober life, who is at the beginning of a recovery process.
His father recognizes this desire for recovery, recovery of self, recovery of relationship, and recovery of health. The father rejoices to see his son because he knows where his son has been and is so relieved to see him alive and whole. How many parents wouldn’t celebrate in his situation? He never expected to see his son again in his lifetime and here he is. He’s so excited he immediately starts a welcome home party.
But the older brother struggles. I have a lot of empathy for the older brother. First of all, he isn’t even invited to the party. He hears the music and has to ask a servant what is going on. He’s initially forgotten in the excitement of the moment.
There’s also a real fear that the younger brother could now take a part of his inheritance, could leave him with less, and who’s to say the younger brother won’t run off again when more wealth comes his way? In those days, two thirds of the property went to the elder son and one third went to the younger at the time of the father’s death. That third that should have gone to the younger son was already sold off. With the younger brother being taken back in as a son, there’s a question of how the property will be divided at the father’s death. Will the father split up the remaining property as though the younger brother had not already spent his inheritance? Will the younger end up with two thirds of the property and the older with only a third? And how was that fair when the older son had stayed with their father, had cared for their property, had always been there? Did the younger brother gain more by living a wild life than the older brother who had always been by the father’s side?
This was the question Jesus was answering about sinners and tax collectors. Would they ultimately gain more and be better off than the Pharisees? The Pharisees had stayed by God’s side, and had done all that was required of them. They followed the commandments, they worshiped, they brought their sacrifices. What had God done for them recently? The sinners Jesus eats with had the opportunity to do whatever they wanted. They had scorned and scoffed at God’s laws and God’s ways, and yet, Jesus was essentially killing the fatted calf for them. Did the sinners get a better deal in the end? Was living a conscientious life, a life of obeying God’s law and God’s commandments, a waste of time?
Jesus reminds the Pharisees that they have had the better life. The sinners and tax collectors that were eating with Jesus weren’t carefree, many of them were lost and hurting. They had come to their senses and desired what God could provide, the grounding of love that stabilizes lives. The Pharisees always had that grounding, but these people were finding it anew or for the first time.
The father in this parable tells the older son, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” The eldest son loses nothing with the youngest son coming home. He still has his property. He still has his relationship with his father. In fact, he gains something: he gains a new relationship with his brother. His brother had once been considered dead, but is alive. He was lost, but is now found. The rich abundance of love adds to the older son’s life. It does not subtract. That’s great news.
One of the things I really love about this parable is how Jesus lets the older brother be mad. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter if a life transition is good or bad, it can be very emotional. The brother had the right to be mad that the party started without his knowledge. He had a right to be scared about his inheritance and worried about whether his brother would take more from the family. It’s okay for him to have those thoughts and emotions. The father doesn’t get mad at him for that. The father simply reminds him that even though it’s scary, what’s happening is a good thing.
And aren’t so many life transitions like that? Even the joyful ones come with some trepidation. I imagine the Israelites waking up the day after the manna stopped coming from heaven. There was joy that they no longer had to rely on this strange white stuff from the sky, but there was probably a bit of fear. What if something happened? What if they went through a famine or drought? Would they still be provided for? Would it come back or was this it? Having to rely on themselves after forty years of being provided for had to have been emotional. It was a good thing, it meant that they had finally made it to where God was leading them, but there were still lingering fears.
We live in a lot of these spaces in our own lives. Joy and fear aren’t opposite emotions, often they occur at the same time. Anytime life changes, it doesn’t matter how good the change is, I know I at least fret and worry. That’s part of what makes this moment of the pandemic hard for me. Numbers are low, which is fantastic, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, for cases to tick back up, for the cycle to continue like it did in August. I’m in the habit of daily checking Covid case numbers and have three tabs open at all times on my phone so I can cross check. I read about the new subvariant that is becoming dominant, and I check case numbers in places like New York, New Hampshire, and LA. All their numbers are still relatively low and it doesn’t seem right to me. I don’t quite trust Dr. Fauci when he says a new spike is not expected, though numbers will likely increase some. Who knows how long this time of relaxed measures will last? But at this moment, there is less Covid in this country. God invites us not to be reckless, but to rejoice as the numbers of disease and death decrease. We can gather and do more things together. We are allowed to enjoy the moment, even if it turns out to be temporary. Today it is low. We can celebrate that.
Our lives in relationship with one another are never in a permanent state of stability. There is always flux. Some experts will tell you that those who get married usually have several different marriages, the question is whether it’s with the same person or not. The couple that has been married fifty years has a different marriage than when they were newlyweds. Those who are actively raising children have a different relationship than those who aren’t. We evolve and grow together. Similarly, people who are close friends today might be relative strangers in a decade, but today they are here for one another. People change, our relationships change, sometimes dramatically. That’s just how life is. We can celebrate the things that are good right now. We can give to God those things that are bad, so God can help us work through it. Life is constantly moving and changing, but there is a baseline of God’s love helping us through it all.
God always seeks a better relationship with all of us, whether we’re people who have had a good relationship with God since infancy or whether we have wandered far away. God isn’t pushy, God gives us space, but if someone seeks God, God is going to run like the father towards them in embrace. God is open to all parts of us. We don’t have to try to fake emotions. We don’t have to be anybody but who we are at the moment. But God also doesn’t leave us where we are at the moment. Rather, God invites us to see the bigger picture, to rejoice, even when we are uncertain or scared, because when the lost are found, when the dead return to life, we celebrate. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain by living into those moments, even if they turn out to be temporary. There is always a pull towards more love, more compassion, more understanding. God accepts us as we are, but God also calls us forward into a deeper relationship. God loves us prodigally. God spends lavishly and in excess, pouring love upon the world. No matter where we find ourselves, God can find us and love us. Even when we’re mad or uncertain. Even in the midst of addiction or at rock bottom. God’s ready to run to us. Amen.