Oh Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen
Jesus said, “there was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me a 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 the 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 was informed of his approach. He prepared a stern lecture for his son. He organized all the financial documents to show his son what hardships his leaving (with half of the proceeds from the family estate) had caused the rest of the family. When the son reached his father’s house he begged to be admitted. His father kept him waiting several days. When he was finally allowed to see his father the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ His father told him that he was right, he was no longer worthy to be called his son. He summoned before him his servants and ordered them to dress the son in sack cloth and ashes, to give him housing in the barn and to offer him bread and water. Daily the father visited the son and gave him lists of duties to perform as acts of penance to prove his remorse. Daily he required his son to repent of his sins and to mourn the pain he had caused his family. After many months, the father deemed it acceptable to reinstate the son into the family, but only as the black sheep. As he did so he called his other son, the oldest, and he said to him, ‘Listen, for all these years you have been working as a slave for me and you have never disobeyed one of my commands. You deserve a reward for your faithfulness.’ Then the father called his servants and said, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on my eldest boy; put another ring on his finger and the best sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine is righteous, good and faithful, he has been with me always and he deserves our praise.’ And they began to celebrate. But when the younger son realized what was happening he went to his father and asked to be included in the festivities. Then the father said to him, ‘Son you abandoned me and acted as if I were dead. You threw away a lifetime of wealth and you are a disgrace to this family. Learn your lesson and learn it well, for we celebrate because this brother of yours is good and righteous and faithful. Let justice be done.’”
There we go, isn’t that better? Don’t you think the parable sounds better this way? Don’t you get a little satisfaction knowing that that jerk of a younger son got what he deserved, that he got what was coming to him? Don’t you like the justice in honoring that good and faithful older son who never once did anything but his duty. Think about it, we don’t reward obedience enough, we take it for granted, and those who continually mess up get too many breaks. But not this time. If you do the crime you had better be willing to do the time. Nothing worth anything comes for free. Amen. . . .
Isn’t this secretly the way we like to think about God? The God who punishes the sinful and rewards the righteous, the God who dispenses justice by giving folks what they deserve – isn’t this the God we know how to deal with. After all, haven’t we been pretty good most of our lives, shouldn’t all that goodness better count for something. God had better give us credit for all the brownie points we have earned.
Yet, this isn’t the God Jesus described when the Pharisees and Scribes accosted him for hanging out with tax-collectors and sinners. They wanted to know why Jesus would do such a thing. They understood, as every good first century Jew did, that God disliked the sinful and rewarded the righteous. But Jesus told them about a different kind of God. He told them about a God whose nature can be seen through the unending, limitless nature of Divine grace. A God who doesn’t give brownie points but a God who wants nothing more than to have a relationship with his creation. He told them about a God who has a limitless supply of forgiveness and mercy and love. And he did this by telling them three parables – the parable of the lost sheep and the joy the shepherd feels when he finds the stray, the parable of the lost coin and the joy a woman feels when she finds one lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son and the unrelenting love of a father for his lost son. Your God is too small, Jesus tells the Pharisees and the Scribes. God isn’t interested in bringing judgment upon the sinful. Rather, God wants nothing more than to bring the wayward home. God yearns for the suffering and the dysfunctional, the corrupt and the immoral, the way a father yearns for his lost child.
Not too long ago I heard from a priest friend of mine who was battling with his fifteen-year-old daughter. He knew that she was taking part in some very risky behavior, and several nights she had not bothered to come home at all. The parents had tried various forms of punishment, but it did no good. Their daughter lied to them, deceived them and always found a way to turn the tables on them: “Its your fault for being so strict,” she would say. My friend told me, “I remember standing before the plate-glass window in my living room, staring out into the darkness, waiting for her to come home. I felt such rage. I wanted to be like the father of the Prodigal Son, yet I was furious with my daughter for the way she would manipulate us and twist the knife to hurt us. I knew of course that she was hurting herself more than anyone. And yet, I must tell you, when my daughter came home that night, or rather the next morning, I wanted nothing in the world so much as to take her in my arms, to love her, to tell her I wanted the best for her. I was a helpless, lovesick father.”
The lovesick father – that is the description of God given to us by Jesus in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The God who yearns for her suffering and self destructive children. The God who wants nothing more than that they come home. This fourth Sunday in Lent is called “Refreshment Sunday” or “Mothering Sunday.” It is the time when the faithful are encouraged to rest from their Lenten disciplines and reminded of the unending love of God. On this “Refreshment Sunday” we are reminded that there is nothing which can keep us from the love of God. We are reminded that there is no sin too big, no living too dissolute, and no act too heinous. We may be sinful creatures, but we have a God of unending grace who desires nothing more than that we repent, literally that we turn around, come to our senses and go in a different direction. We may want the parable of the Prodigal Son to have a different ending sometimes, but the good news is that it doesn’t. It isn’t a story about justice, it is a lesson in forgiveness.
If you ask most people sitting in churches on any given Sunday what they must do to get to heaven, many of them will reply, “Be good.” But the story of the Prodigal Son contradicts that answer. Instead, Jesus tells us all we have to do is cry “Help.”
Given this God Jesus proclaims, you can fall from justice. You can fall from virtue. You can fall from faith. You can fall from righteousness. But you cannot fall from grace. The lovesick father is always waiting. Always. Waiting. Amen.