a sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent
The younger son left and squandered all he was give. The older son dolefully stayed behind, working for something that was already his. Both of them lost the fullness of life which God intends for us.
Lost and found. What’s it like to be lost? What do we have to do to be found?
Today’s Gospel is actually the 3rd of a series of parables that Jesus tells about being lost and found. The first one is the parable of the lost sheep – a shepherd has 100 sheep, loses 1 and then leaves the 99 to find the one he had lost. The second parable is about a lost coin – a woman has 10 coins, loses one and then turns the house upside down searching for the one she lost.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a lost son. Actually, it’s about two lost sons. The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. So the father divides his property between his two sons, giving them each half of everything he had. The younger son did what younger sons tend to do; he took off – went to Las Vegas and spent all his money on whiskey, women and gambling (or something like that). Meanwhile the older son stayed on the farm, dutifully working the fields with his father, being a pretty typical first-born, straight, upright, and dependable.
We know how this story ends: the younger son burned through his dough and was reduced to working in the most degrading profession there is for a Jew – he works for a pig farmer. He looks at his situation and thinks, “what have I done? If I go back home, at the worst that could happen is that my dad would put me to work as a hired hand. It’s worth a shot.” So he heads back home, rehearsing what he’ll tell his dad when he sees him again. When he gets close, his father finds him and rushes out to embrace his lost son, giving him a fine robe, an expensive ring and a huge celebration for the boy and his friends.
One of the things that strikes me about this story is that the young son never really asks for forgiveness. He comes home and admits that he made a mistake, but he doesn’t really say that he’s sorry. In fact, he doesn’t really change his ways any at all. The boy is lost. He seems to do what he’s always done, gliding easily past his mistakes and not taking any responsibility for his life.
It’s the father who moves to the son. He rushes out to meet his son, he embraces the son before he even finishes is speech. Then, even after giving him half of everything he had, the father gives him even more still.
Of course, none of this sits very well with the older son – the serious, righteous, responsible, law-and-order first-born child. All he sees is that his baby brother came back (as he knew he would), after he lost everything (as he knew he would) and that somehow, he wheedled his way back into his daddy’s good graces (just as he always does). If the old man isn’t going to punish him, what’s the point of all his hard work? It’s just not fair; it doesn’t seem right. Where’s the justice in that?
The fact of the matter is, the older son was just as lost as his younger brother, but for different reasons. Yes, he worked faithfully along side his dad for many years, but by his own admission, he felt more like a slave than a member of the family. He worked tirelessly and dutifully, but there was no joy in his work. He too is lost; he could not imagine himself as the object of his father’s love and he refuses to come to the celebration.
Once again, it’s the father who moves to the son. He embraces his older child and reminds him that he already has everything the father can possibly give him.
Two lost boys. What’s a father to do? Should he have demanded that his younger son repent and account for his actions, and risk driving him away again, or should he have opened his arms in love? Should he have ranted and raved against his older son’s miserly attitude, completely missing the point that his brother has returned home safe and sound, or should he try to bring him into the celebration?
What would you do?
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
According to Paul, God reconciles us to himself, not the other way around. In other words, when we are lost, God takes the initiative to find us. God restores us to relationship with God first, before we even think about being in relationship with each other. No matter how lost we’ve become, God gives us live anew. That’s because God is interested in punishing us for sins we have committed, God is interested in reconciliation. More than anything else, God wants a relationship with us.
Even after our most sinful transgressions, God embraces us and welcomes us back into relationship again and again and again. No matter what we’ve done or how far we’ve strayed, we are still God’s children. We may lose sight of God, but God never loses sight of us.
Human love is conditional. Sometimes we’re lost like the younger son, not really repenting but negotiating and bargaining for God’s love and mercy. “I know I don’t deserve it. But please just give me another shot.” Sometimes we’re lost like the older son, dolefully doing our duty, trying to earn ourselves a ticket to heaven. Both ways of being lost deprive us of the fullness of life which God intends for us.
God’s love is different from human love because it’s completely unconditional. It’s not something we have to earn through hard work, it’s not something we can bargain for. Because God created us to have a much fuller relationship with God and one another – more love, more joy, more peace than we can even imagine.
Sometimes, God rushes down to meet us, and dresses us in the finest robes. And while we may think we only deserve a bowl of soup and a crust of bread, God gives us a celebration fit for a prince – yet another slice of the kingdom. Other times, God pleads with us, “Slow down. It will be okay. Life isn’t a competition and no one’s not keeping score. You have already won all that I have – my heart, my soul, my love. Come inside and join in the celebration.”
Even when we’re lost, God invites back into a relationship with God. Even when we’re lost, God yearns for us to come back, again, and again, and again and lays his entire kingdom at our feet.
Thanks be to God!