4th Sunday in Lent — 6 March 2016
Christ Church, Burlington – 10:00 am
Joshua 5:9-12 | Psalm 32 | 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 | Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
“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.”
The Gospel reading today is what we traditionally call “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” although some commentators, including me, would argue that that title is not quite on target.
You may have noticed, from the bulletin this morning or perhaps from your own memory of the 15th chapter of St. Luke, that a number of verses are omitted from this reading this morning. And perhaps you asked yourself, “I wonder why they left out these verses?” and perhaps “I wonder what the left out verses are?” and perhaps you know already! But I’ll tell you!
First of all, of course, there’s the introduction, verses 1-3. This sets up the context, which is important. The scribes and the Pharisees are whining because Jesus hangs out with sinners. Well, yes, they are sinners. So are we all. What kind of sinners are they? It doesn’t say. All kinds, I suppose. The tax collectors of course may have been crooks, and certainly they were collaborators. Apparently Jesus is still in Galilee at this point, so they would not be direct agents of Rome, but they are agents of the puppet regime of Herod Antipas, which wouldn’t be a whole lot better. And “sinners” – well, at the very least that means that as Jews they were not very observant. They worked on the Sabbath, they didn’t go to Synagogue, they didn’t keep the fasts. Whatever. The Pharisees are whining about this, and so Jesus is talking about them, to them.
And you may recall, the first parable Jesus tells them is the story of the Lost Sheep: a shepherd has 100 sheep, loses one, and goes looking until he finds it; and when he finds it and brings it home he calls all his friends in to celebrate with him. “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” [Luke 15:7]
The second parable is about the Lost Coin; a woman loses a coin (not an insignificant loss in that culture!) and turns the house upside down until she finds it. And she calls in all her friends; and “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God.” [Luke 15:10]
And then next in Luke’s narrative is the story of the man who had two sons, which we hear this morning. I think the stringing together of these three stories reflects Luke’s narrative strategy. Whether Jesus actually told these three stories together in sequence is not particularly important. Remember that Jesus’ ministry presumably lasted at least one and probably several years, and I don’t doubt that he told all his parables over and over in a variety of settings. The Gospels are not strict chronological records, and they did not have CNN camera crews. But the story of the man with two sons has similarities to the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin, even though it is also different in important ways. It is not just the story of a lost son; it is the story of two lost sons.
The story of the younger son we can easily imagine. We may even know a similar story from friends, or even family, or even our own history. The boy goes off “to find himself” or whatever, and completely messes up his life, until he realizes that he needs to go home, no matter how humiliating that may be. And of course his father sees him coming and runs out and embraces him in welcoming love. And God is like that. (This story isn’t really an allegory; Jesus didn’t use allegories, at least not strictly speaking, but the father in this story is like what and who God is.)
Okay, so far this story is a lot like the first two stories of the finding of the lost and the rejoicing over their return.
But this story doesn’t stop there. There’s the older son. (And why do you suppose Jesus is telling this story to the scribes and Pharisees?) And the older son is really ticked off! He has been obedient, faithful – he has been scrupulously observant! He never ran away from home! He deserves better, he thinks. He thinks he has earned his father’s favor. And his father is not being fair!
Well, no. The father is not being fair. God is not fair. And we need to get over that. And we need to realize that for that we should be profoundly grateful! You see, the older brother is also lost, albeit in a different way.
Most of us, I think, are deeply concerned about justice, as well we should be. Among the many things we say about God, and the Scriptures say about God, is that God is a God of justice. But we assume that what we mean by “justice” must be the same as God’s justice, and that may not always be the case. For us, “justice” means people should get what they deserve. In the Gospel story today, the older son is very much concerned about what he deserves, which he thinks he’s not getting, while his little brother is getting what he does not deserve. Father is not fair. Father is not just.
And by that reckoning, God is not just either. But God’s justice is not concerned with what we deserve, but with what we need.
We have a hard time wrapping our minds around that.
So did the older son.
And he is us.
The shepherd who found his lost sheep called in his friends to rejoice with him. The woman who found her lost coin called in her friends to rejoice with her. The father who received back his lost son killed the fatted calf and threw a party. “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God.”
But no joy in the presence of the older brother, who in his continued lostness does not realize that God’s justice is not about what we deserve, not about what we have earned, not about fairness but about forgiveness, with love and with life, new life, new creation.