Sermons That Work

A True Story, Lent 4 (C) – 2001

March 25, 2001

The Gospel we just heard is sometimes called the ” Story of the Prodigal Son” or the “Story of the Two Sons.” I prefer to call it the “Story of the Forgiving Father.”

This story asks each of us an important question: Will you go in? Will you go in to the feast of forgiveness, will you go in to the party where all are welcome, or will you remain outside?

There are different ways of remaining outside, though they amount to the same thing.

At the beginning of this story, the younger son acts out one such way. His family is well off. His father is a gentleman farmer who owns lots of land. So the younger son demands his inheritance. He wants to leave home, hit the road. Now usually a father must die before passing on an inheritance. So this younger son’s demand amounts to telling his father: “Drop dead!” The old man’s heart breaks, but he does what his son asks, and hands over a substantial sum.

The younger son packs up and leaves. He goes away, far away, to some place where no one recognizes him, no one knows his family, some place where he can be selfish without restraint. The boy has never handled so much money before. He spends and spends and spends, and has nothing to show for it. Nothing. As he runs through his bankroll, the economy crashes. Now he has no cash and no connections. He’s just another poor face on the street.

Jobs are hard to find, he discovers. He ends up with a minimum wage job slopping the hogs.

Jesus tells this story to a Jewish audience, people who as a matter of religious tradition avoid anything to do with pigs. They wince when he tells them about how the boy becomes a swineherd, and feels so hungry that he wants to stuff himself with the swill meant for the pigs. In the eyes of the Jewish audience that hears this story, the boy has hit bottom–with a crash!

Many people today have hit bottom like that boy. They’re slopping the hogs, so to speak, and they feel desperate. Anxiety, fear, and loneliness press upon them mercilessly, as they try to cope inside a system that only seems to take, that turns people into things. They feel disconnected from themselves, they don’t know who they are, and so they become sick, emotionally distraught, or they become cynical, wanderers without hope. They remain outside the feast of forgiveness. They forget they have a home.

One day the younger son wakes up, a little at least. He decides to return home, get a job from his old man. He’s not a son any more, but the family farm is still prosperous. There will be three square meals a day. Meanwhile, back home, the old man often walks out on the porch and scans the horizon for some sign of his lost son. Although sorrow has aged him, he does not give up hope.

One day the father sees a familiar figure far off. His heart jumps! It’s his son! He doesn’t know why the boy is back–maybe he wants more money. The father doesn’t care. All he knows is that his son is back. His doctor would not approve, but this old man goes running, running down the road to welcome home his son.

Utterly out of breath, the father grabs the boy in a bear hug, plants on his cheek a big, wet kiss, and then holds the boy out in front of him. With a smile on his lips and a tear in his eye, he looks at his son in silence for a long moment.

The boy begins to stammer out his carefully crafted confession: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you . . . ” The old man is deaf to what his son says. He yells over his shoulder to the household help: “Get the sharpest suit, the flashiest ring for this kid, and get it now! Get him out of these stinking sneakers, and into black leather shiny shoes! Start fixing dinner: roast the calf we’ve been fattening, bring out the champagne! It’s party time! My son’s not dead; he’s alive! He’s not lost; he’s been found!”

Notice what doesn’t happen. There’s no lecture about how irresponsible the boy has been. There’s no suggestion that he go inside and apologize to his mother. There’s no demand for an accounting of where the money went. What does happen is welcome, and gift giving, and celebration, and music and dancing long into the night.

Will this boy go into the feast of forgiveness? Or will he remain outside, overwhelmed by the reality of his unworthiness, as though still in the pigsty?

This younger son still lives in the experience of some people. Inside them is an irresponsible wastrel, someone selfish and arrogant, who runs from love, who must hit bottom and land hard before learning a lesson. That younger son travels home in sorrow, yet finds an unexpected welcome. Will they go into the feast of forgiveness, or will they stay outside?

There’s also the elder son. He has his own way of remaining outside. Mark Twain describes him perfectly as “a good man in the worst sense of the word.” He’s upstanding, a hard worker, respected by others, fit to inherit the farm, but he’s also a reservoir of resentment.

One day, the elder son comes home after a long, hard day to find the house unexpectedly alive. Music blares forth from the windows. There’s the sound of dancing inside. On the porch people stand around, talking and laughing. This makes the elder son suspicious. He hates parties and he hates surprises.

Still outside, he finds out from a farmhand that the party’s for his brother. The wastrel’s back! And HE’S being ignored! The elder son’s weariness turns to jealous rage. He remains outside, shaking his fist at the house, yelling insults at his brother and father.

The old man, now anxious again, sets down his champagne glass and goes outside to his angry elder son. The boy runs from him, and for the second time that day, the old man jogs down the road. Breathless, he confronts his son. This boy lets his father have it with a truckload of resentments.

Finally, the father gets a word in edgewise. The truth is, he loves both his sons. To welcome the wastrel is no loss for the elder: it means the elder brother has gained his sibling back.

The elder brother has also fled from his father. And he has not just down the road! For years he has ignored his father’s kindness. A false, hard image of a demanding father has held sway over him, and made life miserable for those around him. The real father tries to shatter this illusion. He wants his older son to return home, too.

Will the elder son go in to the party where all are welcome, even his wastrel brother? Will he raise high his glass, and toast his brother’s return? Or will he remain outside, isolated in anger?

This elder brother lives in many people. Their sin is one of quiet forgetfulness. They overlook their blessings. Their appreciation turns dull. They feel sorry for themselves, become jealous of others, and strive all the harder to be worthy. They have no taste for a party that welcomes home a prodigal.

But the door remains open. How about you? Will you go in to the feast of forgiveness, will you go in to the party where all are welcome, or will you remain outside? One thing’s certain: the party would not be complete without you.

This famous story is beautiful, but is it true? How do we know that we have such a father?

Remember who tells the story: Jesus Christ. He does not simply talk about the Father; the Father dwells in him. He does not simply speak of our return; he invites us back. He does not simply describe the party; he makes that party possible.

We have responded to his story because we are here, here inside our Father’s house. Now comes the feast of forgiveness, the banquet of our eternal home.

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Christopher Sikkema


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