Sermons That Work

Today’s Parable Is the Longest…, Lent 4 (C) – 2010

March 14, 2010

[NOTE TO READER: In paragraph 19, the word “Laetare”€ is pronounced: lay-TAR-ray.]

Today’s parable is the longest in the Bible – and the most quoted. The parable of the Prodigal Son, as it is popularly known, has preoccupied and perplexed the thoughts and works of countless religious and secular scholars, writers, and even artists.

Why? It doesn’t seem so complex. The meaning doesn’t seem so obscure on the face of it. The domestic scene it describes may even be familiar to some of us: the return to the fold of a beloved family member who has wandered off for a while. His family greets him with conflicting emotions. Some feel joy at his return; some feel relief that he is safe; some feel jealousy that all seems forgiven and even forgotten; some harshly judge his profligate ways; some feel it is unfair that they are not celebrated for staying and remaining faithful to their family obligations.

But as you can expect, the real message of this parable isn’t quite so simple. It doesn’t lie so obviously on the surface of the narrative.

Taking our cue from Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians, we realize that the eldest son’s error was in judging his brother’s return and his father’s reaction of pure joy – no reproaches, no recriminations for the trouble or grief the son’s appearance had caused – “from a human point of view.” Who among us hasn’t and wouldn’t take that same “human point of view” when confronted with a similar situation that seems so obviously unfair?

Somehow the Prodigal Son’s return to his father’s favor seems just too easy: essentially, “Hi, Dad. I’m Home!” And all is forgiven. Let’s have a party!

It is hard for us to accept that the consequences for behaving badly could be, should be, so apparently light. Even though we understand that the return to the faithful flock of any one strayed sheep, even just one formerly lost soul, is always the occasion for joy in the family of God. Even though we understand that always – but especially during Lent – the call to “repent and return” is one that we all should heed in small ways, as well as in life-changing ways. Even though we take to heart the psalmist’s reminder that “happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven and whose sin is put away!”

We understand, we have been taught and believe abstractly, that a forgiving nature is one which we are called to cultivate in a life of faith and to demonstrate in our relationships with others. But somehow we can’t help but feel that the situation described in this parable smacks of what we might call “cheap grace.” It conflicts with our definitely all-too-human notion that we need to earn good fortune, and certainly in some measure deserve God’s favor, and that “no pain, no gain” is the proper yardstick for measuring out someone’s portion of forgiveness.

Understanding God’s justice is never easy. Basically, the difficulty lies in the fact that we confuse our sense of justice with God’s capacity for love. In human and secular understanding, the two have become entangled – and muddled. Justice has to do with fairness; love has to do with selflessness. Justice is balanced; love is extravagant. Justice almost always involves some measure of retribution; love calls us to reconciliation.

The deeper truth of the story of the Prodigal Son lies in coming to grips with the breadth and depth of God’s love. In the words of the hymn, it requires us to contemplate the “wideness of God’s mercy,” to imagine it from outside and beyond the narrow confines of the human perspective.

The breadth of God’s embrace is unknowable to us. The depth of God’s love is incomprehensible – and certainly immeasurable from a human point of view. It is not for us to decide who falls within God’s grace – nor who should be excluded from his mercy.

During this time of Lent, when we are meant to prepare ourselves spiritually for reliving the story of Jesus’ passion, his death and resurrection, we need to keep Paul’s words clearly in focus – that through Jesus’ one astounding act of self-sacrificing love, “God was reconciling the world to himself.” And not just reconciling our one self-selected flock of faithful believers gathered in any one place at any one time, but the whole world, once for all time.

In Christ, in his death and resurrection, God was reconciling the world to himself. There was no universal accounting of trespasses, no meting out of more salvation to some than to others. There was no greater redemption for one group than for another, no fuller restoration of a chosen few over the vast hordes of sinners. God was reconciling the whole world to himself. That isn’t justice; that is unfathomable divine mercy and unbounded holy love.

Paul tells us that we have been entrusted with spreading the message of this kind of absolute reconciliation – the message of reconciliation that lies at the heart of the story of the Return of the Prodigal Son.

And the kind of reconciliation that we are called to preach is the kind of reconciliation that does not weigh our merits, but simply pardons our offenses, as the collect says.

It’s the kind of reconciliation that holds nothing back, harbors no recriminations, nurtures no resentments.

The kind of reconciliation that demands nothing in return –nothing except utter surrender to God’s mercy.

The kind of reconciliation that starts with a heartfelt confession like the one the Prodigal Son makes to his father: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am not worthy of your favor.”

We are called to preach the kind of reconciliation that comes from unconditional forgiveness, like the father gave in his immediate welcoming and loving embrace of his errant son: “Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Laetare Sunday, or as it has been more popularly called “Rejoice Sunday,” referring to the opening words of the Introit for this day: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem.”

On this one day amid the other thirty-nine of this penitential season, the clergy may shed somber purple vestments for glorious rose ones.

On this Sunday we are permitted to dispense with whatever Lenten regimen of fasting we may have imposed upon ourselves and indulge – moderately – without guilt.

And on this Sunday we are told to make a truly joyful noise unto the Lord with hymns and organ, and even array our altars with gloriously colored flowers – a celebration that immediately calls to mind our gospel story and the father’s celebration at his youngest son’s return.

On this Sunday, we are meant to cast our eyes forward to the end of this season of penitence. On this Sunday we are called to anticipate the joy of Christ’s resurrection, to celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption given long ago to the Israelites, God’s chosen people:

  • a promise renewed time and again down through the millennia each time God’s people have returned from their disobedient and faithless ways
  • a promise given to Moses when he led the people out of Egypt and across the Red Sea
  • a promise renewed with Joshua at Gilgal, redeeming all Israel from their forty years of wandering faithlessness in the wilderness
  • a promise renewed again with David, forgiving him for his sins against Uriah and God and making him king of all Israel
  • a promise renewed by bringing the dispersed people of Israel out of exile in Babylon and restoring God’s people to the promised land

Again and again, scripture recounts one story after another of redemption, restoration, and renewal of God’s people – individuals, tribes, and nations of God’s people — until finally, the promise is fulfilled in Christ once for all time for all who would believe.

Jesus Christ died once for all time and once for all humankind.

On this Sunday of rejoicing, let us remember the words of our psalmist this morning: “Mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord. Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; shout for joy, all who are true of heart.”

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Christopher Sikkema


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