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Fourth Sunday of Lent Cycle C (3)
In 1986 Henri Nouwen, a Dutch theologian and writer, toured St. Petersburg, Russia, the former Leningrad. While there he visited the famous Hermitage where he saw, among other things, Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son. The painting was in a hallway and received the natural light of a nearby window. Nouwen stood for two hours, mesmerized by this remarkable painting. As he stood there the sun changed, and at every change of the light’s angle he saw a different aspect of the painting revealed. He would later write: “There were as many paintings in the Prodigal Son as there were changes in the day.”
It is difficult for us to see something new in the parable of the Prodigal son. We have heard the story so many times we believe that we have squeezed it dry of meaning. Not only that, but, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. When we hear the opening words of the parable once again, “And there was a Father who had two sons,” we greet the words with ho-hum. Heard it. Heard it. Heard it.
Yet, I would suggest that just as Henri Nouwen saw a half dozen different facets to Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son, so too are there many different angles to the story itself. This morning I would like for us to re-examine this familiar story by looking at the other prodigal son.
The prodigal son himself is well known to us all. Restless, impatient for his future happiness, he comes and demands from the father that which he thought was rightfully his. He took his money and journeyed to a far country where he wastes it. He wastes the money, wastes his life, and finally ended up doing the most indignant task that a Jew could do——the feeding of swine. It was then that Jesus says that he came to himself. He arises from his situation and goes back to the father to ask to be a servant in his household. And even as he was a long distance away the father saw him and ran out with outstretched arms to greet him. As the story concludes we have the makings of a grand homecoming party.
It was at this point that Jesus shifts the story and begins talking about the older brother. We mustn’t forget the way the story began. It begins, “There was a man who had TWO sons.” It is interesting that Jesus then launches into this wonderfully redemptive story about the younger son who lost his way and came to himself. And, it seems to us an after thought for Jesus to suddenly shift the story to the older brother.
Let’s take a look. As the elder brother is coming in from the fields after a hard days work, he hears a big celebration taking place and he’s puzzled. He stops a servant and asks him what all the music is about. The servant responds: “Oh, haven’t you heard. Its your brother. He’s not dead after all, he’s alive and your father is having a grand homecoming party for him.” I can see him as he turns his face toward home his face rankled with anger. The closer he gets the redder his face and his jaw begins to tighten. His father meets him at the door and reads the look on his face. The elder brother says: “This is a messy situation. I don’t like the way you run things around here. I’ve been around here all this time and worked hard. I never wasted any of your money, yet you’ve never had a party for me and my friends. Yet this younger son of yours, one who wastes all of his money on prostitutes, when he comes home you throw a party. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. Oh, I know. My name is on the check book right underneath yours. But I just wish that I could feel some excitement every now and then too.” Then the father pleads with him to come in, and there the story ends.
Now as much as I like the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and certainly there is no more beautiful story than that of the Prodigal Son, I feel that the heart of the story is in this last part—the elder brother. Here’s the background. One day Jesus, as was so often the case, was associating with publicans and sinners—the rift raft of the streets. And the religious people of the day were greatly troubled with the fact that Jesus spent so much time with all of these irresponsible people. Why the good Jew of that day wouldn’t be caught dead in the home of some of the people whom Jesus made his special friends. Some Catholics today won’t be there either.
So they threw a question to him. Why do you always associate with these sinful people? Jesus responded by telling three stories—there was a lost coin, there was a lost sheep, there was a lost boy. Now, these good religious people could understand who Jesus was talking about when he told these stories. Obviously, he was talking about all of those sinful people he had been associating with. But then Jesus put the clincher on—he said but there is someone else in the story. And that someone else is an older brother. He never left the father’s home and went to the far country. He stayed at home and did the right thing. Well, they knew who Jesus was talking about then. He was talking about them. They were the ones who had never left home and besmirched the family name. But the sad fact is this, like the elder brother, they didn’t quite understand that they too were prodigal sons in need of redemptive love. And they didn’t really understand that the Father loved them too.
Now the older brother has gone down in history as the villain of the story. He presents a mean picture to us. A newspaper correspondent might say of him today, “he’s gotten a lot of bad press.” We are impressed by the fact that he had a certain bitterness of spirit, a certain self-righteousness about him. Or we think he must have had a poor relationship with his family. But the fact of the matter is that Jesus didn’t condemn him, And, there is much good that can be said about him.
For example, I think that we can truthfully say that the elder brother was a hard worker. Even when the party was going on late in the evening he was just coming in from the fields. He wasn’t one of these men who said: “Well, its 4:30, that’s it for me.” Oh no. He was a wealthy man and no doubt the sole heir now to the estate, but he was a man who loved his work so much that he was willing to put in overtime. Our churches are full of older brothers. Whenever there is a party going on you can be sure that they are meeting with the PTA, or some civic group, or attending a training session for church school teachers, or in the kitchen preparing a meal. You can always count on them; they are always there. And the truth of the matter is that most of the worthy causes in America today could not be carried on if it were not for the elder brothers in society.
I’ll tell you something else about this elder brother. I don’t think he was really a mean person at heart like he has been portrayed. In fact, I don’t doubt for a moment that he was a sincere Jew, one who attended the temple faithfully and kept all the laws. But the fact is even though he had lived home all these years he didn’t really understand his father. He just didn’t see why the father would want that worthless younger son of his back into the fold. He didn’t understand that kind of love. At the height of his anger notice how he refers to his own brother. He turns on his father and says, “when this sons of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes…” Apparently the family had somehow received word about how this younger brother was living and the older brother wasn’t going to let him or their father forget it. You almost wonder if there isn’t a tinge of jealousy in the older brother. Maybe deep down inside things and he wanted to do the those things and he is covering up his desires with pious morality. We don’t know. To be sure the elder brother’s heart has become very distressed and pained and we might even say, at this moment, dark and hardened. He is unable to forgive in the heat of the moment.
But, perhaps, in the end a lot good can be said of the older brother. He is earnest; he’s sincere; he’s a hard worker. And most persons in Protestant and Catholic circles today are exactly like him. That is, not too many of us have been saved from the skid rows of life. Not too many of us look back upon a lurid past. The sad part of is, although we are like the elder brother in that we have never wasted our life, we are also like him in three ways. Many of us don’t see, first of all, how unforgiving we are. Second, we don’t see this behavior as prodigal behavior for which we need forgiveness. And third, we don’t seem to realize how much the Father loves us too.
Our lives lack a certain luster. We don’t have the spirit of celebration about us that the Father has. We don’t rejoice over redemption. But we must also cultivate in our hearts the knowledge that God loves us as much as he does the younger brother. I’ll say it again: God loves the older brother just as much as he does the younger brother and think its time that the older brother hear about it.
There have been a lot of elder brothers in the history of the church. There was St. Teresa, who lived in the 16th century. She never left the Father’s home. She went into a convent at an early age and developed a life of self-discipline that would fill anyone with awe. She spent hours a day in prayer. One day, when she was in her mid 40’s, she was entering the chapel to pray as she did everyday. And as she entered she noticed a picture, a picture which had been on the walls for years. It was a picture of Jesus being scourged prior to the crucifixion. And suddenly the realization came to her the Christ had been scourged for her. And those who have studied her life say that this was the great turning point. She had stayed at home in the Father’s house. She had done the right thing. But she needed to know that the Christ who was whipped was whipped for Teresa. And there was joy in heaven that day—not over a soul returning from wild living but for a soul returning from the fields after a hard days work.
You may remember the story… Jesus was invited to the home of this remarkable man. Simon was a rare and loyal Pharisee who was so much like the elder son in so many ways. Simon never left the Father’s home. And that afternoon he treated Jesus with taste and dignity, at his home. While they were eating Jesus was suddenly approached by a woman of the streets who came crying and begging for Jesus forgiveness. And this display of emotion was embarrassing to Simon, even though he was a man of the eastern world where emotions were more openly displayed. Jesus said: Simon, this bothers you doesn’t it. Let me tell you a story. There was a man who had two debtors. One owed him $50 and the other cancelled owed him $500. Neither could pay so the man cancelled the debts of both of them. Now, which one will love him the most? And Simon responded: “Why, of course, the man who was forgiven the $500 debt.”
Simon gave the right answer to Jesus’ question but I have wondered over the years if Simon understood the underlying meaning. The one who owed $500 was obviously the woman. But the person who owed the $50 was Simon himself.
Let me ask you a question: Because Jesus forgave the woman a bigger debt does that mean that he loved her the most? No. Because in the end he forgave them both didn’t he. And also, now listen to this, in actuality he forgave them both the same amount because he forgave them all that they owed. And that’s the important issue here. Most of us are like the elder son in that we think God must certainly measure sin. We think that in the end some people will owe more than others. But I want to tell you that it doesn’t make any difference whether you owe God $50 or $5OO you can’t pay it. It doesn’t make any difference whether you’re an inch outside the Kingdom or a mile outside the Kingdom——you’re outside the Kingdom until he forgives and brings you in. The elder brother needs a savior just as much as the younger brother. The elder brother is just as much a prodigal in his behavior as the younger brother. If the elder brother had just realized that bitterness must be left outside the party and forgiveness must enter in. If Simon had rejoiced at this woman’s repentance and forgiveness… It would have made all the difference.
My friends, our churches today are full of people who have never left the Fathers home, but for one reason or another they just don’t realize just how much the Father loves them too. And as a result they are living as though they don’t even have a Father. They earnestly do what earnest people ought to do, but their souls aren’t aglow. When the service is over we rarely talk about how real God is to us. We go into routine conversations about the weather and so on. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a grand homecoming party for a great host of people who have never gone to the city, so that they might fall in love with home. Amen.
Fourth Sunday of Lent Cycle C (2)
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Fourth Sunday of Lent Cycle C (1)
A father tells of putting his 4-year old daughter to bed one evening. He read her the story of the Prodigal Son. They discussed how the younger son had taken his inheritance and left home, living it up until he had nothing left. Finally, when he couldn’t even eat as well as the pigs, he went home to his father, who welcomed him.
When they finished the story, the Dad asked his daughter what she had learned. After thinking a moment, she quipped, “Never leave home without your credit card!”
Well, that’s a pretty good lesson, though perhaps not the one Jesus had in mind.
Story about an itinerant priest (The Catholic Extension Society used to send priests out for Mass by truck and train) many years ago named G.W. Ravensbury. He’d ride a train to a town, say Mass, get back on the train, and head to another town.
Ravensbury told the story of one unforgettable train ride. He was sitting at the back of a railcar and noticed a young man who was sitting a few rows ahead of him. The young man had a cardboard suitcase stuffed underneath his seat. He appeared very anxious. He would get up, pace the car for a bit, and then sit back down. He did this every 10 minutes or so.
Finally Ravensbury decided that he would go have a chat with the young man. So he got up, asked the young man if he could have a seat next to him, and introduced himself. “Son, my name’s Ravensbury, and I’m a priest. You seem like you’ve got a lot on your mind. Would you like to talk?” Ravensbury said it was like opening up a spigot. The young man’s life story just came pouring out. “Me and my pa didn’t get along well at all when I was coming up,” he said. “We’d fuss and fight. Shoot, we’d get into it over nuthin’.
“One day we were getting after each other real hard–I can’t even remember what about–when I said something like, ‘Well why don’t I just leave!’ And my Daddy said, ‘Son, there’s the door, don’t let it hit you on the backside on the way out.’ I didn’t really want to go, but I was so angry that I went to my room and packed everything I could fit into my suitcase. As I went to leave, my Daddy yelled back at me and said, ‘Son . . . if you walk out that door . . . don’t you ever come back.’ I was so mad I just left.
“Things didn’t go too well for me after that. I kept wandering from one po’dunk town to another working one piddlin’ job after another, and I wasn’t doing too good. One night I was out drinking with some buddies, and we got this idea to try to rob this liquor store. When we got caught, I got sentenced to prison.
“But before I got out, I decided to write home to Mom and Dad. I told them I was in prison, and about to get out. I said I was sorry for how I left and for what I did. That I’d understand if they never wanted to see me again, but I’d be passing through town. You see, my house is just off the tracks here about 10 miles ahead. I told them that if they wanted to see me to tie something white out in the tree. That if there wasn’t anything white, I’d just go on through to the next town and they’d never have to hear from me again.
“Fr. Ravensbury, if there’s nothing white hanging out in that tree,” the young man said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m at the end of my rope. I just don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
Ravensbury said that as they grew closer to his home, the young man became even more nervous. Finally, the young man nudged Ravensbury and said, “My house is right up around this bend. Do you think you could see if there’s anything white tied there for me? I just can’t look.”
Ravensbury said he pressed his forehead up against the window hoping to see something–anything–that was white tied up in a tree. And he said as they turned that corner, it was the most majestic sight he’d ever seen. Apparently that family had emptied their house of every towel, every wash cloth, every bed spread, every pillow case, even every piece of underwear–everything in that house was out there flapping in that tree. It was just a tree of white out there in that yard.
Ravensbury called to the boy, “Young man . . . look!”
As soon as the young man caught a glimpse of the tree, he grabbed his suitcase, rushed out the door, and leaped off the train car as quick as he could. Ravensbury said that the last image he saw was of that young man dragging his cardboard suitcase up the hill, and an older couple bursting out of the house to come greet him.
And Ravensbury said that that is a picture of what God’s grace is like. The cross was God’s way of emptying Heaven’s linen closet of everything white so that it would be known for all-time that God wants us home. No matter what we’ve done, or where we’ve been–for us please just to come home. (1)
Some of you have seen that story played out in your own families. A son, a daughter, a brother, an uncle–someone in the family who, for a while, becomes lost to the family. Alcohol, drugs, a need to escape home–it’s an old, old story. Maybe you, yourself, were once a prodigal. Maybe you still are.
In our hearts all of us are prodigals to one degree or another. Or we are the elder brother, so self-righteous that we cannot even admit our need for repentance. That’s human nature. That’s why this familiar story strikes home as it does. You know the story. It begins with the first few verses of the fifteenth chapter of St. Luke:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them . . .”
Luke sets the scene masterfully. Tax collectors and sinners were gathering around to hear Jesus. As you know, tax collectors were universally despised by the righteous and the unrighteous alike. They had close ties to the occupying Roman government and used despicable means of securing their income.
A rabbinic rule stated that one should not associate with ungodly people, so the rabbis would not even teach those they judged to belong to the class of sinners, which certainly included tax collectors. Yet here was Jesus (a Jewish rabbi) teaching a group of tax-collectors and sinners as if they were as acceptable as anyone else. This disgusted the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. This is the setting for today’s lesson. Jesus tells a parable with this particular audience in mind.
A man had two sons. There is a remarkable contrast between the two boys. That happens in families, doesn’t it? “Well, he’s nothing like his older brother,” we sometimes say. The younger of the sons was restless while the older boy was compliant to the wishes of his family. Again, nothing about that is shocking either. But then the younger boy does something that is indeed shocking. One day he comes to his father and says, “Father, give me my share of the estate.”
Normally an estate was not divided He was committing a grave sin in making such a request.
According to the eminent historian Wilhelm Levison there was no law or custom among the Jews which entitled a son to a share of his father’s wealth while the father is still alive. “There was a provision,” writes Levison, “called a dismission. A dishonorable son could be paid a portion of his future inheritance, but then [he would be] permanently cut off from the family. The child would be treated as if he were dead. No contact with the family would ever be allowed again . . .” (2)
Requesting his share of his father’s estate was a radical act by the younger boy. But the father’s act was even more radical. Jesus says simply, “So [the father] divided his property between them.” I wonder if Jesus wasn’t saying something to us here about God. God respects our freedom. If we are determined to rebel and go our own way, God will not interfere. We can rebel for all eternity, and God will not seek to overpower our decision. C. S. Lewis said that there are two types of people. First there are those who say to God, “Thy will be done.” But there is a second group. To this group it is God in the end who says, “Thy will be done.” God always leaves us free to choose. Even the choice to reject God for all eternity.
The younger son gathered his belongings and inheritance and went off to a far land, away from his father’s house. And, Luke tells us, he squandered his money in wild living. It was party time all the time, and he was living it up. Until . . . the money ran out . . . and all the fun ended. The younger son had spent all that he had and then there was a recession and jobs for people under 30 dropped off the radar and he was forced to move back home.
No, it doesn’t read quite like that, but you get the idea. Things were a little more desperate back then. There was a famine in the land and with no money, literally, he could have starved to death. But he got a job feeding pigs. To us today, that may not seem as a big deal, though not exactly desirable. But to Jews, swine were considered unclean (Lev. 11:7). No Jew would take this job willingly. But this boy was desperate–so desperate that he even considered eating the slop that was fed to the pigs.
Finally, says Luke, he came to his senses. He said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”
And so, with his tail between his legs, as the old cliché goes, he starts home. And then something extraordinary happens. Luke says, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him . . .”
The son begins his very carefully rehearsed speech about how sorry he is, but the father isn’t even listening to him. He’s too busy giving his servants orders. “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So, says Luke, they began to celebrate.
Those listening to Jesus share this parable–both the religious leaders and the “sinners”–would have been flabbergasted by this father’s demonstration of grace toward his wayward son. For one thing, it was undignified for an elder man to lift up his robes and run. And yet the father ran . . . and he kissed the boy . . . and he had his best robe placed upon him as an indication of distinction . . . and a ring symbolizing his restored place in the household . . . and sandals representing his status as a free man because slaves did not wear shoes . . . and they had a feast. Can you put yourself in the place of that father welcoming home a lost child? Many families today can.
A book, The Hurting Parent, by Margie and Greg Lewis tells the story of a couple with two daughters still at home who received a call from their wayward son late one night. He had called from a hotel and told his mom, “I’m hurting and really hungry . . . tell me what to do.” His voice drifted off and a strong voice broke in. It was the manager of the Holiday Inn 150 miles from their home.
The whole family piled in the car and made the trip. When they arrived they thanked the manager and placed their inebriated, emaciated son in the front seat of the car. The father leaned over and buckled his son in. The stench of alcohol, vomit and weeks on the street was overwhelming. They had to roll the windows down to breathe. It was then that father understood what the Prodigal’s father felt when he embraced his boy and welcomed him back home. (3)
It’s a story told time and time again . . . a young person wanders far away from home . . . a parent waits and hopes and prays . . . and then, hopefully . . . reconciliation takes place. Think of St. Augustine and St. Monica.
Even if we have not had a young person in our family who has wandered into the far country, it is still our story. For it is the story of the human heart wandering far from God until that day comes when it surrenders to the wonder of God’s grace. All of us must sooner or later take that journey home.
Last week we talked about second chances. Obviously the story of the prodigal son is the ultimate second chance story. So, how do you think the story ultimately turns out? Do you think the boy became a better person or a worse one when his father welcomed him home? Jesus doesn’t tell us. But I’ve known prodigals who’ve come home with a love and a loyalty to those who welcomed them home that they would never have dreamed possible otherwise. How about you? If in your heart you know that you are the prodigal, your heavenly Father is waiting to welcome you home. He is indeed the God of second chances. Won’t you place yourself in His welcoming arms today?
1. As told by Philip Cunningham III, who attributes it to Rev. Ronnie White from Midland, TX, http://feetwasher.blogspot.com/2010_02_01_archive.html.
2. Rev. Daniel Meyer, http://cc ob.org/sermons/2003/03sermons.htm.
3. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), p. 78ff.
4. J. G. in Bob Carlisle, Sons: A Father’s Love (Word, 1999), pp. 146-149.