Preached August 5, 2012
1 Corinthians 10:1–13
St. Luke 15:11–32
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
A popular phrase heard often today is that “actions have consequences.” This is something we hear said frequently in regard to many topics of conversation, whether it be the actions of our government in foreign policy, the failure of the populace to vote, the degradation of education after years of “feeling centered” education, or the collapse of civil society after years of lowering social norms. This is the thrust of the Collect for the Day that asks for the spirit to think and do such things as are right, because it is only through God that we are able to do any thing that is good and to live according to His will. What we do, how we live, is a matter of eternal consequence.
This brings us to the Gospel lesson for the day, the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is without a doubt one of the best known of Jesus parables, and yet there is much about this parable that is not well understood. There are three main characters in this story, the younger brother, the older brother, and the father. As we consider each of them, think about the question “With which of these characters do you most identify?”
First consider the younger son. He really had no claim at all on his inheritance until the death of his father, but he was anxious to get on with his life. He felt like he was living in the shadow of his older brother, and he wanted to get out on his own and experience independence and freedom. Does any of that sound familiar? So the father divided his property, giving a proper share to the younger son, and keeping a share for himself and the older son. You will remember what happened with the younger son: Luke 15:13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. Notice that he goes to a far country; it would be far too inhibiting to try to live it up anywhere close to home, so he must remove himself from all the things that remind him of home and the life he has been taught to live. Does this sound like a young person going off to college today? Perhaps a young person going into the military, or taking a first job somewhere far across the country?
The younger son is reduced to poverty, to feeding pigs, and he is starving even while he is feeding the pigs. A situation such as this induces clarity of thought that was not previously present, and he comes to his senses and repents. He sees that he has made all the wrong decisions. He should never have left his father’s house and his position as a son in that house, but that is all water under the bridge at this point. Perhaps, however, he can still recover to the extent of becoming one of his father’s hired servants. He knows that the hired servants in his father’s house were much better off than he is in this foreign land where he is feeding the pigs. So he resolves to return, to express his repentance, and to ask to be taken back as a hired servant.
The story of the younger son is a story of sin and conversion, repentance. He comes to realize his error, his sin, and he turns back, he is converted. It was a humbling experience for him, and he never expected to be received back as a son. He turns back, hoping to receive the father’s forgiveness and acceptance only to the extent of making him a hired servant; that is all. What he receives, of course, is actually much, much more. He is received back as the son that was lost and now is found to the joy of the father. This is far more than he ever imagined, and he is no doubt rather overwhelmed by it all.
The father has been looking for the younger son to return ever since he left home. Sure, the father was not pleased with the idea that the young man was going to squander a large portion of his estate, but as time went by, the father’s concerns became more and more for the well being of the son, and less and less for the money. The father worried about the son, “Is he well? Is he still alive? Where is he?” and no doubt he often paced the floor at nights wondering when, if ever, he would see his son again. He still has his older son, but one does not lose a son lightly, and there had been no word of the younger son for so very long.
When the father first saw the younger son coming toward home, he was overjoyed. He did not see this dirty, broken, bedraggled young man who smelled just like the pigs he had been feeding, but rather he saw his son! He recognized his son, and the father ran to the son, hugged him and kissed him, and as the young man began his confession, the father interrupts him to tell the servants to bring fine clothes and sandals for his son, and a ring for his finger. His son has returned; he is overjoyed! Luke 15:24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. He makes preparations for a feast to celebrate this wonderful event.
Even as the father is in the height of his joy, the older son returns home and casts his bucket of cold water on things. He will not even go into the house to speak with his father after being told what is happening, and when the father comes out to speak with him, he says, Luke 15:29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: 30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. Look at the older son’s reaction. First he will not even go in to speak with his father, a sign of great disrespect, and then in speaking of his own brother, he refers to him as “this thy son” essentially saying “no relative of mine.” He is bitter, he is angry, he is envious. We hear the father’s explanation, but we do not know any more about how the story ends. We don’t know if the two brothers are eventually reconciled, or if the older brother eventually murders the younger brother in a fit of spite. We simply don’t know.
So which of the three characters are you most like? Some will say, “There was a time when I was far from God and then I repented and was brought back to Him” so I am like the Prodigal Son. All of us, however, in some ways, turn away from God, take our inheritance and want to run away to be free at times. If we have a strong faith and a close connection to Christ’s Church, we don’t get too far before we are brought to repentance, but this is a daily occurrence for many of us. We have to turn back to God, asking for forgiveness to start over. This is something that people outside the Church find very hard to understand, the idea that we are constantly starting over. It seems like we should be progressing toward the goal and making real progress. But that is not how the Christian life works in this world. We do make some progress, but it is not the sort of progress that means we cease to be sinners. It just means that we learn to trust in Jesus more fully and turn to Him more readily.
Many of us will identify with the elder brother, particularly those of us who have spent our lives in the Church, living upright lives and feeling like we always come in last. We often find it very hard to forgive those who behave foolishly and squander the good things bestowed upon them. The “elder brother syndrome” is really common among good people, and this is not a new thing at all. The Psalmist speaks of this: Psalms 73:3 For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. But God provides for each of us even as He provides for them, and it is God that has much more to forgive, far more than we possibly could.
In telling this parable, Jesus is not telling an interesting story about some folks He knew in His home town. Rather, He is telling us about the nature of God the Father, about the way He deals with sinful people. Jesus is telling us that God does not react to sinful people at all like we as ordinary humans probably would react. The human father might react in several different ways, ranging from frosty rejection of the returned son, to partial acceptance by allowing him to return as a servant, to full acceptance as a son. Jesus is telling us that the reaction of God the Father toward a penitent sinner is one of full and joyful acceptance. God does not say to the returning sinner, “Well, you have to prove yourself,” or “You are second class member of My Family.” No, the Father welcomes completely all who truly come to Him through His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. There is no partial salvation, no limited grace. God is so very different from a human father!
Jesus was quick to forgive. God our Father is also quick to forgive. For us, you and me, forgiveness is often much more difficult and slow in coming. We are called to be more like Christ daily, to forgive quickly, to be ready to start anew. This is our role as the Church, to offer new beginnings. I hasten to add that they must be truly new beginnings, not simply the continuation of the same old evils, and this is where the Christian Church is often accused of weakening society. We must offer new beginnings in the right way, not in the old way. There is the difference. The father did not continue things as they were, but rather he offered the younger son a new beginning in the right way, as a son in the house. He did not send money to let the younger son continue his dissolute life in the far country, he did not tell him to remain with the pigs, but rather he began anew with his son as soon as he saw him. This is the model for each of us to follow, hard though it may be.
Let us pray again the Collect for the Day:
Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee; may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.