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Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 6 2016

This week I heard a story about a police officer who spotted a mother and her family selling the children’s toys on the street to buy food. Now of course that is dangerous and illegal and the police officer could have just told her to stop doing it and move on. But instead, he took her and her children to the store to buy food. When she first shopped, she bought food only for her children, but when the officer noticed, he sent her back to buy food for herself. The officer acted generously with his time and resources. And others do the same. Anyone from millionaires to a friend of mine who bought a woman some groceries instead of just giving her a handout can and have been generous to those in need. They have not stopped to figure out if they are good people or bad people, if they deserve it or not. They have just helped because that’s what they were taught to do.

Generosity is the subject of this week’s parable. And not just generosity. Generosity, love and compassion demonstrated by the father in overwhelming ways to both sons, ways that we cannot begin to comprehend. They are awe-inspiring and worthy of our examination as an example of how we ought to behave.

Jesus is telling this story in the midst of tax collectors and sinners. These were the outcasts of Israel. The tax collectors made money off their own people and gave the rest to Rome, and sinners were people who had been thrown out of the synagogue for one reason or another (Fred Craddock). The Pharisees and scribes were complaining about Jesus eating with them, a sure sign that he wanted to include them in his kingdom. In response to their grumbling, Jesus tells three stories about the importance of finding lost things – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. Finding the lost is important to keeping the family together, and Jesus wants all to be part of God’s family.

The father is the center of the story. He interacts with both sons separately. We are used to hearing about the son disobeying conventional behaviors, but in order to exercise love and generosity and compassion, the father breaks these barriers as well. First, the father does not disown the son when the son wants his inheritance ahead of the father’s death. This is quite insulting to the father. But the father makes no protestations, nor does he encourage the son to stay, but gives him free rein to do what he wishes to do, even though it likely meant selling land, something that agrarian society never did and especially Jewish society who considered their lands gifts from God (William Hethcock).

Not only did the father not disown his son, the father ached for his son and we can imagine waited for him to come home. He was waiting and longing when the son finally did come home and ran out to meet him, not proper behavior for a Palestinian landowner. Then to top it all off, he wouldn’t accept his son’s apology, which was perfectly in order, but instead threw a huge party for him because he was dead and now he was alive; he was lost and now he was found. The father was more interested in reconciliation than in following the rules.

Likewise with the elder son. The father does not order the elder son to the party. He pleads with him, giving him the choice of coming. Social conventions were not important to the father – relationships were the main thing.

Now we know the younger son was disobedient. The parable is named after him after all. He demanded his inheritance and took off for parts unknown. He wanted to be in control of his destiny, not have his father make the rules for him. He was more interested in his own selfish desires than in keeping the household together. He squandered the money, lived the high life and then found himself in a famine so bad he had to hire himself out to a pig farmer, something no Jew would readily do. The son had not only left his family and his homestead behind, he left his religious heritage as well (Daniel G. Deffenbaugh).

The elder son’s disobedience is less easy to see. He has apparently done everything right but he is not happy about it. His work is about adherence to the rules rather than love for his father (Rai Nadall). Even though his actions are obedient his heart is not. He seems bitter and resentful toward his father and is certainly bitter and resentful to his brother who has been given a party on coming home in disgrace. The older son is the very definition of hard heartedness.

We do not know if the older son repents, but we do know the younger son does. He realizes the enormous sins he has been responsible for and returns home, planning to ask to be treated as a hired hand knowing that he would be treated better there than he was feeding pigs for a gentile. The father knows his son is sorry, but he is so happy at finding the lost, he forgets all of that because of the compassion and generosity of his love. He is simply overjoyed at his child reunited with the family and offers unmerited grace, which the son knows he does not deserve and is amazed to get.

The older son is a different conundrum for the father. When the son complains that he has not even gotten a kid to share with his friends, the father is puzzled. All of what I have is yours, he says. You are always with me. But though the brother is physically there, he is lost, lost in his own self-centeredness, separated from his family by jealousy and resentment. The father tries to fix this too with generous love and compassion and explanation that everyone must celebrate the lost son’s return. The family must join together at last.

Jesus’ story is not a hard one to decipher. The lost son represents the sinners and the tax collectors and the resentful son represents the Pharisees, who don’t want anything to do with the outsider. God, the father in the story, wants God’s who family gathered, healthy and whole, in loving relationship. God wants the Pharisees and the tax collectors, the scribes and the sinners. Jesus is also saying that God’s love is so wonderful, so overwhelming, so generous, so compassionate that it is hard to believe – really believe – how much we are loved and cared for.

God’s love and grace are too much for us to imagine. Even our worst sins God is willing to forgive and more than that willing to welcome us back with open arms and throw a party for us. We are not sentenced to bread and water for the rest of our lives. We all want to be in control of our lives, like the younger son. We all have axes to grind with other people – maybe even those closest to us – like the elder son. When we repent of these sins, recognize God’s mercy and give our lives back to God to control, God receives them gratefully and uses them for the furthering of the kingdom. God shows us how to extend generosity, love and compassion to others as we have learned from God’s example.

Is there some way this Lent we are lost inside ourselves or outside ourselves? Do we have attitudes and actions we need to repent of? The good news is that we can take these to God and God’s unending generosity will welcome us back to the fold, to healthy relationships with God and God’s family. God’s unconditional love is for us. God’s generosity and compassion are ours. In this we can rejoice.

AMEN

     -- Rev. Ann Barker

Works Cited:
Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 159
William Hethcock, Tuesday Morning, Volume 18, No. 1, January-March 2016, p.14
Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, Theological Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 116
Rai Nadall, Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, vol. 2, Exegetical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 87