The collect and readings for this past Sunday, Lent 4C, may be found here. The appointed gospel was Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 11Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
I wonder if the younger son was surprised when his father gave him his inheritance. This is not like asking for an advance on allowance. The son’s request has real significance. The son is saying to his father, “You are dead to me. I don’t need you. I just want your stuff.” The son has separated himself from his father. Their relationship is now different.
The son has rejected and dishonored not only his father but the entire village. He has hurt, shamed, and disowned them. Every resident of the village now stands as a reason the son cannot return. If he did return he would be met with anger. He would be in danger. Everyone – the son, his brother, the slaves and hired-hands, and all the villagers – thought the son was on a one-way trip. Everyone, that is, except the father.
Throughout all this the father is silent. He does not ask questions and why the son is leaving or where he is going. He does not argue or get angry. He does not ground his son or put him on restriction. He simply divided his property between the two sons.
Many years ago I decided I had to get away. I had done something wrong. I had been bad and I needed to leave. There was no other way. So with pen and paper in hand I went to my dad and asked, “How do you spell running?” “R,u,n,n,i,n,g.” “Ok, thanks. How do spell away?” “A,w,a,y.” I finished my note and I was off to the distant country. After all that is what the bad sons do – or so we have come to believe.
For so long we have heard and understood this story as one about sin. We hold the two sons up as examples. The younger son, the bad son, runs away and does even worse things. The older son, the good son, was always at home. He never disobeyed. The implication is obvious. Be the obedient slave-like child to your heavenly father. The difficulty is that the whole good and bad dichotomy rarely transforms lives. Love, however, can and does transform lives.
Be a good obedient child. Is that really all this story says? Is this story really even about the sons? Maybe this story is more about the father than it is about the sons. Maybe this story is about love and grace more than it is about sin. Luke introduces the story by saying, “There was a man.” From the beginning the focus is on the father. Although we do hear about the son’s journey, it is always in relation to the father. The father is the one who even made it possible for the son to leave. To the extent that this is about the sons it is primarily about the sons as recipients of the father’s love.
The father’s love is so strong and so big that it does not possess the other; but is willing to let go. His love is so strong and so big that it makes no demands but is willing to wait patiently. It is a love that forgives and welcomes home. His love will not rescue us out of or stop us from going to the distant country. Instead it redeems the time spent and the life lived in that place. That is good news for those of us who travel to the distant country; and we all go there at some point.
Some write notes and run away from home, some ask for and squander their inheritance, and some, like the older son, fume in silent resentment. Sorrow, grief, and loss take some to the distant country while fear, shame, embarrassment take others there. Some will travel to the distant country by way of addictions and self-destructive behavior. For others the journey of guilt, self-condemnation or even self-hated ends in the distant country.
How ever we get there, the distant country is that place in which we are lost, dead, and hungry. In the distant country we are lost to ourselves, empty of meaning, and starving for life, love, and hope. We are just not ourselves in the distant county, at least not our true selves. Life stinks in the distant country. That is the grace of the distant country. While we may go there we eventually come to ourselves and discover that it is not a place we want to stay.
Regardless of why we go there, the things we have done there, or the amount of time spent in the distant country we can always go home. If we go home we will have to face the villagers. We will meet all those many voices that live within us. “You don’t really think you could go home do you? After what you have done? They don’t want you there. You are covered in pig stink. They won’t take you back. You aren’t worthy. You never were.” The only way home, it seems, is to deny that we are our father’s children.
I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
The father, however, knows that love is the real way home. That is why the father runs to meet his son. He is there to protect him from the villagers, to see him safely home. The father stands between his son and the villagers. The best robe. Sandals. A ring. The banquet. Over and over the father recommits himself to this runaway-come-home.
Where are you? Leaving home? The father offers freedom and you are loved. In the pig pens of life? The father waits patiently and you are loved. Coming home? The father will protect you and you are loved. Finally home? The father has prepared you a banquet and you are loved. It matters not where we are in this journey. The father always trusts his love for his children more than he does the words, decisions, and actions of his children. How can we do anything less?