Sunday, March 31, 2019. Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
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Our text this morning from the Gospel of Luke always ranks pretty high on any list of the most beloved stories in the Bible. The so-called parable of the prodigal son is one of those Bible stories that has become widely known, not only within the church, but in the wider culture as well. And not only is it well known, it is enormously important. I think it could be said that this parable contains the entire gospel in a nutshell. If you were going to be sent to a desert island, and you could only take one Bible story with you, to tell you what God is like, I would probably encourage you to take this one. It is enormously important.
What can be easily overlooked, however, is that this is not just one parable; it’s a two-fer. Verses 11-24 tell us the parable of the prodigal, or younger, brother. And verses 25-32 tell us the parable of the elder brother. The two parables are, of course, linked together. Both brothers are connected to each other, and to the father. The parables speak to us about the power of forgiveness, the cost of forgiveness, the possibilities of reconciliation. It is probably because issues of sin, offense, forgiveness, and reconciliation are at the heart of what it means to be human, and the pain of being human, that this story is so important.
Chapter 15 begins by giving us the context of Jesus’ parable. Verse 1 tells us Jesus has been hanging out, according to Luke, with tax collectors and sinners, which is a problem. If you were an aspiring religious leader, you didn’t just hang out with tax collectors and sinners. Associating with them would give you a bad reputation. Verse 2 tells us that, in fact, some were offended by Jesus’ behavior here. “The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and, even worse, he eats with them’.” The Pharisees and the scribes are stand-ins here for all the ‘good people,’ everyone who has done what they were supposed to, who has gone to church, who has kept their noses and their records clean.
In verses 4-10 (which we skipped over), Jesus tells two short parables. One is a parable of a lost sheep, and one is a parable of a lost coin, so you can tell what these two parables have in common. Something is lost, must be searched for, and when it is found, there is a celebration.
So when Jesus rolls on to verse 11, and tells a third parable, the listener or the reader would assume that this parable is also about something, or someone, that is lost. But it turns out that there are two someone’s in our story who are lost.
Perhaps the more obvious one is the younger brother. First, he approaches his dad in verse 12 and says, “I’d like my inheritance now,” something which might normally be given out when the father dies. The father does what the son requests, and gives the younger son his share of the inheritance up front. The son then goes off to a distant country and wastes it all. The text says he “squandered his property in dissolute living,” which is to say, he becomes a loser. He is lost, a human analogue to the lost sheep and the lost coin earlier in the chapter. If you have ever made a mess of your life, you can identify with the younger brother.
When he slinks home, however, he is not shunned, he is not scolded, he is not slapped across the cheek by his father. He is welcomed home extravagantly. The parable is teaching us a key thing about the heart of God, something that we have such a hard time trusting. God’s heart is not like our hearts. God’s ways are not our ways. The parable is teaching us that whenever someone turns to God – no matter what they have done – God’s heart breaks open with joy. A sidebar here is that the underlying reason why we are engaging in an updating and a renovation of this building is so that this message – this gospel message – that God’s heart breaks open with love and joy for people, will be able to be shared with our community for generations to come. That’s parable number one.
Then we get to parable number two; our chance to meet the elder brother. Now, the elder brother has never left home. If he is to be believed, he has never so much as missed a day of work for his father. He has never disobeyed a single command. He has kept up the family business, kept up the family honor, and done what he was supposed to. My wife Laura observed this week that the brother is described in verse 25 as the ‘elder brother.’ Now some of you may know the Greek word for elder: ‘presbuteros.’ Can you make a wild guess for which Christian denomination goes by that name? The Presbyterians. The elder brother is, literally, the Presbyterian brother. So for many of us, the text may be saying, You might recognize yourself in this brother.
What we notice about this brother is that he does not want his father to forgive his little brother. The elder brother cannot forgive his brother for what he has done, and now he cannot forgive his father for what the father has done. The elder brother, the one who has done everything right, has developed a heart of stone. His heart has no room in it for grace. He’s lost, as well.
The third character in the story, of course, is the father. The defining characteristic of this father is his broken heart, broken for both of his sons. When his younger son takes his inheritance and runs away, the father’s heart breaks. We get a sense of the depth of his grief by the force of his joy when the younger brother returns. Joy that abundant only comes from a broken heart that has been healed.
With his older, hard-hearted son, as well, we can sense the father’s grief as he goes out to talk with him. He does not yell at the older brother to put on a good face and come into the party. He says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” and I imagine that he has tears in his eyes when he says this. Grief is the form that this father’s love takes with both of his children.
Both brothers are lost. And, both are found by the father, both are beloved by the father, and both must learn to trust the free and gracious heart of the father, rather than trusting in their obedience or their cleverness or their own ability to make a persuasive speech.
Where are you in this story? With whom do you identify? Are you like the elder brother, who has tried very hard to do everything right, and who gets a little put out at all the people who aren’t working as hard as you? Is it a little offensive to you that God might love the lazy, good-for-nothings every bit as much as God loves those who try to do things right? Or are you like the younger brother, having done things in your life that you think could keep God from loving you? That could make God want to treat you like a second-class citizen? The news of this story is that wherever we are, we belong to God and are part of God’s family right now, a beloved and cherished child for whom the Father’s heart is breaking. To God be all glory, honor, and praise, now and forever. Amen.