Fr. Bill Carroll – Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 27, 2022
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Earlier this week, I found myself speaking with someone about their father. And I have known a lot of good and exceptionally generous fathers in my day. But often, when someone comes to talk to the priest about their father, it’s a different kind of conversation. I’ve had dozens of such conversations over the years. But every situation is unique, and this one is pretty intense.
Like our mothers and the other important people in our lives, fathers can let us down. Until I became a father myself, I don’t think I really understood how difficult things can be from the other side of the relationship. Fathers can disappoint us in various ways (so can children), but few of us are truly monsters. Most of us have to learn how to do the job as we go along. And, if we’re lucky, we know some really good fathers—people who can set us a good example.
Most fathers really, really love us—and they do the best they can. But few of them, being human, give us everything we need from them. In some tragic cases, we do need to establish especially firm boundaries—or perhaps, in the extreme, cut off completely. But that’s not usually the answer. Usually, we need to accept that our fathers are good, but imperfect, people—and then form adult relationships with them.
As I was speaking with my friend this week, I was reminded of a verse from the twenty-seventh Psalm, which says, “Though my father and my mother forsake me, the LORD will sustain me.” I was also reminded of the forty-ninth chapter of Isaiah, where it says: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget (says the LORD), yet I will not forget you.” What our earthly parents can’t or won’t give us, God is willing and able to provide. A couple of weeks ago, we heard Jesus compare himself to a mother hen, protecting her chicks under her wings. Today, he tells us a story about the mercy and forgiveness of our heavenly Father.
The parable of Prodigal Son is among the best-known parables of Jesus. When we read a familiar story like this one, we often fail to hear its startling newness. We need to step back and get some perspective, so that we can hear it as Good News. And that’s especially important with the parables of Jesus—stories that he tells about the scandalous mercy of God. These stories are shocking. Jesus uses them to open up God’s new world of grace and the Kingdom.
And one way to regain our perspective in this case is to focus on the elder brother. We turn our attention to the responsible son who never left his father’s side. This son appeals to many of us—especially in the Church. We share his anger at his father’s foolishness. We join him in condemning the injustice of this situation.
But, from where Jesus sits, the elder son is just as lost as the younger one. “For all these years,” he says, “I have worked like a slave and never once disobeyed you.” These are the words of someone trapped in a world without grace. He considers his father only as a harsh master. In response, his father (who is doubly wounded by the son’s resentment), invites him to welcome his brother home. “My son,” he says, “You’ve always been with me and all that I have is yours.” In saying this, he moves beyond the relationship of master and servant to one of grace and freely-given love.
Today’s sermon, though, isn’t just for the elder brothers among us. No, it’s not just for the decent and responsible ones, who work hard and do what we’re told.
Today belongs to the freeloaders, and the misfits, and the promise-breakers among us. It’s a scandalous story that Jesus tells us this morning. Today belongs to all us hypocrites, and sell outs, and liars. It belongs to the adulterers, the drunks, and the thieves among us. It belongs even to us garden-variety sinners—people whose lives aren’t nearly as interesting, or as fun, as that of the prodigal son. Today’s Gospel is for people who have hurt the ones we love and can’t make it right. It’s for folks who carry around painful memories and secret shames. Today is for all of us who wander into some far country and find ourselves starving for God.
Today, we hear a story about a child who asks for his inheritance ahead of time—who basically tells his father to drop dead. “I don’t need you,” he is saying. “What I need is your money.” In the story, the prodigal wastes it all. And only when he gets hungry does he return to his father. He comes home, hanging his head in shame. He doesn’t expect his father to treat him like a son anymore. All he wants is a job and a way to feed himself.
But the father won’t hear of it. As with the elder son, he refuses to treat his child like an employee. Family relationships are not about what we earn or deserve. They are about the love that binds us together. We don’t get to choose our family. How much less so with the family of God. After all, anything we might give to God, God already has. And so, the father rushes out to meet his lost son. He celebrates his return to life. To all lost people everywhere, God offers salvation and forgiveness—free of charge.
In so many ways, the story of the prodigal son sums up the central themes of Luke’s Gospel. For one thing, it’s all about forgiveness. Now, forgiveness is easier to talk about than it is to do. Forgiveness doesn’t mean giving up the claims of justice. But it always means giving up resentment and revenge. We don’t forgive to help other people, especially at first. After all, they don’t deserve it, or they wouldn’t need to be forgiven. We forgive each other, in order to help God set us free. Forgiveness is about embracing new life and moving on.
In his Gospel, Luke also stresses the open table-fellowship of Jesus. Jesus breaks bread with everybody—with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. The story of the Prodigal Son is told in response to the scribes and Pharisees’ grumbling that this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. By his fellowship with broken people, Jesus scandalizes all the rest of us.
A final theme in Luke is the universal mission of Jesus to all people, everywhere. At first, Jesus limited his mission to his own people, the Jews. By the end of the first century, however, his movement had expanded to every known race and nation. Luke tells us the story of the Holy Spirit breaking open the Jesus Movement. He traces this development back to the ministry of Jesus himself, who had the shocking habit of embracing every single one of us. For Jesus opens his heart (and shares his table) with women, with Samaritans, with Gentiles. He embraces sinners of every kind—and others deemed unclean.
In many ways, the elder brother in the story represents Christians from a Jewish background who still sought to keep the Torah but also followed Jesus. In this parable, Jesus is reassuring them of God’s love. But he is also challenging them to a renewed understanding of the Torah, a renewed understanding of God’s law and instruction, that is more rooted in the story of the Exodus. The Torah is about the work of a liberator God, who first sets the People free and then calls them to live transformed lives of gratitude and righteousness. Jesus reminds them and us that it is all about God’s love. He is saying that “There’s plenty of room in God’s Kingdom and at God’s Table for all of us.”
And so today, as we gather for worship, God welcomes us all. God welcomes saints and sinners alike. God welcomes the lost, as well as those who’ve never stayed. God welcomes all. Justice and fairness, as important as they are, don’t enter into it. Only mercy and love. God welcomes us all.
For God doesn’t have a shortage of grace. And so, God doesn’t have to worry about wasting his gifts. God is good and generous and kind. His love is boundless and free.
With arms wide-open, God runs out to meet us.
He is always eager to welcome sinners home.