Forth Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2013
Joshua 5:9-12 Psalm 32 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
With a Father like that, he thought he died and went to Heaven.
“You welcome the wayward” are the words of our prayer for today, yes, “the wayward,” and “you embrace us with your mercy. By our baptism clothe us with garments of grace,” and let me add the riff, robes of righteousness and suits of salvation; that, in order to describe the festal garment for the great banquet in Heaven given us when we repent.
By right this parable of Jesus should be called the prodigal Father, but not in the pejorative sense of the word, the way it is used for the extravagantly wasteful, prodigal son. He’s somewhat like Jackie Gleason, who said that everybody should have two fortunes: one to waste and throw away, and one to use wisely and build on. We should all be that lucky! But really we are all even more lucky, because by this lavishly loving, this extravagantly compassionate Father, Jesus is describing God. Imagine that! This is the incredible Good News that the Son of Heaven is bringing us from the Father. God is not calculating and counting the cost and looking only at the bottom line. Jesus comes to us with the Good News that his Father-God is not like that. God just loves us very much. As a character would say in Downton Abbey, “God loves us terribly much,” just that his two sons in this parable were “not very fine chaps, not at all.”
The younger son, for example, for whom it seemed that the Father was already dead, wanted his share of the inheritance. Without a word of protest, the Father voluntarily, acts as if he was already dead, and divides up the inheritance. We live as though God were dead, but really this son felt like he was dead and he wanted out of there. He wanted to get a life. So he cashes in a third of all the property, probably making his older brother take a big cut in pay, and off he goes to a foreign country and spends his whole fortune in dissolute living.
But as is so often the case, we leave a wonderful oasis to chase after a mirage and there is nothing there except self-deception. Luther talks about a greedy dog with a bone in his mouth at a stream. The dog sees his reflection and snaps at the reflection of the bone in the stream and loses both the bone in his mouth and even the reflection.
Now the prodigal son got a life all right. He spent all his money and had many friends, of course, who loved him until his money ran out. And now what to do? As a good Jewish boy he is reduced to feeding pigs as a hireling and he is so hungry that he envies the dirty and muddy pods and the slop that the pigs are eating. Wouldn’t you say, “He bottomed out”? And what kind of a community did he live in where the people did not care one bit if he lived or died. It could not have been the body of Christ.
Well, we know the little speech the Son rehearsed to be able to repent and return home to the Father. It’s his only alternative, if he does not want to die. And now observe the prodigal Father yet again. While the son is still at a distance, the Father sees him, and as old, tired, and worn as he is, he runs to him, won’t even listen to his little speech at all. “A hired hand! No way; put a ring on his finger, new sandals on his feet, get him a festal garment, and kill the fatted, because my son who was dead, behold is alive; who was lost, behold, he’s found!” And Jesus says, “Just so, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no “repentance” (15:7). And “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (15:10).
The prodigal son must have thought he died and went to heaven. He received complete forgiveness. You can see that the lavishly loving and extravagantly compassionate Father is completely person-centered. Money and property are secondary. One third of their estate was just wasted and lost by the younger son chasing after that mirage. A commentary calls him a good-for-nothing son, but he matters above all things for the Father, whose love makes somebody out of him. He had learned his lesson. He had had a bad heart and now his change of heart made him want to be home and be one with the Father, even if just as a humble hired hand.
Trouble comes over the Father again with the older son. He had worked and slaved for his Father all his life and what did he get for it? Nothing! And this son, who had spent all his money on prostitutes – whoa- where did that come from? He gets the celebration and he has the fatted calf killed for him!
Now the older son was a hard worker, no doubt, completely decent and efficient, but where was his heart? His brother was born again and can you imagine him as a Father, instead of rejoicing – becoming enraged at the birth of his child? On the other hand, often people whose lack of morality has made them outcaste, have hearts that are yearning to be home, like a prostitute who would give her right arm to be a loving wife, a mother, and have a house full of children.
Very decent and good people often have bad hearts. American soldiers took starving Jews, who looked like skin covered skeletons, out of the concentration camps, went to the nearby farmers in the villages beside the death camps and ordered them to feed them. They refused. Only after the soldier put a gun to the farmer’s head, did he grudgingly take out food and give it to the Jew. The Iaido Sensé of my sons told us this story about his father and he would invite us all to his home for a meal of potato peals to remember what his father ate in those camps.
The older brother could have been very decent and he was surely a good worker, but his heart was yearning for the sinning that his brother was doing. He was merely trapped in his goodness. That is why the change of heart that his brother experienced merely left him angry. So the Father had to go out of the house to the older son, who now refused to enter. He didn’t get it and now he was so angry he didn’t want it either.
Have you ever seen the movie called the Ref, as in “the referee”? It’s best to watch it over Christmas, because it takes place over Christmas and destroys all the icons of Christmas, like it has a drunk Santa Claus and someone bashes a Christmas tree with a ball-bat! Dennis Leary plays the burglar, who takes a family hostage over Christmas, and Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis play the couple, who are stuck in a marriage and can’t seem to divorce. The burglar is the only one with a good heart. At one point when the Grandmother, who is really holding them all hostage with her arrogant hatred, tries to go up the stairs, the burglar tries to prevent her. He puts his revolver to her head and the family says, “Go ahead. Shoot her!” Only the burglar has enough heart and self-control not to do it. It is so funny: he’s the burglar and at heart they are murderers.
Let’s get to the prejudice and racism in the hearts of decent people. Recently Forest Whitaker, an Oskar winning actor, who played Idi Amin, was thrown against a wall and frisked by a plain clothes guard. He hadn’t taken anything and the deli owner said, “The guard was a perfectly decent man.” But that black skin automatically made a person a criminal for the guard. That didn’t mean the White guard wasn’t decent? What about the time when Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Harvard Professor, was arrested by a White Cambridge policeman, while trying to unlock his own front door. How do we good people get the arrogance of prejudice, bigotry, and racism out of our hearts for a change of heart? How do bad hearts in good people become hearts filled with lavish love and extravagant compassion?
Good hearts versus bad hearts: why do some good and decent people have bad hearts and really lost and immoral people have hearts yearning to be good? “This is of course not about you and me; only about that person hiding behind the tree,” if that jungle works. In Berlin Germany, when I was there, the elderly people were accused of hating children. “They did not!” they defended themselves. A wind storm came and was blowing the stone tiles off the roofs of their houses and they came rushing out to move their cars, running right through the children playing on the sidewalk. Not one thought how the children might be hurt by a falling tile. They all rushed to protect their cars. Q.E.D. They did not care about the children.
When we proclaim the wonderful Gospel, the Good News, from this parable about the two sons, we have to preach about the third son and that is Jesus Christ, who never rejected his Father and never wanted him dead like the prodigal son and he is the Good Shepherd, who is filled with extravagant compassion, just like the Father. He leaves the 99 sheep in the wilderness to search and find the one that is lost. And when he finds it, he returns with the lamb on his shoulders, rejoicing. It’s all about the third Son whose love changes our hearts and brings us home.
Just look at the second lesson! Jesus is one with the Father, with the same heart filled with extravagant and prodigal compassion. Rejoicing over one sinner who repents, Christ reconciles us with the Father and changes our hearts so they too throb with love for the lost, like that of the Father-God and his beloved Son.
It is not enough to be decent and good. Good has to be done in the Holy Spirit for it to really be good and the truth has to be spoken in love or it is not the truth. So we have to allow our goodness to be used by the Holy Spirit to save the lost.
Yes, it has to be about the third Son. The love of Christ made him become sin, who knew no sin, just to save us, we, who are lost. Just to save us sinners- and where is the best place to hide a corrupt and sinful heart – in a good and decent person. We just assume bad people have bad hearts.
Jesus knew that if he could not find the lost sheep, if he could not raise the dead people walking around as if they were alive, then he could do nothing for the other 99.
Can you even imagine what extremes the extravagant love of God drove Jesus Christ to? He did go to hell. He became sin and descended into hell to rescue us from what we made out of this creation. Yes, and the religious people, the leading figures, who were then the scribes and the Pharisees, grumbled and said, “Look he is sitting and eating with sinners!”
But Jesus was showing them that they could repent and they too could bask in the wonderful welcome of God’s love. And their outward lives could once again match the goodness of their hearts, once they had the necessary change of heart. We who are religious dare not be self-righteous, but always be ready to carry out a life-saving mission and throw a welcome-back party for repentant sinners.
We have to allow our hearts to melt together rejoicing with the angels before God in heaven, even when the older son suddenly realizes, that his self-righteousness is more sinful than the sorry sins of his brother, because self-righteousness is a source of sins, like that of the smug scribes and Pharisees, who are offended that Jesus is saving sinners. But there is the Father, who leaves his house in heaven and runs out to find and reason even with the older son as well, to invite him in to join the party.
So the sinners that we are, the lost people who we are, and let me also say, the prejudiced people that we are, we know that Christ is also searching for us with a heart full of love for us. And God will not leave this rescue operation until we are safely home in God’s arms once more. And repentant, in our garments of grace, our robes of righteousness, and our suits of salvation, all the angels, rejoicing before God, say, “Party on!” Amen.
Pastor Peter D.S. Krey, Ph.D.