Sermon text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The younger son always gets all the attention. How typical. After all, he’s the one who really steps in it. He’s disrespectful and brash. He’s unconventional, flying in the face of tradition. He brings an immense amount of shame on his family as he sows his wild oats. He squanders everything that he has been given. He is an abject failure. And yet, he gets the spotlight.
He is the Prodigal Son, the lavish son, the one who basically said, “Dad, you’re dead to me. Give me my inheritance so that I may leave this miserable town for good.” But after he essentially lights the money on fire, after he is starving, dirty, and surrounded by swine, this son “comes to himself” and makes the lonely trip own in the hopes of surviving these self-inflicted wounds. He realizes that even the hired hands who work for this father have it better off, so he walks the lonely road home, rehearsing his speech along the way.
There is a part of me that doubts the sincerity of the younger son. I always get the sense that he is operating more out of naked self-interest than he is out of repentance and redemption. For me, it’s this rehearsed speech. I understand that some people like to play out difficult conversations before they happen, but this speech simply seems calculated:
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called you son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
The younger son seeks to bargain and manipulate to receive a measure of mercy. He’s hoping for a trickle of grace, and instead, he receives a tidal wave. His father defies convention and runs to greet him. Perhaps he never stopped looking for him. And then the father interrupts the son’s rehearsed speech and orders a celebration, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” The father doesn’t seem to give a lick about intentions or sincerity or grand speeches begging for forgiveness, he rejoices that his son is home.
What’s amazing is that the older brother is just as lost, even though he never left town. Once again, the younger brother gets all the attention, and that’s part of the older brother’s problem. He, too, misunderstands the workings of grace. He cannot let go of the social conventions and the grudges that clearly put his brother in the wrong. He feels taken for granted, unappreciated for all he has done, and invisible to his father. He has poured his life into this family estate, he has watched his father’s suffering because of his brother’s actions, and, as if he’s not already overlooked, it appears that no one sought him out in the fields when the celebration began.
But as justified and self-righteous as the older brother is, he’s just as equally missed the mark about the nature of grace. It is given, not earned. Freely bestowed, not taken.
If we’re being honest, there’s a probably a bit of both sons in us. A portion of us that is lost and reckless beyond measure. A portion of us that tries to measure everything, including the depth of a parent’s love.
We could debate all day about which son was worse, although whatever side you pick probably has something to do with our own thoughts on how we receive God’s love.
But here’s the crazy thing about the parable: Both sons are welcomed home by the father, despite their hang-ups and problems. Both sons are claimed, no matter if they have lost half of the family fortune or if they are angry in the love and generosity shared with a person they deemed unworthy. The father will run to the younger son and welcome him home. The father will meet with the elder son outside the walls of the home during the celebration and welcome him home.
The younger son has been wasteful in squandering his inheritance. The older son has been wasteful in squandering the gift of meaningful work, purpose, and relationship, even though he’s remained dutiful. Both brothers have placed themselves into a hurtful world of isolation, and it is only the father’s outpouring of lavish grace that will restore them and complete them.
In what ways are we wasteful? What are our favorite ways of isolating ourselves? Do we buy that which doesn’t add value to our lives? Do we judge and condemn? Do we manipulate relationships for gain? Do we place ourselves beyond reproach? Do we write off the plight of our family members, neighbors, and world? In what ways are we prodigal? How are we wasteful?
This beloved parable of Jesus invites us to reassess our own standards and the basis of our relationship with God. May we have eyes to see that our modern day tax collectors and sinners are just as welcomed at Christ’s table as our modern day Pharisees and scribes. Insiders and outsiders alike are welcomed by Jesus. The Father will invite us all inside and will celebrate, for we all have been lost and were found, we all have been dead and have come back to life.
In the end, perhaps the best present day example is Tom Bodett from Motel 6: God will leave the light on for you. AMEN