The Lost Son
Preached by Rev. Cindy Frost on 11-16-14 at FPC Fort Collins
Please read: Luke 15:11-24
It’s a well-known story, repeated many. many times. Children rejecting their parents, going their own way, making bad choices, and often at some point hitting bottom. Even though it’s happened maybe millions of times around the globe, if you’re the parent, it is devastating in its uniqueness with each new downward development, each rejection, and each bad decision your child makes echoing so loudly in your heart. Just lately I’ve talked to good parents dealing with young adult children who are making decisions that are about as scary as they come. And with the fear for their children comes heartbreak, helplessness and shame.
These conversations I’ve had lately have given me more empathy for the father in this story. When a son rejects a father like that, basically saying “I wish you were dead so I could have my inheritance already,” how can the father not be incredibly hurt? On top of the hurt is the profound shame, as pieces of the estate are most likely sold off and everyone knows about this son’s rejection. Experiencing that magnitude of hurt and shame might prompt two different responses or some combination. One would be to live with heartbreak—heartbroken by the personal rejection and heartbroken with concern for your son and the downward spiral he is on. Another response would also be common, to turn that hurt and shame into anger. In response to being rejected, this father could have easily rejected his son. Disowned him. Considered the son dead. We don’t know what kind of emotional journey this father went on as he agreed to divide his estate and as he watched his son walk away, presumably forever.
What we do know is how the father responds when this son returns. The response could not have been more gracious. How many of you have ever had that experience where you give this big warm hello to someone just to realize as you get closer that you don’t know that person and so now you feel really foolish? From what we see in the passage, there’s a good chance that has happened multiple times to the dad. It says while his son was still a long way off, the father ran to him. Unless he had great vision, we might guess that he had a few of these embarrassing moments, running up to someone who looked like his son, just to find that it was a stranger. And this whole running thing would have been so undignified for the patriarch of a respectable family.
But the father is only focused on the return of his son. Who cares if people see and talk about how undignified he looked? Who cares if people think he should have a little more self-respect and not be so gracious to one who had rejected him? Who cares if people talk about how by not making his son suffer some consequences before being accepted back that he’s condoning that kind of profligate behavior. Who cares if people think he’s foolish to reward rejection with a homecoming party. No, the father is just overjoyed that his lost son has been found.
What an incredible picture of a father’s heart that has so much love for his son that it trumps his hurt, his shame, his feelings of rejection and only rejoices in the son’s return. A heart that is filled with joy and not judgment, compassion and not condemnation. A father whose chief desire is for the restoration of that relationship.
What an incredible picture this gives of God, our Father in heaven! How little the son does to deserve the welcome he got. In fact, it’s the opposite of what he deserves. He deserves rejection in return for rejecting his father. He deserves shame for the shame that he caused. He deserves a life of poverty for how he squandered his money. He doesn’t get any of what he deserves, instead he gets a huge welcome and a party thrown in his honor. Grace upon grace!
The only thing the son does to prompt any of this great sequence of events is to show up. He must have felt a lot of shame in returning to the father he had so blatantly rejected and yet out of desperation he returned. Desperation and maybe some hope in the goodness of his father’s character; hoping that even if the father rejected him as a son, he might be compassionate enough to accept him as a servant. We don’t know if the son was genuinely sorry or if his prepared speech was his version of coming back with his tail between his legs. But it doesn’t seem to matter to the father whether or not the son is sorry. The father cuts off his speech by starting to plan the welcome party.
The father who disregards his own shame and humiliation because of his joy as he welcomes his prodigal son home gives us an advance picture of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. We read in Hebrews 12:3 about how Jesus does that same thing, it says that Jesus, “who for the sake of the joy set before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame.” If you’ve seen any parts of the movie The Passion of the Christ, or even if you haven’t, you know that everything leading up to the crucifixion was full of both excruciating pain and shameful humiliation. And yet for the joy set before him, for the joy of welcoming sinners to make their home with him and the Father, he was willing to endure that pain and humiliation. He even cries out to the Father to forgive them—whether or not they were sorry. What wonderful love is shown to us in that single event!
And what good news this is for us! God longs to be in relationship with us no matter what we’ve done or what we haven’t done. We don’t have to come up with just the right words or formula. We can be so full of shame about our addictions or wrong-doings and that can make us fearful to approach God. Sometimes we are aware of that fear and shame and sometimes we’re not aware but it shows up in other responses: pride, and fierce independence; self-justification and a judgmental attitude towards others, or maybe anger or apathy towards God. The good news of this story is that we don’t need to let our fear or shame stop us, if we just show up to God, he will forgive us because of his great love for us.
If we’ve made or are making bad moral choices, God is waiting with open arms.
If we’re filled with anger or resentment, God is waiting with open arms.
If we’ve rejected God outright or just doubted his existence, God is waiting with open arms.
If we’ve ignored God or squeezed him out because of other priorities in life, God is waiting with open arms.
If we’ve done something that we fear is unforgiveable, God is waiting with open arms.
If we’ve denied our need for God and tried to make it on our own, God is waiting with open arms.
Fill in the blank, whatever you’ve struggled with, whatever makes you feel unlovable, God is waiting with open arms.
If you get nothing else out of this sermon, just remember, God is waiting for you with open arms, full of love and grace and forgiveness.
This parable is the last of a trilogy that are usually considered the “lost parables”: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and then the lost or prodigal son. One of the commentaries I read challenged that designation saying that they should be considered the “found parables” since that is the key element in all of them. I’d like to suggest that they be considered the “party parables” since that is what lies at the culmination of all three: They don’t just say something or someone was lost and is now found, but that the finding is worth a party. All three have a big celebration, gathering friends and neighbors to rejoice with them.
All three of these party parables have the same context. At the beginning of chapter 15 it says, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Welcomes and eats with sinners. With that as a set up, we can see how this prodigal son parable is the grand finale of this trilogy. The first two parables set up this idea of the effort someone would go to in order to find and restore what is lost. In both of those cases that which is lost bears no responsibility for being lost. The sheep and the coin are not responsible for their lost state. And it’s interesting that in those two cases, Jesus appeals to the listeners to identify with the person doing the seeking. The sheep story Jesus starts, “which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 and go after the one that is lost?” Similarly, for the coin story, he asks “what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not … search carefully until she finds it?” For both of these stories, he pulls the listeners, the scribes and Pharisees into the story, saying “in these cases you would have done the same thing, you’d look for what is of value to you.” But he doesn’t do that on this third story of the prodigal son, the story where the lost does bear some moral responsibility for being lost. He can’t say “which of you wouldn’t do the same thing?” to this group because they put such a high premium, the highest premium, on the moral realm. They wouldn’t do the same thing. In their worldview, what you do or what you don’t do is what earns God’s favor. A lost son who has acted foolishly and immorally has no value and should be shunned instead of welcomed. So he tells this story that is in stark contrast to what they would do. As a somewhat in-their-face response to a complaint about Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners, he tells this story about the most extravagant welcome and the biggest banquet for someone who’d committed the most egregious sins against the father.
Pastor Rick McKinley talks about how the Pharisees have a worldview focused on, what he calls, a moral matrix. The Pharisees are careful to obey the law (and then some) so they believe they have value in God’s sight. Sinners and tax collectors are immoral and therefore are inherently bad and have no value. The Pharisees, who are watching Jesus’ every move conclude he can’t come from God given this behavior of welcoming sinners and tax collectors, the people that according to the moral matrix God has no use for. Jesus in this story of the prodigal son is demonstrating the different value system of the kingdom of God. There it is not the moral matrix that predominates but what McKinley calls a relational matrix. The father in the parable doesn’t even seem to consider the moral behavior of the son, He just longs to have that relationship restored. That is the good news of the story. That God does not operate from a moral matrix but from a relational one. God’s biggest desire is for us to be in relationship with him, no matter what we’ve done, no matter how we’ve rejected him. I would have loved to see how Jesus, God-made-flesh, demonstrated this in action as he welcomed sinners and tax collectors and ate with them. How was it that these outcasts felt so welcomed and accepted by him? What did he do that showed them that he wasn’t rejecting them like the rest of society did?
Paul has reminded us that we are not just to derive a lesson from the parables but we’re invited to put ourselves into them and let them do their work in us. We step into this parable by recognizing that each of us is the prodigal son. We are all sinners. None of us deserve God’s grace. If the moral matrix prevails we’re all doomed. Yet God operates according to a relational matrix, just wanting the lost—all of us—to be found. God leads with grace seeking to restore relationship and bring us back into fellowship with him. God receives us as sinners with welcome arms and a big party in heaven.
But there’s another way to step into the parable. Many of you may remember six years ago when we as a church studied Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son. While we often identify with either the younger brother or the older brother who Paul will talk about next week, Nouwen invites us to identify with the loving and gracious father, inviting us on a journey of becoming the Father. Not that we will ever arrive, but as people who have received God’s incredible welcome and grace, we are to extend that kind of welcome and grace to others. That was what Jesus was doing. Jesus was living in God’s relational matrix reaching out to all sinners seeking to extend God’s love to them. The Pharisees, so steeped in their moral matrix, couldn’t recognize the good news that is only found in the relational matrix. That God through Jesus had come near to them and wanted to be in relationship with them as well. Instead they criticized him and lived according to the moral matrix, which is bad news for everyone. It seems that the reason that Jesus was so angry with the Pharisees is that they were making God’s good news into bad news, driving people away from the relational heart of God the Father.
We become the Father as we live into this ability to give a gracious and loving welcome to anyone and everyone, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. When we have a heart of compassion for those who struggle instead of a heart of condemnation. When we help people recognize that the gospel is the good news of grace and welcome and not the bad news of the moral matrix. When we’re known more for being for people than for what we’re against.
I still remember hearing a few people from a Presbyterian church in Littleton talking about their faith journey using the phrase that their church had “loved them back into the kingdom.” I love that phrase. They had walked away and made some prodigal-like choices, but the church community was there with open arms, not judging them but praying for them and continuing to love them through it all. And that love helped restore their relationship to God. What a beautiful picture of how we as individuals and we as a congregation can become like the Father and play a role in loving people into the kingdom through the graciousness with which we treat one another and the stranger in our midst.
We don’t become the Father on our own efforts. It is God’s loving grace, given to us when we come to God and given as we continue in relationship with him, that works in our hearts helping us become more like the Father. Having received that loving welcome we are eager to share it with others. May God be at work in us as individuals and as a congregation to know God’s heart for us and then show God’s heart to the world. Let us pray.