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The Two Sons - Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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Two sons. One father. Much bad behavior. Lots of love. 

Please listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The delivered sermon is often considerably different than the sermon notes which are included for convenience below.  

Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley. 

March 6, 2016 - Fourth Sunday in Lent

"The Two Sons".  Text is from Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps one of the best known and beloved parables in all of the Gospels, so well known that its very name: "prodigal son" has become quite a cliché in modern culture. We see an old friend who hasn't shown up at a meeting for a while and might say, "look, the prodigal one is back!" And yet, I have a feeling that the words get used so much that not everyone that uses them is actually familiar with the famous parable and the underlying meaning of it. 

In fact, one might also call it the parable of the Faithful or Stubborn Son or even the parable of the Happy or Foolish Father, because while most of the parable speaks about the Prodigal Son, the central themes of it do not necessarily center around what he has done but rather the reaction of his father upon his return and the subsequent response and resentment of his brother upon seeing the celebration. There is so much to read and look at in this parable precisely because it is so long and so rich in content. 

How were we to look at it if we were Jesus' audience? We start off at the very beginning with a description of the audience, the tax collectors and sinners, while the Pharisees are themselves grumbling about who his audience is--but be cautioned lest we consider these people as some sort of equation; this parable, which is found only in Luke uses some particular understandings of Jewish family life, things that might not be so obvious today, and takes them to manipulate the feelings and hearings of his audience. 

There are matters of honor at stake here. A first century listener would see the younger brother's asking for his inheritance, shameful even without the consequence.  And they may even view the father's easy accession to the younger son's request as foolish and would reduce his standing among the locals, because suddenly the property that was once in the hands of their beloved neighbor is now among outsiders.  And particularly in agrarian society, a father who is a landowner is expected to continue to provide, and would be careless to find themselves under the provision of their children.

Return of the Prodigal Son, 1914. CHristian Rohlfs

And of course the younger son's life went something as expected. Foolishly he squanders the inheritance on living the life of Riley.  Of course he finds himself, in a famine, at the lowest of the low, slave to a pig farmer...and pigs were considered entirely unclean so the symbolism was not at all lost. 

And the father, who should have at the very least chastised his younger son upon return, stops the young man from begging and welcomes him back with a party. 

So we move on to the older son, who, is dutifully working in the fields and blissfully unaware of the events...at least until he begins to hear the sounds of merry-making in the house. When the servant tells him what was going on, he refuses to go in. Even as the father comes out and welcomes him in, the older son disrespectfully and shamefully chastises the father, going so far as disavowing his brother...note he says to his father, "your son", and, violating the commandment to honor one's parents, continues to refuse the invitation. 

The father, once again, ignoring the slight, reminds the older son that he yet has everything his father has, including the ceaseless and everpresent love of the father, while the brother, having lost everything, and having been dead to all is once again whole and returned to life. Amazing grace that is, indeed, and how can one not hear this story and marvel at the love that underlies it. 

The problem that takes place are essentially classic ones. A person foolishly takes their life savings and selfishly squanders it on getting immediate gratification, on a selfish fix, on living for the moment and having a good time, without regard to the consequences. I know that many who live such a life are living without regard to consequences, because there is an underlying sense of doom, that in living for today, they are already acknowledging a lack of future for themselves. Is this the sense of immortality that some young people are imbued with, a lack of fear that they will ever find themselves at a loss? Or is it something deeper, this inconsolable lack of hope for the future, the dread and fear that if they don't get their good times now, they will never find them. 

And I know that many of us have found ourselves in those places of darkness, after having ... once again ... squandered what we ourselves have been given freely, sunk into a gutter of depravity and degradation. How wondrous it must feel to find a God who welcomes us back home with open arms and gratitude that we ourselves are alive. 

And what of those of us who feel as if we are constantly doing the right thing, living for tomorrow and biding our time, not taking risks because we know that we have earned our reward and it is awaiting us in the future. The older son feels as if his father is squandering their resources, not realizing that he already has all that his father has. This older brother is refusing to acknowledge his once-dead younger brother, refusing to open up to the love his father is calling him to feel. 

I was recently following a post on Facebook about government assistance, in particular a thread about food stamps.  And there is this woman who complains about standing at the checkout line, scraping coupons and buying everything on sale, making sure that she's saving her pennies so she'll have something left over, and finds herself looking at the mother behind her with a shopping cart full of food who is using an EBT card.  And this woman has an iPhone and a designer handbag! Oh the horror! 

And there's no amount of people who can dissuade her from this view of the monstrous mythological creature known as the Welfare Queen standing behind her. No amount of explaining the corporate programs that provide assistance in receiving smart phones, or the availability of designer bags at thrift stores or knock-offs at flea markets. No amount of explaining that the shopping cart full of food is actually full of low cost, high calorie, unhealthy options that are probably the monthly apportion of food assistance and that the woman will still need to get supplemental food at a food bank. No reasoning with this woman that this obviously less fortunate person than herself would almost certainly appreciate having the freedom of choosing when to shop and where to shop and healthier options to shop for rather than the limited options that government assistance provides for her. 

Will the older son listen to the father and welcome his son? This is where the parable leaves us. Will we open ourselves to being transformed and letting ourselves loving others and understanding that love for us is long and unconditional and that the good that happens to our less fortunate brothers and sisters is not good that is taken away from us because we ourselves already have that share. 

I have no doubt that the father in the parable is God. That even while we, like the prodigal son are ourselves lost sometimes for time, that we return to the Lord and God is joyful and celebrates, that because we are once more found, alive and where we belong, in the cradle of God's loving arms, that is reason to celebrate, break out the music and dancing and just go to town. 

And even as we, like the faithful son, simmering with resentment and anger that we are being treated unfairly, that despite what we do to ensure that our duty is fulfilled, others seem to be taking advantage of the goodwill of our benefactors that we are reminded by God that we are always loved, that he has always been there with us, like the Footprints in the Sand poem, and that if we feel slighted because God loves all of his children, then we need to take a look at those feelings and understand that the celebration for the lost is one that we are invited and welcome to attend, that the father's happiness for the lost son is a shared happiness that he constantly has for the faithful son. 

The good news is not only does God call us to return to lives of honor and responsibility while welcoming us with open arms even when we have failed, but that also God calls us to be the welcoming arms that he himself is in the world. That we are called to live out the gospel of love in his holy spirit, because the celebration that God has, in the return of the prodigal sons and daughters to God's bosom is one that is a celebration of all of us, prodigal and stubborn, foolish and faithful, and that we may be transformed and reformed, the children of God's love, and citizens of his kingdom on earth.


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This page contains a single entry by Cary Bass-Deschenes published on March 6, 2016 4:08 PM.

What Goes Around, Goes Around - Sermon on Luke 13:1-9 was the previous entry in this blog.

Fifth Wednesday in Lent - Homily on Luke 9:10-17 & 2 Kings 4:1-7 is the next entry in this blog.

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