Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 for the 4th Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019
The television game show “Family Feud” has been on for at least 25 years, probably more. Families compete with one another to answer questions and ultimately to win the cash prize. The show begins with the host (Richard Dawson, years ago; Steve Harvey, today) telling a couple jokes then introducing the families: “Let’s meet the Jones family! And going against them, let’s meet the Smith family!”
In today’s lesson, Jesus used a picture of a family which ended up “feuding” a bit in a parable to illustrate a truth for his disciples and especially to the Pharisees and Jewish religious law teachers who had condemned him for associating with people they considered to be awful and irredeemable sinners against God; people like tax collectors and others who had poor public reputations regarding their behaviors and lifestyles. There are valuable lessons for us, too. Using the “Family Feud” introduction …
Let’s Meet the “Prodigal” Family!
Before actually meeting this family, we probably need to visit the word Prodigal. Many of us who years ago grew up with the King James Version translation of the Bible learned this parable in Christian Day School or Sunday School under the title, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”. In our more recent translation (New International Version), the editors have put a title at the beginning of this section, “The Parable of the Lost Son”, probably because the Father in the parable spoke about his son who was “lost and has been found”, and this parable was taught by Jesus together with parables about a lost sheep and a lost coin. In all three of the parables Jesus taught at this time, the main point seems to be the concern and love of the person who lost someone or something.
Which brings us to the word “PRODIGAL”. I remember thinking as a child when I learned this parable that “prodigal” just meant “wicked” or “foolish” or “immoral”. But it does not necessarily mean “wicked” or “careless” or “immoral”. Rather, the dictionary definitions are: 1) “wastefully or recklessly extravagant”; 2) “lavishly abundant, profuse”; 3) “to give or yield profusely”, or “to lavish someone with something”. Our word “prodigy” would be related. A child prodigy is a child on whom a certain talent has been abundantly poured out, such as the child who seemingly by nature takes up the violin or piano and at age 5 is playing Beethoven. To be “prodigal” can be good or bad. We see it in the younger son and in the Father in Jesus’ parable. So, let’s meet the “prodigal” family. We start with “Junior”, the younger son in the parable, the prodigal son.
The Prodigal Son – WASTEFULLLY EXTRAVAGANT
In his parable Jesus described this younger of the father’s two sons as having asked his father while he’s still living for his share of the inheritance he would receive from his father’s estate when father would die. Father gave it to him and Jesus says that he soon left home for a foreign country and quickly spent his entire inheritance on “reckless living”. We can probably put details to the concept of “reckless living”. We’ve perhaps been there; or at least seen it around us. Led by the desires of his “heart” and by the lure of the glittery and glamor he found in the foreign country, he no doubt was eating expensive food and drink; partying; buying all sorts of unnecessary things. And, according to his brother’s accusation at the end of the parable, probably spending money on immoral sexual behavior (brother accused him of spending on prostitutes).
This wasteful extravagance, his “prodigal” behavior, did not have a good result. He ended up ruined, and finally enslaved during a time of famine. In our ways of speaking, he had “hit rock bottom”, having wasted everything and having sold himself as a slave to a man who sent him out to feed his pigs. With no one giving him any handouts, he was still starving, craving even the meager food he fed the pigs. Finally realizing he had sunk about as low as he could go, and admitting that he was helpless and pretty much hopeless, he sees only one way of rescue: return to his father and throw himself on his mercy, admitting to his father his sin and his total unworthiness to be part of that family again. He would ask to simply be a servant.
The Prodigal Father – recklessly extravagant / extravagantly compassionate and generous
In the parable the father is also “prodigal”. His extravagant generosity came also from the desire of his heart. It seems he wanted nothing greater than to have his wayward son back with him and to share with him all that was the father’s. That desire of his heart to generously and extravagantly pour out his goodness on his son appears in his spotting the wayward son when he was a long way off. I picture this father as every morning stepping out of his house and searching the horizon lovingly and hopefully wondering if this is the day his lost son comes home. This was the attitude of the father’s heart – to have the son back and to pour out profusely his love on that son.
When the son did finally show up and take responsibility for and admit to his sin against God and against his father, the father did just that – profusely, extravagantly poured out his love in a tangible way. No way was he going to treat him like a servant. Clothe him in the best robe, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And even more extravagantly generous, kill the fattened calf and let’s have a banquet!!! Indeed extravagant! Some (like the older son) would also say reckless, undeserved, and wasteful considering who was being honored. It was also unconditional. The younger son had admitted that he had sinned and that he had nothing to offer his father. He had nothing with which he would ever be able to pay back his father for what he had taken.
Jesus told this parable to the self-righteous, snobbish Pharisees who muttered about Jesus spending time with the people they looked down on – tax collectors, commoners, people whose sins may have been on display. The only thing profusely flowing out of them was their disgust and disregard for those people, and now for Jesus who actually cared about them. Jesus hit them between the eyes with the final part of the parable, regarding the older son who was angry about the father’s extravagant welcome of the younger son. While the brother referred to the prodigal, younger son as “this son of yours”, the father told the older son that they had to rejoice because this “BROTHER OF YOURS” was lost and has been found. They were family. In the case of those Pharisees and law teachers, they were fellow Israelites / Jews with those “sinners”. They were all part of the nation God the Father had raised up to bring into the world the Messiah and Savior needed by ALL people. Beyond that they were all part of the family of the human race, created by the same Father. In the other parables told during this conversation, as well as this one, Jesus made the point that his Apostle Paul would later make when writing to Timothy: “…God our Savior wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). God our Father, and all his angels, rejoice when any sinner repents and is restored to God’s family through trust in the rescuing life and death of his beloved Son, Jesus.
Dear brothers and sisters, This is our family!!! Each of us is that PRODIGAL son – led by our own desires and lured by the glittery “promise” of pleasure from this world’s things and activities. Whenever we’ve been lured into “reckless living” and wander from our God’s holy path for us, we are that “lost son”. While I suspect few of us have ever been so hungry and ruined that we’ve “hit rock bottom”, still God’s holy commands for our lives show us that in our relationship with God we have been at that point. But we also have a “PRODIGAL” FATHER IN HEAVEN!!! In the same way as the father in the parable he has open arms; opened by the sacrifice of his very own Son in our place! He freely and radically offers full forgiveness and life everlasting because of his Son’s arms spread and nailed to that cross!!! This is how he receives you in Christ!!! You were lost; he found you! You were dead; he made you alive!!! Turn to him! What haunts you? What is your struggle? He is ready to cover you in the prodigious garment of Jesus’ innocence!! With all these people with whom Jesus ate and interacted, he didn’t turn a blind eye to their sinful behavior, nor does he to ours. He took the punishment. He calls, “Follow me”.
Our Father’s “prodigal” love then has an effect on us, an effect Jesus sought to effect in the Pharisees and law teachers to whom he spoke the parable. We have human brothers and sisters wandering from Christ, lost and dead. Our Father gave his Son for all, each of us included. We have the privilege of sharing with them that our Father’s arms are open to them. This is our privilege. It’s the privilege of our congregation’s district elders; to show the Father’s open arms and to honestly and lovingly call them to him. Amen.