Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sermon, Lent 4C, Luke 15:1-2, 11b-32

Temptation, sin and repentance are three big themes in Lent.  We are tempted by a variety of things every day.  Temptation gets our attention and, despite our better judgment, we sin.  As Christians, we are called to the observance of a holy Lent that includes prayer, fasting, meditation and self-examination.  When we are tempted, and when we fall into sin, hopefully we are self-aware enough to examine our lives and behavior, repent and return to the Lord.

Today’s gospel gives us a classic example of temptation, sin and repentance.  The younger son was tempted by his share of the father’s estate.  He was tempted by the possibility of getting out from under his brother’s shadow.  He was tempted by visions of freedom.  He allowed those temptations to overtake him and he got caught up in “dissolute living;” or, as it is more commonly known, “sex and drugs and rock and roll.”  In other words, he fell into sin.  And when he spent time in self-examination while knee deep in pig slop, he repented and returned to his father.

Upon seeing his son return, the father welcomes him back into the family, dresses him in fine clothes, and throws a huge party.  The son is home, the family restored and all is well.  This story is one of the most beloved in all of Scripture.

I think this is one of the beloved stories in Scripture because we don’t pay attention to the whole thing.  Like the compilers of the Lectionary leave out uncomfortable passages, we want to edit out the bit with the older brother and jump right to, “This son of mine was dead and is alive; was lost and is found!”  But we can’t edit out that part.

After the happy reunion, the story transitions to the obedient older brother.  He is out working in the field when all this transpires.  Nobody comes to tell him his brother has returned.  Nobody tells him there’s a party going on.  He finds out about all of this by asking one of his slaves.  Everyone forgot about him in the excitement of his brother’s return.  He gets blindsided by both the news and the reaction:  he wasn’t prepared for the possibility of a return, nor was he prepared for how his father is acting.  Both of these things take him by surprise.

For him, the more distressing of these two was the father’s reaction.  The irresponsible brother blew his entire inheritance on drugs, drinking and prostitutes.  As the song says: he had dozens of friends and the fun never ends; that is, as long as he was buying.  Eventually it all dried up and he went home flat broke; but his dad welcomed him with open arms.  And this is where, and why, the story gets uncomfortable.

The older brother is the responsible one.  He’s the one who stayed on the farm.  He’s the one who probably picked up the slack when his brother left.  He’s the one who’s making wise investments.  And now, after his loyalty, after his patience, after continually placing his desires under his father’s wishes, he has to watch as his irresponsible brother comes home to a hero’s welcome.

Initially we see the older brother’s behavior as self-centered and petulant.  He becomes angry at not being told about the party.  He becomes angry at his father for throwing a party for his loser-brother.  He becomes angry at his father for allowing himself to be taken advantage of.

When dad comes out to invite him in, he refuses.  “How could you?” he demands.  “I have been loyal, responsible and obedient all my life, but you have never given me so much as a young goat for a celebration.  But now . . . now this loser-son of yours comes dragging his sorry you-know-what home and you throw the biggest party of the year.  How do you think that makes me feel?”

His self-righteous anger keeps him outside.  His judgment of his brother’s sins keeps him from seeing his brother as a lost person who desires nothing more than to gain his father’s blessing and live in a holy, covenanted relationship where he is considered part of the family.  The older son’s refusal to participate in the younger son’s return to the family ensures that he will no longer see him as a child of the father, but as nothing more than the sum total of acquired sins which he finds distasteful.  And because of his self-righteous anger at the father and younger son, his inability to accept the father’s generous welcome, and his belief that those he labels “notorious sinners” have no place in the father’s house, the older son will most likely leave his family and find a new place which holds to the same stringent rules and which appeals to his sense of judgment and punishment.

The story of the prodigal son is one of the most beloved stories in Scripture because it presents a story of unconditional welcome and love.  It presents a story of second chances.  It reminds us that the father, our heavenly Father, loves us with no strings attached.  It reminds us that we, sinners that we are, are always welcome in his house.

But the story of the prodigal son is also extremely uncomfortable because we are also the older brother.  It’s easy for us who attend church regularly and pledge of our time, talent and treasure to see ourselves as more deserving than people we deem notorious sinners.  It’s uncomfortable because we can be just as self-righteously angry and judgmental as the older brother.  It’s uncomfortable because, like the older brother, we can’t stand the thought of Those People being welcomed into the Father’s house.  It’s uncomfortable because like the older brother, we are faced with the choice of remaining in our Father’s house and joining the party because the lost have been found, or we can choose to leave our family and look for another place that holds to the same stringent rules and sense of judgment and punishment that we do.

This story of the prodigal son really isn’t about the prodigal son – it’s about a generous father and a self-righteous brother.  This story gives us two examples to choose from: a Father who gladly and happily welcomes everyone into the family just as they are, and a brother who is more interested in seeing people get what he thinks they deserve over and above a generous welcome.

Of these two, which example do you choose to follow?



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