Sermon 3/14/10, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
I told folks at our Ash Wednesday Service this year about the reason I chose “Extravagance” as our Lenten theme, and now I will share it with all of you: When I met with my clergy friends to some Lenten worship planning a few weeks ago, we were talking about today’s gospel lesson: the famous parable of the Prodigal Son. I dazzled my colleagues with my wisdom, sharing with them that though we usually think of “Prodigal” as meaning “lost,” it actually means “extravagant.” Over time we’ve come to think of it as meaning wandering and lost, because in the parable the prodigal son is the wayward younger child who squanders his fortune and has to come, begging for forgiveness, back home. But the word “prodigal” actually refers to his extravagant behavior – he burns through his money, he squanders his inheritance – he does nothing in moderation. And that behavior is prodigal behavior – extravagant behavior. After I dazzled them with my wisdom, one of my colleagues noticed that you could interpret many of our texts for Lent with the key word “extravagance.” And so as we looked at the texts for the season, we began to focus in on how each text talks about extravagance. That’s how we came to our theme for Lent this year.
But actually, I think calling this parable The Parable of the Prodigal Son shows that we’re already missing the point Jesus is trying to make with us. Whenever we read the gospels, hear Jesus’ teaching, I think we should assume that Jesus is talking to us, preaching to us. So we have to see ourselves in the story. But sometimes, I think we put ourselves in the wrong role in the story. When Jesus tells this parable, the first verses of our passage tell us that he told this parable, and the ones that are in between put not part of today’s lesson, in response to the Pharisees, because they were grumbling about Jesus’ dining habits. He spent a lot of time eating with tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees couldn’t believe a holy man would spend his free time with such low-class people. It is in response to the Pharisees’ comments that Jesus tells this parable. He’s talking to them. And so, this parable isn’t so much about the younger brother as it is about the older brother, and what he does. But we, over the years, can’t seem to help but see ourselves in the dramatic role of the wayward younger child. We’ve been lost, we’ve wandered away from God, and God has welcomed us back. That’s good – that we feel that way, welcomed by God. But here’s the thing: for most of us, for those of us that have been in the faith for years, maybe even for most or all of our lives, we’re much more in danger of being the older brother than the younger. That’s the behavior Jesus is really warning against in this parable. And so, I think, we should probably think of this as The Parable of the Cranky Older Brother instead of The Prodigal Son.
Let’s review the story. Jesus tells the Pharisees and scribes a story of a man who has two sons. The younger asks for his share of the family property, a request that would be akin to saying something like, “I wish you’d hurry up and die, Dad.” But the father makes no remarks – just does as he’s asked, and the younger son leaves home, and immediately sets about squandering his money in “dissolute living.” When it’s all gone, a famine strikes the land, and the young man finds himself literally wishing he could at least eat the food of the pigs he’s feeding. He decides that he’d be better off back at home, at least working as a servant for his father. So he heads home. But his father sees him “while he [is] still far off,” and runs to him – something that an elder Jewish man simply would not do, and accepts a brief apology, something else also not typical or expected, and proceeds to shower his lost-but-found son with welcome and forgiveness. But the older son is resentful. He’s been at home, pulling his weight, living a good life all this time, and he can’t believe the younger son is getting off so easy. He tells his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you,” which I can only imagine is hurtful language to the father, and continues to point out that he’s never been thrown a good party, yet the bad son gets welcomed with gifts. The father explains that the son has it wrong, or has missed the point: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” but your brother was lost, and now is found, and so we celebrate. (1)
Just this past week I was talking to a couple of people in the congregation about how different my siblings and I are from each other, how different we were growing up, and how amazing it is that children brought up in the same family can have such vastly different experiences. By the time I was in high school, I was already planning on heading to seminary after college, and I was, well, a bit of a goody-goody two-shoes. I can probably count the times I got in any sort of trouble on one hand. My brother Todd, who thankfully is not here to defend himself, was another story. Todd, although graduating third in his class from high school, almost had to go to summer school before graduating so he could make up all the gym classes he’d missed from essentially choosing to spend his days sleeping in rather than getting up and going to school on time. And the number of times he was sent to his room, or banned from phone or computer use, or generally grounded, well, who can count that high?
And sibling rivalry – that’s something that doesn’t really go away just because you get older. When Todd was in college, my mother was buying a new car, and she decided to give the old car to Todd. After all, the rest of us all had vehicles, and after struggling financially for a long time, my mom was finally in a place where she could afford to give Todd the car rather than trade it in. But the rest of us weren’t too happy – sure, we all had cars. But no one gave us the car – we had to buy our own! And here was Todd, trouble-maker of the family, with a car handed to him for free. I think my mom was shocked that we complained about Todd getting the car. For some reason she thought that the rest of us being well into our twenties would put us past any such complaining. But I’ve tried to explain to her: you are never too old for sibling rivalry. Joking aside, though, none of us actually think, or would want to believe even, that our mother loved any of us more than the others. She’s always given everything she has to her kids. And sometimes she has more to give than other times, true. But we never doubt that she wants to give us everything.
If you’ve never experienced sibling rivalry though, here’s another story for you. One of my favorite camp stories growing up was always the story of the warm fuzzies and the cold pricklies. The story goes like this: a village of people lived in a warm and loving community where everybody got along, where there was kindness and compassion and justice. And every villager had a special bag, and inside it were warm fuzzies. Warm fuzzies were cottony little puffs that just made you feel good. And every time villagers would meet, they would give each other warm fuzzies. Until, one day, a sorcerer came to town, and he started telling all the villagers that they should be careful about giving away their warm fuzzies so easily, because they might run out. They should be more careful about who they were giving them to – maybe only for special people, favorite people, on special occasions. Instead, they could give out cold pricklies, which would never run out. Only the cold pricklies just made people feel sad. But sure enough, once the sorcerer gave everyone the idea that their warm fuzzies would run out, people stopped giving them out, and would only give out cold pricklies, which no one really wanted. This went on until one day the princess of the land came to the village. The first villager she saw tried to give her a cold prickly, which she wouldn’t accept. Instead, she gave the villager a warm fuzzy, and he was so surprised that she would give him something so valuable! The villager said, “Why should we give away all of our warm fuzzies? Shouldn’t we keep them for ourselves?” But the princess said, “Every time you give away a warm fuzzy a new one is created in your own bag. Don’t you see? The more you give away, the more you will have.” Slowly, the villagers started trying what the princess said, and gave away warm fuzzies again. And sure enough, their bags never seemed to be empty.
God talks to us, Jesus teaches us, about loving our neighbors. And somewhere in that statement – that command – we forget about the loving part, but focus in on our neighbors nonetheless, and spend a lot of time worrying about our neighbors’ relationship with God, our neighbors’ actions, our neighbors’ choices, even when we don’t get nearly as much energy to our own relationship with God. Somehow, when we’ve been a part of the community of faith, we run the risk of becoming gatekeepers, monitoring what everyone else is doing, who is coming and going and how. And I think that we must be worried, somehow, at the core, that God’s extravagant love and forgiveness has some sort of limit, some fixed quantity, and can be used up on people who haven’t worked hard enough, in our minds, to get it. And so we watch, making sure no one else is getting too much of God, so that there’s not enough left for us, the faithful, the patient, the enduring disciples.
But we’re missing out, missing the best part. In the parable, the father says to the older son, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” That’s the gift given to those who have been long-faithful – that we’ve always been with God, always known the richness of God’s gifts, always understood that we were loved and forgiven and given grace. But God’s love, forgiveness, mercy when we’re sinful – that’s limitless. No end. No running out. And thanks be to God – because if mercy and forgiveness is only given when it is deserved, we’re all in trouble. There’s no quota on God’s forgiveness, no “while supplies last.” The kind of love Jesus calls us to calls us to rejoice, not begrudge, when one more person experiences God’s welcoming arms, even if that person didn’t find God’s arms in the same way we did.
"Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'" So Jesus told them this story, about two sons, both loved by their father. A story about you and me, loved by God. A story about the people in the pews and the people outside these walls, loved by God. Whether we’ve wandered far off, and have lost our way, or whether we’ve stayed on course, but have lost heart, God is waiting to welcome us home. Amen.
(1) Notes here are from Chris Haslam, http://www.montreal.anglican.org/comments, for Lent 4C gospel text.