“Faithful or Wayward; Lost or Found” – 03-10-13 – Lent 4 – Cycle C

Listen to the sermon here:

Scriptures: Joshua 5:9-12 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 Psalm 32 Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Two brothers, raised with the same parents, in the same house, two years apart in age, yet so different in nature. One was a hard-worker, diligent, obedient, following the father in the family business. One could not walk that path. Instead, he was always pushing the limits, experimenting to learn how tolerant the environment could be and where consequences would be prohibitive. His driving force was pleasure.

Parents wonder how this can happen. It is tempting to show favor to the dependable son. But, the other son came from the seed of the parents so there is a strong bond and hope for this wayward, restless son also; always hoping that things would stop becoming progressively worse and dangerous; always, making excuses, being tolerant, turning a blind eye to the reality of this child becoming adult in age but becoming more immature by the month.

Oh, that life would not throw these worries at us! Why, are brothers natured so differently? What did we do wrong? Is God testing us? Does Satan have a particular revenge for us? The parents pray without seeming results. Does God not care for us? The parents’ lives are being consumed by this concern.

These thoughts may be very close to home for us. You may be thinking that you cannot continue reading or listening to this message because you have lived this experience in your own family and the hurt is deep. Let’s move to a story from Luke about two such brothers. Let’s see if this helps us. Some of us may be seeing this story as one of the brothers. Maybe we were the steadfast one. Maybe we were the boundless one – always pushing against the fence to see how restrictive it really was.

You probably know this story from Luke 15. We call it the Prodigal Son story. It will be interesting to discover with which person we really identify. Then again, maybe we can see ourselves in all three characters – alternating at different times in our lives.

Jesus told this story – called a parable. Jesus was speaking to a gathering of tax collectors and sinners. Apparently, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, also called scribes, were standing back a bit, criticizing Jesus for the kind of people with whom he spoke and even ate. We need to remind ourselves that those tax collectors were agents for the Roman government and were often dishonest. We also need to remind ourselves that the Pharisees and the scribes were doing what they thought God wanted them to do – that is to protect the faith as they understood it. They truly thought this Jesus was a heretic to the religion.

We, ourselves, have come to understand that Jesus is a very integral part of our faith. This understanding had not been revealed to these religious people of the day. More correctly, they may have been blind to the revelation. This really could have been part of God’s plan. It all leads to the cross and what is our faith without the cross?

Now to the story. We start with a father and the younger son even though we are told there is an older son. The younger son is the stretching-the-limits son in this family. Jesus simply says that the younger son asked for his inheritance and the father gave it to him. Imagine! This is not the usual way children inherit money.

The father does not seem to take time to do much calculating about the fair share. The tradition in place was that the older son would get twice as much for his share as would any younger son. Our text says “divided his property between them.” Maybe Jesus just knew how to keep a story concise. Some translations use the words “wealth” or “living” in place of “property.”

A few days later, the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. Some versions say “loose living” or “wild living” or “riotous living.” We get the idea.

Well, he quickly let all his money slip right through those unpurposeful hands of his. Nothing to show; nothing to eat; nowhere to sleep. He needed to get a job! This is strange – God’s humor is entering the picture. He is hired to feed pigs. Pigs! Assuming that this family is Jewish, there could not be a much more undesirable way to earn a living. And yes, the pigs ate better than the son. In fact, the son did not have food. It says in the scripture that he would gladly have eaten the pigs’ food. My question is, “Why did he not eat some of the pig’s food? Would the owner be that watchful over the amount of food the pigs received? Surely, the son would not need a noticeable amount.

Be that as it may, the younger son finally came to his senses. The truth hit him in his desperation. He would crawl home and ask to be a servant in his father’s estate. Yes, that would be his saving grace if his father would accept him as a servant. We don’t know the anxiety level of this son as he made his way homeward. Was he confident of his father’s agreeing to his request or was he walking with increased trembling as he finally drew close to his destination. He knew exactly what he would say; he had it down pat.

We are not told if the father spent hours watching the road or if he just happened to see this younger son approaching while he was still at a distance. Before the son could proclaim his memorized speech, the father ran to him, embraced him, kissed him. Now, the son gets to offer his speech. He blurts, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The father did not spend time arguing that point. The father called servants for a robe, a ring, sandals, and the fatted calf. Notice he does not say “a fatted calf” as though there were several. No, the father says “the fatted calf.” The father is rejoicing over this son who was lost and now is found. He was dead and is now alive. And they began to celebrate.

Do you see resemblances to how we may come to the Father when we die? The Father would greet us with a booming voice, “This person was dead and is now alive. Let the celebration begin!” Our personal entrance into heaven! Or even greater is the resemblance to the death of Jesus, the Son, on the cross, only to rise again on the third day. Can you just hear the Father on that grand day rejoicing, “The Son was dead but now is alive! Mission accomplished! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Let the celebration begin!”

But, returning to the prodigal son, we don’t have an entirely happy ending. While this celebration was in progress, the older son approached the scene. He could hear unusual sounds of a merry nature and asked a servant. The servant reported the news of the day – the younger son had returned and the fatted calf had been served.

Well! What is fair about this scenario? Nothing, I think. Nothing, thinks the older son. The happy father asks this older son to come join the party and rejoice also. What! Is this not bad enough? This older son is expected to lay aside all feelings of resentment, all feelings of injustice that were probably growing day by day as he served the family business without extra recompense, without someone to share the load. It is possible that this older son felt as much a slave as the younger son had felt as he fed the pigs.

No way was this older son going to participate in anything close to rejoicing. It is striking to note that one of the older son’s statements is that he was never disobedient to the father’s command. Does this remind you of the Pharisees and the scribes. They felt that they had done an excellent job of being obedient to the rules of the faith as they knew and understood them. It reminds me of Paul, who was Saul. Saul thought he was being obedient to the faith, to the religion as he had learned it. Saul was passionate about keeping the faith pure as he persecuted the followers of Jesus.

This older son had been obedient. He had not tested the limits. He had stayed within the prescribed perimeter. Do you sense what was missing in this strict obedience, with this firmness, with this determination? Compassion, forgiveness, generosity! Those are the missing elements. Because I tend to be much too much like the older son and the Pharisees and the scribes and like Saul before he became transformed, I can clearly identify with their zealousness. We need to pray, “Melt our hard hearts. Soften our dictatorial nature. Open our hearts and minds to be more loving.” I pray this daily for myself. We need to be transformed. We need to join the celebration. The transformed Paul says to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Let us not harbor resentment. Let us not harbor guilt. Let us not harbor regret. We have permission, yes even the command, to rejoice in today as new creations. Let our minds and hearts be open to the better way. Let us not burn from the inside. Let us put aside animosity and embrace forgiveness and pure love. Let us embrace joy on a daily basis! Let us believe we are the one who was lost and is now found! Let love embrace us – the love of God and the love of our fellow new creations. Wait! This sounds like an exclusive club. And by the way, once we are in, are we always in or can we slip outside the “found” circle? This seems to be a continuous vigilance – seeking people who need to be found and watching ourselves lest our love slide into a closed-mind mode. Lord, help us to rejoice at all times and to be loving as our mode of operation forever. Thank you, gracious and loving God. Amen