From Pastor Kenny's Desk
March 31, 2019
Meanwhile, the tax collectors and the “sinners” were all gathering around Jesus to listen to his teaching, at which the Pharisees and the religious scholars murmured, “This person welcomes sinners and eats with them!”
Jesus then addressed this parable to them: “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to their father, ‘Give me the share of the estate that is coming to me.’ So the father divided up the property between them. Some days later, the younger son gathered up his belongings and went off to a distant land. Here he squandered all his money on loose living.
“After everything was spent, a great famine broke out in the land, and the son was in great need. So he went to a landowner, who sent him to a farm to take care of the pigs. The son was so hungry that he could have eaten the husks that were fodder for the pigs, but no one made a move to give him anything. Coming to his senses at last, he said, ‘How many hired hands at my father’s house have more than enough to eat, while here I am starving! I’ll quit and go back home and say, “I’ve sinned against God and against you; I no longer deserve to be called one of your children. Treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ With that, the younger son set off for home.
“While still a long way off, the father caught sight of the returning child and was deeply moved. The father ran out to meet him, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘I’ve sinned against God and against you; I no longer deserve to be called one of your children.’ But his father said to one of the workers, ‘Quick! Bring out the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Take the calf we’ve been fattening and butcher it. Let’s eat and celebrate! This son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and now he’s found!’ And the celebration began.
“Meanwhile the elder son had been out in the field. As he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the workers and asked what was happening. The worker answered, ‘Your brother is home, and the fatted calf has been killed because your father has him back safe and sound.’
“The son got angry at this and refused to go in to the party, but his father came out and pleaded with him. The older son replied, ‘Look! For years now I’ve done every single thing you asked me to do. I never disobeyed even one of your orders, yet you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends. But then this son of yours comes home after going through your money with prostitutes, and you kill the fatted calf for him!’
“’But my child!’ the father said. ‘You’re with me always, and everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and now he’s found.’”
~ Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
What more can be said about the parable of the Prodigal? With the exception of the parable of the Samaritan … which is also in Luke’s story … this is likely the best known of Jesus’ parables. You don’t have to go to church to know this story as it is part of the fabric of our culture and society. Perhaps one of the reasons we know this parable is that it seems to represent something of our own life experience. How many of us have been the prodigal? Or perhaps the older brother? Maybe we’ve been the gracious parent.
Traditionally, this story has always been seen as one of grace. We’re used to focusing on the younger son … often identifying with his taking off on his own, realizing he has made some bad choices, and being welcomed and overwhelmed by grace. It’s a classic story of forgiveness, repentance and profound reconciliation. But I would say this parable is also … first and foremost … a story of amazing love and acceptance.
This week I’ve been musing over the second part of the story, the exchange between the gracious parent and elder son. In fact, I’ve wondered if this parable sheds light on two very different reactions to grace and love. One … when you are totally down and out … is to receive it with surprise and delight. The other … when you have been working hard and trying your best … can be rather resentful, as it seems like it makes all your efforts overlooked at best and perhaps even worthless.
And I think these two responses reflect two dimensions of ourselves. One dimension … that of the elder son … reflects our life in the world and our need to keep track of things. To count, to make sure things add up, to quantify, measure and compare. All this counting is not for its own sake but is in service of a larger goal: fairness. We track things not because we often need to but to keep things fair to make sure things are running right … out of a concern for justice.
But as important as counting is sometimes … it just doesn’t work. Especially in relationships. Can you imagine counting every good thing someone did for you and using that to judge how much they love you. Or …. imagine keeping track of every unhelpful or hurtful thing people in your life do to you and demanding payment. Worse … imagine them demanding payment from you for your mistakes. When you start counting the right and the wrong, the good and the bad, you’ll never get over it. The problem is before long, you’ll be so unhappy you’ll actually have convinced yourself that if you could just count more then you’ll finally be happy.
It just doesn’t work. And so the loving parent in Jesus’ parable does something landowners never do. He runs out to meet his wayward son the minute he detects him coming from afar. He doesn’t send a servant. He doesn’t wait for his son to come. He dashes down the road like no respectable landowner ever would, making a complete fool of himself. Why in the world would he be so eager to see a son who claimed his inheritance early … which is kind of like he said he couldn’t wait for his dad to be dead … and then wasted it all. Not only that, he doesn’t even give his son a chance to explain or repent but interrupts his sincere speech and instead embraces and restores him immediately. Trust me, all the other landowners will be talking about his ridiculous and demeaning behavior at the first-century equivalent of the American Legion that week. But this landowner doesn’t care because he’s a loving, caring parent before he’s a landowner and so he doesn’t count all the wrongs his son has done him but only tries to count his lucky and innumerable stars when his son comes back.
And if that’s not enough, he then does something a landowner would never do a second time when he goes out to speak to his elder son. He doesn’t call his son inside. He doesn’t relay a message by a servant. He goes out to plead with his son to come into the party. In other words, what should have been a command performance turns into an embarrassing occasion where the landowner must beg his son to obedience. And all those who see him behave as no self-respecting landowner will be talking about this as well. But he doesn’t care, because before he’s a respectable landowner, he’s a loving, caring parent who loves both his children more than anyone can measure.
And that’s when counting breaks down. When you love so deeply there is no scale adequate to calculate your devotion. The elder son … he counts … and you can hear his ill-fated calculations saturating everything he says: “Look! for years now…,” “you never gave me…,” “This son of yours….” But the landowner … the loving, caring parent … doesn’t. Can’t. You see, love like this cannot be measured, tracked, or managed.
I believe the gracious, loving parent in this parable mirrors the love God has for each and every one of us … and that God has for ALL people. A pure love that is given freely and unconditionally and never-ever taken away. A love that many have never imagined or experienced. Many of us have … and continue … to experience the reality of counting relationships, rejection and demeaning by our families and others. We understand the pain of rejection and brokenness all too well to deny its sting. Some of us have had to leave our family or live secret lives in order to live as our authentic selves … a journey that no matter how empowering often comes at a price … the greatest is the hope of being reconciled to ourselves and others … the hope of authentic love. No matter how much we hurt and struggle to love ourselves, the hope of being loved or the fear of never experiencing love can be overwhelming. The power of this parable from Luke’s story is to realize through the actions of the gracious, loving, caring parent the lengths our prodigal God will go to embrace us with God’s immeasurable love. Period.
This parable reminds us that we are loved and worth loving, valuable and celebrated by God … just the way we are … God loves us … fiercely, vulnerably, courageously…and unendingly. Whether we have wasted opportunity after opportunity or have been quietly working away faithfully and wondering when we’ll be noticed, God loves us and nothing we do will ever change that reality. Whether we have welcomed others who are on a journey of living their authentic identity are down and out, longing to be accepted or have judged others for not measuring up, God loves us. Whether we think this news is the best in the world or barely notice it … God loves us. Whether we come to church reluctantly or hurting or filled with fear and pain or with unbelievable joy, whether we have had a lifelong relationship with God, have just come to know God, or aren’t even sure God really exists, yet God loves us … truly, madly, and deeply.
Can you IMAGINE a world where everyone knows and experiences transforming love? A world where everyone is welcome and embraced no matter the color of their skin, gender, sexuality or ability? A world where acceptance, forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation, authentic love … and so much more … are a reality and practiced? Because of God’s love and grace, I believe this world is possible. As people of faith it is our mission to helping this world become a reality for those who do not know or experience love. Every time we Share God’s love with ALL people we are one step closer to this reality … and lives are transformed … because of discovering this type of genuine love and acceptance. Rarely have I seen or experienced a congregation that does this as well as MCC Richmond. Let’s keep sharing and imagining a world where ALL people are welcome, loved and know the power of God’s loving embrace.