How Does the Story End?

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Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2016, Year C

Joshua 5.9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Cor. 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from the One who keeps welcoming us back, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It’s all about prospective … how we hear, interpret, and receive a story. For so many, our Gospel reading reveals how God really is, a story that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

There is a man by the name of Kenneth Bailey, who has written a book giving Middle Eastern insight to this story. As we know there are 3 main characters: a Father, and an older and younger son. The story begins with the younger son asking the Father for his share of the inheritance. Now to us, this might not seem like a big deal, but in Middle Eastern culture, this would be like the son telling the Father to drop dead, for he would only get his inheritance if the Father dies.

Surprisingly, the Father divides his property (his life really) and gives the younger son the inheritance. This is a strange Father indeed!

The son quickly goes out and squanders what he is given, meaning he just spends money like there’s no tomorrow. What is interesting here is that it doesn’t say that he does immoral things with his money, like spends it on prostitutes, as the older brother suggests. The older brother is accusing the younger of things he only assumes and doesn’t actually know.

Inevitably, the younger son runs out of money and is in deep need. Now why is he in need? Again, it’s all about prospective. A man by the name of Mark Allan Powell did a study in which he asked this question in 3 different areas of the world: Why did the Prodigal (younger) Son end up where he did?

People in Russia answered: Because there was a famine in the land.

People in Africa answered: Because nobody helped him.

People in North America answered: Because he squandered his living.[1]

Regardless of how exactly the son ended up with nothing, maybe it was a combination of many things, returning home for him was out of the question at first. He had shamed himself and his family by breaking relationships that mattered most, not only his relationship with his brother and Father, but also his relationship with the entire community.

Only in his humiliation, his rock bottom, when he is looking longingly at what the pigs were eating and thinking he’d be so lucky to have the slop in the mud for food, he starts to realize what he left. Richard Jensen writes: “He sought pleasure and found pain. He sought freedom and got bondage.”[2]

With the pain of hunger in his empty belly he begins to remember how well even the servants ate at his home. If his Father will give him a second chance, he could come back, not as a son (he feels he has messed that one up), but as a servant. He begins the long journey home and makes it to the gate of the community.

And what does he and the rest of the people see? His Father, robes gathered up in order that he could run, run to his son that was lost.

What we must understand in this story is that Fathers did not run; they never ran. For the Father to gather up his robes, show his legs, and run to a son who wished him dead, a person who left and shamed the community, was simply humiliating and unheard of. But this Father is no ordinary Father.

He claims his son, embraces his shame and kisses him before the son can even say, “I’m sorry.” In act of pure grace, the Father takes him back as his son and not his servant. The Father could have been angry, turned the son away, or made him work off what he spent. But that is not the heart of the Father.

This Father knows that his son was dead and is now alive, was lost and is now found. The young son embraces the grace the Father gives. He accepts the robe and ring, and joins the party that is celebrating his return. Everything he sought after failed him, except his Father and his love.

But what of the older brother? We learn in the end that he too doesn’t know how good he has it. He too takes his relationship with the Father for granted, complaining that he thinks he can have it better with a party with his friends. He too shames his Father by refusing to participate in the banquet.

Each son tries to manipulate the Father and the Father responds the same to both: with love, compassion, and an invitation to the banquet.

So how does this story end? The Gospel doesn’t tell us on purpose. How do you want it to end? Does the older brother go in to the party and participate? Do the brothers reconcile and forgive? Are the brothers satisfied with their lives or do they continue to long for what they don’t have?

However it ends, nothing changes the Father’s love for them. I have once heard this story called “The Prodigal Father,” since the Father is so extravagantly wasteful with dishing out chances and grace.

The Father in this story is God. And this is how God responds to you and to me.

When we tell God to drop dead, when we squander away what God has given us, when we bring shame upon ourselves, when we complain when someone else gets the grace and forgiveness they don’t deserve, when we are living in abundance and can’t see it …

There the Father is, running to us, embracing us, throwing a party, continually inviting us because that is who God is.

And it doesn’t really make sense. It doesn’t make sense because we are all about fairness, people getting what they deserve, whether good or bad. Or! We tell ourselves we are not good enough to go to the banquet because if God knew what we did in our past or know what we are really like, then God would not invite us in.

And yet, here God is, in this house of worship with arms wide open to welcome you to sit in the pew and hear from this story what God is really like, arms wide open in invitation for each one of you at the communion table. Here God is, splashing us with water from the font, dousing us with grace upon grace.

It’s true that pain and suffering can be transformational, like the younger son starving to death among the pigs, but so can love.

Where does this story meet you today? Who do you relate to? Are you the younger son who runs away? Have you been given chance after chance when you didn’t deserve it?

Are you the older son, trying to decide how and who the Father will love? Are you living in abundance and can’t see it? Are you always longing for what you don’t have? Are you wanting the “stuff” the Father has, but not the relationship the Father offers?

Have you felt like the Father, knowing what it is like to lose someone and then have them back? Have you watched someone who was once dead, lost in their own self-destructive behaviors, and then come back to life, sober and ready to live?

When you see that kind of coming home, that kind of turn around, that movement from death to life, it’s a big deal and God knows it.

There is no time for: I’m going to make you pay back what you lost. There is no demand for: What did you while you ran away? There is no need to say: You have really disappointed me, making someone feel even more shame.

God keeps loving you and me back. We are humbled by this kind of love because we know we don’t deserve it. Eventually this kind of love gets under our skin and into our bones and we let God embrace all of us: our past, our present, and our future.

Then we enter into the banquet hall and we celebrate because we were once dead and are now alive, we were once lost, but are now found.

[1] Mark Allan Powel, What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew

[2] Richard Jensen, Preaching Luke’s Gospel, p. 172.