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A Lenten Celebration

San Williams

March 10, 2013
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

03-10-2013 Sermon We don’t associate the season of Lent with joyful, raucous celebration.  To the contrary, whatever partying is done—such as that at Mardi Gras—takes place before Lent begins.  But once Ash Wednesday rolls around, the dancing stops, the party clothes are put away, the music falls silent. We all know that Lent is a time for soulful reflection and sincere repentance.  During Lent we put ashes on our foreheads, suspend our “alleluias,” go on a diet, give up something we enjoy, and tune our lives to a distinctly minor chord.  All this is well and good, but then we read a parable that knocks our Lenten socks off.   Unexpectedly, we hear loud music, smell barbeque, see people dancing and laughing.  Given that we are in a season of temperance, today’s scripture shocks us with a jolt of surprising extravagance, rejoicing and celebration.

Admittedly, you may not have felt such a jolt.  In fact, as soon as you realized that today’s scripture was the familiar Parable of the Prodigal Son, you may have experienced something of a power brownout.  After all, this is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible.  Through countless hearings, it can take on all the bland predictability of a biblical theme park.  It’s still lovely to hear, but we no longer expect anything dangerous, wild, or unexpected to jump out at us.  We may agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called this parable “the greatest story in the Bible.”   But even a great story like the Parable of the Prodigal Son can be tamed, leaving us with a moral lesson that goes something like this:  Like the prodigal son, no matter how far from God we may wander, if we say we’re sorry and return to God, God rejoices and welcomes us home.    That’s a beautiful story, a true story, but one so predictable that it may have lost its power to shock and surprise us.  So let’s move the kaleidoscope half a turn and watch the odd, shocking pieces of the story click into place.

For example, notice the abnormal interaction between the father and his younger son.  When the younger son asks his father for his share of the property, Jesus’ first hearers would have let out a gasp.  Such behavior was unheard of.  An inheritance was given only after a parent’s death.  To ask for it when his father was still alive not only defied custom, but also demonstrated an appalling lack of respect for his father. The younger son’s request for his inheritance is the equivalent of wishing his father dead.

And the Father’s response is wholly unbefitting a middle-eastern patriarch.  Like an overly indulgent parent who can’t refuse any request, he divides the property and gives the younger son his share.  Talk about spoiling your kid!  By our lights, the father should have taken a stronger stand, saying something like,  “Fine son.  If you want to turn your back on your family, go off to the big city and ruin your life, go ahead. But you’re not doing it on my dime.”   Today we’d judge that the father’s action is at best enabling, and at worst rewarding irresponsible behavior.

Predictably, things do not go well for the younger son.  The inheritance runs out, and soon he is destitute and alone.  Even the pigs that he has been hired out to feed are eating better than he is. That’s when we’re told that he “comes to his senses.” He realizes that even his father’s hired hands have decent food to eat and a roof over their heads.  So he rehearses the speech that he plans to make to his father.

Now the odd thing here is the absence of any clear act of repentance on the son’s part. He doesn’t seem to be repenting so much as scheming. He’s not returning because he’s sorry, but because he’s hungry.  There’s no indication that he realized how much he had hurt his father, but only how much he needed a bed to sleep in.  Jesus may have wanted to shock the Pharisees and scribes—as well as us—by telling about an impudent son who was more of a scoundrel than a true repentant.

Be that as it may, the Father doesn’t seem to give a hoot about his son’s motives.  All he cares about is that his son has come home.  Once again the details are shocking.  While the son is still far off, the father, filled with compassion, runs—let’s be honest: more like a mother than a father—throws his arms around his son, kisses him right there on the road where everyone can see them.  “Great men don’t run in public,” Aristotle said. But this father apparently doesn’t care what Aristotle says, or what his neighbors say for that matter.  He doesn’t even let his son get through his rehearsed confession before he shouts, “Bring a robe, the best robe, a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet.”   What? No apology required, no restitution demanded, no probationary period enforced?  This father needs a refresher course on tough love.  Let the boy earn his way back into the family, sweating in the furrows, eating in the slave quarters, spending his days serving his elder brother.  The father’s reckless love for his son defies both common sense and the rules of good parenting.

But friends, this isn’t a parable about good parenting.  It’s a glimpse into the kingdom of God, a picture of undeserved grace and unexpected joy, an event so surprising, so undeserved, so out of joint with all that life should bring that we fall down in awe before this joyful mystery.

Of course, not everyone is joyful.  When the elder brother hears the music and learns of a party being thrown for his irresponsible brother, he seethes with resentment.  No one even bothered to call him in to join the party.  Accordingly, he refuses to come. When the father comes out to plead with him, the elder brother explodes with justifiable anger, saying, in effect: “I’ve worked all these years doing everything you commanded, yet you never gave me even a goat.  But you took the calf that I helped birth.  And you killed my calf for that little ingrate.”

Then comes the father’s poignant reply: “Son, you are always with me. Everything I have is yours.  Everything.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Last Sunday we sang the hymn,  “There’s a Wideness in God’s mercy.”   But left out of our hymnal is the stanza that says:

But we make His love too narrow

By false limits of our own;

And we magnify His strictness

With a zeal He will not own.

Friends, admittedly today’s scripture is an odd choice for a Lenten text.  But I’m glad that it’s included as a Lenten reading.  It surprises us with the good news that, whatever the liturgical season we are in—and whatever season of life we are in—the band plays on.  It’s the joyful sound of God’s rule-breaking, reckless, undeserved love for sinners. The feast has been made ready.  Shall we join the party?