The Preacher’s Study
Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C
D. Jay Koyle
2 Corinthians 5.16-21
Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32
I have heard many fine scholars and preachers lament that the Gospel passage for this Sunday, a picture so radical that it once provoked both wide-eyed astonishment and gasping indignation, has become so familiar and domesticated that it no longer serves as anything but a launch pad for moralistic platitudes in most pulpits and bible studies.
I think there is much truth to that. However, I suspect that it is not overfamiliarity alone that numbs us to the thrust of this tale, but also limited imagination. Like two-dimensional beings trying to perceive this three-dimensional world, we can scarcely begin to fathom the properties of God’s mercy. So despite its rich and varied topography, we flaten the parable to make it easier to negotiate.
If limited imagination is our problem, it’s one shared by two of the characters we encounter as we wander through the story.
The younger boy writes off dear ol’ dad as dead twice over: once by asking for his inheritance before the old man’s demise, and a second time by flying to an exotic locale where, in short order, he squanders the livelihood upon which his father depended. Before long, it comes to pass that the rascal hits rock bottom, losing his inheritance to Gentiles, no less. Between his poor choices with finances and friends on the one hand, and an economy that takes a nose dive overnight on the other, this Jewish boy soon finds himself lower in the pecking order than pigs, drooling over the barnyard slop he serves them for breakfast.
Then, it strikes him: “Father is a man of mercy, willing to risk both dignity and honor for the sake of his boys. He’s already done the unthinkable, cashing out my inheritance without so much as a grumble. If I head home and confess the error of my ways, who knows? Maybe the big-hearted guy will take me on as a day laborer.”
The only way this boy should expect any kind of welcome is if he returns with more riches than those with which he left, able to buy back the real estate and livestock cashed in for him and thus restore the security of his family and diginity of his Dad. Lacking that, the boy should expect nothing but rejection from the father, family and friends he left behind; backs turned on the back once turned on them. Indeed, that is just what is required and is sure to happen if the villagers intercept him before he gets to his father. But there’s a certain kind of risk-taking sparked by a belly’s incessant rumbling, and so this lad sets his compass for home.
It may be that there is little repentance, if any, going on here. This appears to be remorse rooted in hunger rather than conviction, after all. No matter! The boy’s reasoning is common enough, even for folk who have not quite reached their wit’s end. When people seek good from those to whom they have delivered ill, they feel compelled to explain themselves. It is like we figure doing that adequately enough creates the conditions for at least grudingly-given forgiveness, just like the son who mused: If I head home and plead my case, father might make me a hired hand. Seems pretty imaginative…
Only surprise! It turns out the father exceeds all this son can ask or imagine. While he is still far off, the father, peering through his binoculars on the upstairs balcony, spots the boy, hops over the rail, lands in the bushes, and hightails it down the road to meet him. Casting aside his honor and dignity once again, he runs the four-minute mile to the boy who pronounced him dead. Before penitential knees can hit the dust and stammer out a well-crafted confession, the father is pronouncing the absolution, pulling out the festal vestments and singing the sursum corda.
The younger son in the parable imagines a carefully rehearsed plea will yield a daily slice of toast and a bunk in the barn. Instead, he finds himself welcomed as an heir with streamers, platters of food, and the joyous embrace of a father who restlessly yearned for his return before a confession was ever composed. The younger son imagines mercy as a morsel that will satiate personal hunger. He discovers it is a sacrificial gift of the father’s self that results in relationship restored.
Of course, there is another character in the parable with limited imagination. He strolls in from the fields after a hard day’s work. The wafting scent of beef gravy causes his mouth to water. The sounds of festivity peak his curiosity.
“What’s going on?” he questions a servant. When the answer comes, he turns his back on not just brother, but also father. He parks himself on the patio and refuses to come in. So, once more, father becomes sprinter, this time racing out to the elder boy.
Unlike the previous son, however, this son manages to deliver a speech: “For all these years I’ve slogged like a slave for you,” he barks, “never disobeying your command; yet you’ve never thrown even a few burgers on the grill so I might party with my friends. But when this son of yours comes back after devouring your property with prostitutes you throw him the mother of all banquets!”
At first blush it appears he simply cannot fathom how his rogue brother can be showered with such generous love. As the lecture unfolds, however, it’s clear his discontent runs deeper than that: he can’t even see himself receiving such love.
We may “know” better when we state our theological opinions, but in the living of our lives, for all sorts of reasons, many of us act like love – especially God’s love – is an elusive and limited commodity that must be earned and re-earned. Of course, once you approach love like that you never can be sure you have done enough to deserve it. There is little joy in trying to make yourself acceptable and never being sure if you have pulled it off. In the older son, this joy-starved disposition emerges as the rage and hurt belonging to all who have cut themselves off from the very ones whose embrace they so desperately need. So now it is the elder boy who dishonors his father for all to see, refusing to come in.
Yet once again, the boundaries of imagination are burst! Now we can see the true prodigal of the story; it is the father who is recklessly extravagant with his love, to the point of soaking up the hurt and shame foisted on him by both his boys. It seems there is no end to the lengths to which he will go to restore and reconcile. There is no moralizing directed toward this other lost son, no tweaking of guilt, no reminders of duty. Rather, as he embraced the son lost to the careless life, he now reaches out to the one lost in an angry, self-righteousness life; standing just outside the door yet as “far off” as his little brother had been.
“Son,” he says, “you’re always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” This boy has worked for something that was already his. So his father begs him to step into the love and acceptance that have been there all along.
Then turning toward the party, he adds, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours – not just my son, but also your brother – he was dead, but now lives, was lost, but now is found.”
It seems to me there are two strategies that preachers tend to engage when partnering with this text. The first is to treat this parable as if it primarily is about our individual relationship with God. However, there is a web of relationships that include those of the boys to one another, to their family, household and village, too. This is not just a tale about receiving forgiveness or being open to God’s mercy to us as individuals. It is about reconciliation, and the liberation and transformation into which we are invited to make that reconciliation a reality. The sermon this Sunday must have an eye to that.
The second strategy is to help listeners relate to one or both boys of the story. No doubt, this is a reasonable strategy, but I am not sure it is enough. If we are to receive what it is that God offers as depicted in this tale, we will need to renounce a faith that is primarily based on either how it meets my needs, or a faith based upon following the rules and being right while noticing how others are not. Therefore, the preacher needs to help listeners identify with a third son.
In the parable, there is a character whose imagination seems to know no limit; the One whose mercy is not dependent on either recognition of need or rule-following righteousness.
There is One who imagines that those who are lost in a life they swore they’d never live, those who try to hide that shame or hurt they fear can never be understood, those at the point where they cannot even accept themselves, will come to know they are His beloved children and take their place at the Table.
There is One who imagines that those who have lived their lives trying to earn his love and resenting others who receive it without merit, will come to know they are His beloved children and take their place at the Table.
There is One who imaginatively sets that Table for anyone who will permit their name to appear on the lost and found list.
If you want your listeners to know, to exhibit something of the imagination of this One, then no matter which of the two sons they have tended to relate to before now, invite them to identify with another Son:
- the Son who left his Father’s home not to squander a perishable inheritance, but to secure for us an imperishable one;
- the Son who was obedient to his Father, even unto death, not out of resentful duty, but out of humble love;
- the Son who is the spitting image of His Father.
If we can begin to imagine ourselves in that way, I bet that before long we not only will dance with abandon in the celebration of God’s love, we also will act in a way that uncorks the imaginations of others as they see us watch and wait and run out to anyone who might revel with us at the banquet of our God.
Jay Koyle is president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission. He is a presbyter serving as Congregational Development Officer of the Diocese of Algoma (Anglican), and a member of the Liturgy Task Force of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Photo of D. Jay Koyle, by Jesse Dymond.
Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1662–1669 (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)
'Prodigal Son' by Oleg Korolev.
The Return Of The Prodigal Son by Miki De Goodaboom
This reflection is based upon a sermon published previously by Jay Koyle in Preaching: Word and Witness (Feb-March 2010).