FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Prayer of the Day: God of compassion, you welcome the wayward, and you embrace us all with your mercy. By our baptism clothe us with garments of your grace, and feed us at the table of your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The Prodigal Son is one of those biblical stories that is so well known that it rings a bell even for the most thoroughly secularized mind. The assurance that our God welcomes back those of us whose bad decisions have led us into self-destructive ways and put us in a bad place is good news. We can’t hear that message often enough. Nevertheless, truth be told, the text has become slightly shopworn for those of us who have been preaching for decades. I always find myself struggling to tell this story in fresh and creative ways.
One approach I have taken is to read the parable through the eyes of the elder son. After all, most of us church people are probably more like him than the prodigal. We are the ones who contribute the money, volunteer the time and do the work that ensures the church will be there on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday for those who come waltzing in on those days only. Though I expect we all have a few things in our past we regret, few of us have reached the level of ruin at which the younger son in the parable found himself. Most of us church people have led relatively respectable lives despite our shortcomings. Therefore, it is worth asking ourselves: How would I feel if I were the elder son in this story? In order to help my congregation find themselves in this place, I preached the following sermon taking the form of two letters: one from the elder son to his father and the other being the father’s reply.
Since we had words yesterday, I figured it might be a good idea to take a deep breath, sit down and think a bit. I did that. Now I want to put into writing exactly how I feel about what happened between us.
Dad, you have to admit that I’ve been a good son to you. You never had to wonder where I was late at night. If I wasn’t in bed, I was out in the shop working on fixing a plow so it would be ready to go at the crack of dawn, or tending one of our cows giving birth or investigating what I thought might have been fox or a weasel sneaking into the chicken coop. During the day, I was working side by side with you under the noon day sun. When the river busted its banks and threatened to wipe out our entire wheat crop last spring, I was right there with you and the hired hands piling up sandbags until I could hardly stand. If you will recall, that other son of yours was at home sleeping off one of his many drinking binges. How many times did you have to go down to the police station or municipal court to bail that kid out of some sort of trouble? How many times did he come home so drunk he couldn’t find the front door? I’m afraid I’ve lost count.
See, here’s the thing Dad. It’s always been about him. You were always fretting about your beloved younger son: “What’s wrong with the poor boy? Why does he seem so angry? Why is he always getting into trouble?” Don’t think I haven’t noticed the tears you tried so hard to hide from the rest of us, the tears you shed for him. Well guess what, Dad. You have two sons. I guess because I never made any trouble for you, you never bothered to notice me. You never stopped to think about what might be bothering me. Yes, growing up was tough for me, too. Yet it always seemed you treated me as though I wasn’t even there. But I want to tell you Dad that I am here. I’ve always been here. I have been pouring my blood, sweat and tears into this little farm from the time I could pick up a tool. But I never heard you say, “Thanks son,” or “Good job son,” or “Why don’t you take the evening off and have a good time with your buddies-on me.” No sir! Not a single word. Not a single slap on the back.
I was hoping, praying that once that son of yours took his share of the estate and left, maybe, just maybe you would notice me and appreciate me. But no, all you did was worry and fret over that self-centered brat. You never even looked my way! You just kept your eye on the road waiting for him to come back. And sure enough, when that son of yours comes back, filthy, ragged and smelling like a pig, you can’t run fast enough to embrace him, shower him with tears, give him a new robe and-here’s the biggest slap in the face of all-you kill for him the fatted calf and throw a big party. And you wonder why I am upset? You wonder why I don’t want to join the celebration? That son of yours has given you nothing but grief, but you kill for him the fatted calf. I have given you nothing but obedience and respect, but you haven’t given me a lousy goat. Go figure.
I have read with interest your letter to me. And I have to admit, you are right about a couple of things. First off, it’s true that I never thanked you for doing your chores and behaving yourself. But I don’t recall your ever thanking me and your mother for the three meals a day you have gotten for all of your life, the cloths on your back or the roof you sleep under every night. And that’s OK. I don’t expect any thanks for that. It’s what a father owes his son-just as a son owes his father obedience and respect. No thanks due in either direction as I see it. Furthermore, as I told you yesterday, everything I have is yours. Your brother squandered his share of the inheritance and that’s gone. You are next in line to get the farm so I haven’t given to your brother anything that rightfully belongs to you.
But I have given you a lot more than just this farm. As you point out, we have spent the better part of our lives together working side by side. Don’t you remember all those afternoons we sat exhausted in the shade of the elm trees at the edge of the field sharing our lunch, swapping jokes with the hired hands and singing those old songs of Zion together? Your brother missed out on all of that. Remember the sense of satisfaction we felt every year at harvest time when we loaded sack after sack of grain on the ox cart, how we marveled at that ageless miracle of the full grain coming from those tiny seeds we planted with such care and watched over like worried mother hens? Your brother will never know that joy either. What I am trying to tell you, son, is that there is no reward for loyalty, devotion and hard work. These things are their own reward. It’s like I told you yesterday. You are always with me and everything I have is yours. We’ve shared our lives together. What more can a father give to his son?
You are also right about something else. I love your brother-yes, your brother, the one you keep referring to as “that son of yours.” I love him. But what is that to you? Do you think love is a finite quantity like land or cattle or money? Do you think love is something limited, so that if I spare any love on your brother there is less for you? No, my son. You can overspend your bank account. You can over mortgage your land and lose it. But you can never exhaust the reservoir of love for the people around you. In fact, here’s the mystery about love: the more people you love and the more deeply you love them, the more love you have share. And that’s because the source of love is not in your own heart, but in the heart of God, our heavenly Father. Because God loves us all so much, we have a bottomless well of love to draw on for each other.
You think my love is wasted on your brother. But that’s because you have somehow gotten the notion that love is a reward for obedience, for good behavior or great accomplishments. Your problem, son, is not that you are unloved. Your problem is that you have no idea how deeply loved you really are. You have been trying so hard all your life to earn my love that you never allowed me simply to give it to you. Your brother may have wasted his father’s money, but you have been wasting your father’s love. Now you tell me, which do you think is the greater loss? Who is really the prodigal one here? Make no mistake about it. You are a good kid, you work hard and that makes life easier for both of us. But that isn’t why I love you. I love you because you are my son and that is what fathers do. I’d love you just as much if you were as reckless and irresponsible as that knuckle head brother of yours.
That brings me to my final point. Just as I embraced your brother and welcomed him home, so now you need to do the same. No, he doesn’t deserve it. But I hope by now I have convinced you that love has nothing to do with deserving. Your brother did not deserve the party I gave him. But he needed it. He needed to be shown that, as much as his actions may have hurt and disappointed me, he is still my son and this is still his home. And you need to learn that, as faithful and obedient as you have been all these years, I love you not for that reason but because you are my boy. Son, as I told you before, I have given you all that I am and all that I have. Now nothing could make this old father happier than to see his two sons embrace. With my deepest love,
May the peace of God which passes all understanding so reconcile us. Amen.
Here’s another take on the Prodigal Son by poet Affa Michael Weaver.
Washing the Car with My Father