Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 6, 2016, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Sermon Theme: “You Can Go Home Again”
(Anderson’s Cycle C Preaching Workbook; Emphasis Online Commentary; Emphasis Online Illustrations; original ideas; “Money Jokes,” Reader’s Digest; “A Far Country,” thattheworldmayknow.com; Online map of Judah, Galilee, and the Decapolis)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Attitudes about spending money encompass all extremes. There was a local charity in a fairly small community that was supported by just about everyone. Everyone, that is, except the local Bank’s President. So the Director of the Charity decided to give the Bank President a call one day.
“Our records show you make $500,000 a year, yet you haven’t given one penny to charity,” the charity director began. “Wouldn’t you like to help the community?”
The banker replied, “Did your research show that my mother is ill, with extremely expensive medical bills?”
“Um, no,” mumbled the director.
“Or that my brother is blind and unemployed? Or that my sister’s husband died, leaving her broke with four kids?”
“I . . . I . . . I had no idea,” stammered the director.
“So,” said the banker, “if I don’t give them any money, why would I give any to you?”
“It’s all about money, isn’t it,” a parishioner said to me one day. I took it that she meant the church was all about money.
“No, it’s not,” I replied, “people are about money!”
I grew up in a Lutheran congregation of frugal, old-time German-Americans, many of whom were born in the Old Country. Their non-German neighbors considered them the most frugal people they knew, — a pretty strong opinion considering that everyone had just come out of the Great Depression, a time when frugality was a necessity.
While the story of the Prodigal Son is a much-loved parable by most Christians, my childhood congregation did not like it for two reasons: one, because they thought the boy’s father was foolish and irresponsible to give away inheritance money before his death, and two, squandering money as the Prodigal son did was the worst of all sins. It was right up there with murder. You could forgive your son for a lot of things, but wasting money was not one of them.
Having said that, I would add, we have to approach the Parable of the Prodigal Son with caution and insight.
In searching through Bible Commentaries, it’s amazing how many different approaches to this text students of the Bible have taken:
It’s about forgiveness; it’s about unconditional love; it’s about greed; it’s about being able to go home again; it’s really about the older brother who was Pharisaic; it’s about sowing one’s wild oats; it’s about an over-indulgent father.
Before we join the numerous message-finders, we need to begin with the bottom line: this is a really a parable about God and sinful man. The Prodigal son’s father represents God, and the Prodigal Son is a symbol of us. We have to approach the story with that truth in mind.
Let’s put the parable in the broader context. Because the Scribes and Pharisees had criticized Jesus for welcoming tax collectors and other sinners, He tells them and us the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of The Lost Coin, and follows those parables with the most heartwarming of parables, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Actually, all of these parables demonstrate God’s warm welcome for all of God’s children who return to the Father’s house.
While the other interpretations, such as seeing it as all about money, about greed, about the older son, etc., have some validity, it’s really about YES, you can go home again.
American novelist, Thomas Wolfe, wrote a much read novel entitled, You Can’t Go Home Again, which influenced a lot of college students, including me into thinking you can’t go back to where you came from. Like many young people in the 1950’s, I was ashamed of my rural beginnings, I turned away from my parents and my church, — I was attracted by the glitter and gold which the world waved in front of me. God didn’t give up on me, and I came back home.
The youngest son in the Parable is an example of losing yourself in order to find yourself. The younger son was not motivated to return to his father and to his true identity until he came to the end of himself. In other words, he was as desperate as a chicken in a fox’s lair. There he was feeding pigs and eating pig slop. He had spent all his inheritance, which his father had so generously given him, and spent it all on wild living.
The lifestyle of a religious Galilean farming community from whence came the prodigal and the lifestyle of the “far country” where the prodigal had traveled to were total opposites. The “far country” was a league of cities of Greek culture under the control of the Romans; they were totally pagan and reflected decadent Greek and Roman culture. These cities had brothels and baths where orgies of pleasure were staged, and where material wealth and pleasure were the things most valued by the citizens. Morality was not valued at all.
Verse 17 of our text says the prodigal son “came to himself,” but only when he was at the end of himself. There was no way to go but up. Actually, he didn’t expect to be restored to his place in the family. He would settle for the role of servant. By the grace and love of his father, he was restored to his true identity. Returning to his father was the same as coming to himself.
The Bible tells us that we can only know ourselves in relationship with God. When the prodigal son left home, he was probably hoping to really find himself. Most of us can identify with that. I think I was trying to find myself when I left home.
But in the son’s rebellion, he lost himself and all that he had, even his dignity. The Holy Spirit led me back home before that happened to me. It was when the prodigal came to the end of himself, that is, his sinful self, he decided to return home. Through the father’s incredibly warm reception, he was restored to his true self. Our text says, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”
Through Jesus and his death and resurrection, we were restored to a right relationship with God the Father, an act of grace which enabled us to call God, Abba Father, “Dearest Daddy.” And here we see this, in the most touchingly beautiful picture language ever, God forgiving us and rushing out to meet us with his loving arms open wide to embrace us.
The agnostic wonders what God might be like, and the atheist has refused to get a clue. Many believers, meanwhile, are also somewhat in the dark, because from the beginning, the devil has sought to misrepresent the true nature of God. So, in telling this parable, Jesus reveals God to us. Jesus is saying, ‘You wanna know what God is like?’ Then see this big-hearted father, big-hearted enough to let his son go, big-hearted enough to subsidize his son’s misadventure, and big-hearted enough to welcome him back absolutely, completely, and totally!
We must recognize that we are that wayward son, that weary, filthy, dirt-covered son, who has had to endure the consequences of leaving home. I recognize him, for I am him. So are you.
We must also recognize the main message of the Parable. We CAN go home again, because the Father, who embraces his filthy son and orders clean clothes for him, is the same God who rolls back reproach and disgrace for each of us. He powerfully and mercifully washes away the invisible grime that sticks to us from our past. There’s no place like home, with the Lord’s loving arms wrapped around us. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.