Fourth Sunday in Lent
Mild mannered high school chemistry teacher Walter White thinks his life can’t get much worse. His salary barely makes ends meet, a situation not likely to improve once his pregnant wife gives birth, and their teenage son is battling cerebral palsy. After learning he has terminal cancer and realizing that his illness will probably bankrupt his family, Walter makes a desperate bid to make as much money as he can in the time he has left by turning an old RV into a meth lab on wheels and becomes a ruthless player in the local methamphetamine drug trade. Because of his drug-related activities, Walt eventually finds himself at odds with his family, the local gangs, and the Mexican drug cartels and their regional distributors, putting his life at risk. This is the story line of the popular TV series Breaking Bad. This morning, the Gospel of Luke offers us the story of another man who likewise made some bad life decisions. Walter White acted out of utter desperation, and I wonder if the younger son in this parable was so desperate, so needed to run away that he acted the way he did. Certainly, we know that there are young people who try to escape from difficult even life-threatening circumstances by abandoning family and friends—sadly, too many by ending their lives. This story of the Prodigal Son is probably one of the most familiar ones in the Bible. When we hear it told, it’s almost like getting an email with one of those well-known, old jokes that have been percolating around the internet for years. We still laugh but we’ve heard it a hundred times.
Yet his parable reveals one of the most profound theological statements about God.This is really not primarily a story about two sons. It is a story about a father who loved both of his children to distraction and who wanted them to love one another. In a sense, it’s really the father who is the “prodigal” since though one definition of that term is “wasteful,” another is “extravagant” and this father certainly was in terms of his freely given up his inheritance and freely forgiving.
If we really want to understand what a punch this story packs, we need to read it in its context. It is one of three parables that Jesus tells in response to the mean-spirited grumblings of the Pharisees—the religious right of that time—because they caught him eating with people they considered to be sinners.
This misnomer of titling this parable as “The Prodigal Son” suggests that the whole point is to see what happens to the young man who “breaks bad.” It sets us up to delight in seeing that he gets what’s coming to him. “Serves him right,” we might think, “for leaving his father, demanding his share of the estate – actually wishing his father dead – and then squandering it all on reckless and extravagant living.” But here we miss the point because it is really the story about a forgiving parent, a parent whose love is so strong that he forgets the past, forgets his child’s transgressions, and showers him with affection and mercy. It is a story told to assure us that God is willing to forgive us but even more than that – God welcomes us, embraces us, loves us “Just as I am—without one plea.”
Now here’s the real pearl in this parable that might be easily overlooked: Note that as soon as he caught sight of his son, the father ran—he didn’t stay put, he didn’t walk, he ran. Running may be cool in our present culture, but in Jesus’ time men did not run. It was a sign that you had lost your dignity. And now the real surprise: the father never says one single word to his son—no “I told you so,” no name-calling, no angry tirade. There is an embrace and a kiss—but no words. And, even more striking is that this boy, who has wasted his share of the inheritance putting his father’s security in jeopardy by squandering it, this kid never gets one word of his declaration of guilt out of his mouth—until after the kiss, until after the embrace. This story is meant for us. It’s about the good news that God does not scowl at us when we stray and fail to hit the mark, but rather searches the horizon, desperate for any sign of our coming down the road home. It is God who runs to us, throwing God’s arms around us and startling us by the grace we receive when we are welcomed with tender yet firm embrace: the scandal of unconditional grace.
Hear it today straight from Jesus through the story he tells: If we have been hurt in the name of religion –if we have been told that we have little or no value, are not welcome at God’s table, because of who we are or whom we choose to love, or our marital status or gender or age, that distorted message is not of God but of twisted human error and hypocrisy. Those who preach it are marketing counterfeit religion.
A few years ago, I officiated at the funeral for a man whose only son asked to say a few words at the end of the service in the funeral home. He did it in the form of a letter that included a list of “thank yous” like helping him build a go cart out of cardboard boxes and helping him with his calculus homework. Then, turning towards his father’s casket, this young man said something that gave me an entirely new perspective on the story of the Prodigal Son. “Finally, dad,” he said, “I want to thank you for letting me be the person I am, not what you expected me to be, for just accepting me and loving me as God made me and without any conditions.”
That, for me, is the essence of the message Jesus wants us to hear in this story on this Sunday: that we are loved just as we are, for who we are.
Like other parables that Jesus tells about forgiveness and grace, it ends with celebration, with a party. Here we are this morning –God’s own, diverse, sometimes selfish, sometimes extravagant, yet always God’s beloved holy gang—singing and embracing one another and eating at a feast—God’s own kin all who without exception are invited to the banquet . No matter how lost we may be, no matter how we dream of that distant country, no matter how we have been led astray, God is looking into the distance for us, trying to find us, and longing to bring us home. All is forgiven. The party has no choice but to begin.