Fourth Sunday in Lent – Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe
This summer my family is planning a reunion. We will meet on a lake in Hayward, Wisconsin. Cousins are coming from all over, even some from Norway. It will be a grand event. I always look forward to these times of reuniting with family I haven’t seen in a long time. But there is one thing I worry about when we get together. When the conversation turns to politics, passions rise and those passions can create tension in families. I imagine that my family is similar to most families in that there are differences when it comes to politics and religion. For example, I’m one of six siblings. Four of us vote one way and two vote the other way. Five of us are religious and one is agnostic. Of those five, three are Lutheran and two are non-denominational. So you can see, we are a mixed up bunch, and when we get together those differences can tear us apart if we let them.
What is your family like? Do you have similar divisions and tensions in your relationships when you get together? Do you try to avoid discussing religion or politics? Maybe you don’t get together for that very reason.
In Jesus’ time there was a similar division. Jewish society was divided up between those who were righteous and those who were sinners. By that I mean, the righteous were those who worked hard and obeyed the rules. The sinners were all others who for many reasons weren’t able to fit in or for whom the rules didn’t work. They were the rebels and free spirits who didn’t like rules. They were those on the margin of society, the poor or those who were widowed or diseased.
Our gospel reading today is the well-known and much-loved parable of the prodigal son. The context for this parable is that Jesus was spending time with sinners, those who didn’t fit in. And the Pharisees were grumbling against Jesus that he was hanging out with the wrong crowd. “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” The Pharisees claimed that in eating with sinners, Jesus was affirming them and affirming their values and life-style. In other words, Jesus wasn’t affirming the values that made society work. So the complaint went.
So Jesus told the Pharisees a story about a father and two sons. The father loved his two sons, but somehow he had lost them both. The two sons were as different as night and day. The older son was hard-working and responsible and always followed the rules. The younger son was wild and bored. He hated his family and couldn’t wait to leave home. You can hear it in their voices. The younger son said this: “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” When do people usually inherit something? After someone dies. So in effect what this younger son was saying was that he was tired of waiting for his father to die. He wished his father were dead now so he could have his share of the family property, sell it and leave home with the cash. Somehow, this son learned to hate his father and reject his love. Even after he hit bottom and decided to come back home, he didn’t really want a loving relationship with his father, but to be treated like a hired servant.
The older son had a different story. “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” The older son doesn’t sound like he had a very loving relationship with his father either. Begrudging obedience, working like a slave, he wasn’t working for his father because he loved him. There was no joy here in the relationship.
We have two brothers and two very different stories, and yet the reality is that neither one of them knew the father’s love. In their own ways, both sons were lost to the Father. Both failed to experience his love and joy.
The two brothers aren’t the only ones with a story here. The Father too has a story. You can hear it when he speaks to each son. Here is what the father says to his older son. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” The reality is that this father loved both of his sons. He wanted a loving relationship with both of them. He was willing to forgive each one so that the relationship could be restored.
In this parable Jesus gives us a glimpse into the depths of God’s heart, and it is a heart filled with love for all of God’s children. It is a heart that breaks when we run from his love. It is a heart that rejoices when we return to his embrace. More than anything God wants us to experience his joy. Some of us are like the younger brother, people who have wasted our lives or made poor decisions, and some of us are like the older brother, people who have followed the rules and worked hard for what they have. But the fact is, both are on the outside, both the younger son and the older son are on the outside, and it is God who invites us into the place of joy. That is the gift of grace given to each one of us. And it is grace because absolutely everything we have has been given to us. God’s love is not something that can be earned or deserved through hard work. We can’t keep score with God or we would certainly lose. We can only respond out of gratitude for the love God pours out on us through his Son Jesus.
Grace is what can transform the heart of the younger brother. Grace is what can transform the heart of the older brother too. Grace is what can keep families together even when tensions in our world try to tear them apart.
Today, God is here with outstretched arms ready to embrace you, whether you are a younger son or an older son, a younger daughter or older daughter. Those are the same arms that were stretched out on a cross showing the depths of God’s love for you. And today God says to you, Welcome home! All that is mine is yours! Let us celebrate and rejoice.