Chaplain Mel Baars
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
March 10, 2013
Have you ever heard of the get to know you, ice breaker “Desert Island?” There are many versions of this game, but all of them boil down to answering this question. If you were stranded on a desert island, and you could bring ONE thing, what would it be? What each person picks is supposed to shed light onto who exactly they are. When I was in college, getting to know my dorm mates, answers would range from “make up,” or “my hair dryer,” to “my 3 inch black patten-leather stilettos.” None were very practical for deserted island living.
When I got to seminary, there was ONE item that everybody said they would choose. I am sure you could all guess the one thing a pastor would at least say he or she would bring... This is your hint: it starts with In the beginning.... Over the course of school, whenever we had to play this game, answering, “The Bible,” became forbidden. It was too obvious and easy and boring an answer since everyone felt obligated to say it, so they wouldn’t look less devoted than the other aspiring pastors sitting next to them. But one time, when we were in a small group, using this exercise to get to know one another, the group leader asked the question differently. She said, “If you could only bring one part of scripture, one story from the Bible, which would it be?” Essentially, what is your favorite Bible passage? A lot of people struggled to pick just one. I had no issue whatsoever, then or now. I would always pick “The Prodigal Son.”
I know it’s not just me. This story is a favorite of many. Just the other night I was discussing this passage with a colleague, and she told me about a man who didn’t know the Bible. When he heard the story of the Prodigal Son for the first time he said, “Wait, how did they do it? This is exactly what has happened in my family. This is my story.” Most of us see ourselves somewhere in this tale, somewhere on the spectrum between the waywardness of the younger son and the self-righteousness of the older one. This is why the story is so powerful. It is our story, the human story—perhaps this is why, for some of us, it is also difficult to read. In this parable parable Jesus illuminates some of the worst characteristics of human thought, word, and deed-- from greed and licentiousness and selfishness to jealousy and entitlement and hardheartedness. When we hear the ugly details, we see glimpses of ourselves.
The Prodigal son is just one story in a series of parables that Jesus tells about about lost things which include the parable of the Lost Sheep and of the Lost Coin. In all three, we encounter a principle character who represents God, the father, the shepherd or the woman, who is willing to go any distance to find what has been lost, even at the expense of other valuable possessions. Perhaps the Lost Sheep articulates this most vividly. The shepherd who goes out to find one lost sheep, leaving the other 99 behind. It has always been hard for me to wrap my brain around this. Those poor other sheep. Weren’t they vulnerable too? Didn’t they need their shepherd? Wasn’t it irresponsible to leave them all behind, susceptible to a plethora of threats, just for the one? I guess it’s a good thing that Jesus is our shepherd and not me.
In our story, the father seems borderline irresponsible. When his son asks for his half of the inheritance, the father grants his wish. He didn’t have to. It was within his rights as patriarch to say no, only over my cold, dead body. But, that is not how the father works. The son asks, and he gives. It’s a little like the concept of free will. The father realizes that this may not end well for his younger son, but he gives anyway. Yet, nothing is compared to what the father does when his younger son returns. He hands over his finest robe and butchers the fatted calf and throws one heck of a party.
Not only had the property been diminished by half but also, with this generous gesture, some of the remaining “best” assets are given to this younger son. These things, whatever was left over, were all supposed to go to the older son who at this point has gotten nothing. No wonder he is mad. It’s not fair. It doesn’t make any sense. I personally have a lot of sympathy for the older son because I get his frustration. I think he gets painted pretty harshly as if he has only been a dutiful son all his life just to get the family money.
But, I am willing to bet this older son was a decent guy. Always faithful to his father, not just because there was going to be a reward one day, but because good sons honor their fathers. They fall in step. They do their part. He had stood by his dad, even when he made the not so prudent choice to give away half his land, but this homecoming celebration was over the top. It was the last straw. The older son can’t even bring himself to say “my brother” and instead says, spitefully, “that son of yours.” No longer claiming kinship, the older son succumbs to hate and jealousy. This is his real sin, severing his relationship with his brother. I have heard it said before that to cut oneself off from another person is to kill them metaphorically. When someone says, “He is dead to me,” isn’t this what they have done?
One son makes poor choices and when he hits rock bottom, realizes the gravity of his mistakes. He turns back. The other son does it all “right” but not totally for the right reasons. Neither are all bad or all good. Both are very human. We should expect nothing less from them. But, it’s what comes at the end of the story that really matters. The party is going on inside the house and the older son is standing outside, unwilling to join in. From inside the party, the father realizes that his older son is missing, so he goes out to find him, again seeking what has been lost. The father pleads that he come inside. The father and the older son are on two different wave lengths. The older son makes some very relevant points about how impractical this party is after all the younger son has put them through. The father doesn’t disagree with him. He just says, “Your brother was lost but now he has been found. For this, we had no choice but to rejoice.” The father isn’t keeping score. He isn’t concerned about what kind of treatment the younger son may deserve. Something that was lost has been found. No matter the history, this is always worth a celebration.
A few years ago, when I was a chaplain at a VA hospital, one of my patients, a Korean vet, told me how The Prodigal Son was his story. He had been a rambunctious teenager, bringing both sadness and shame to his parents. He just couldn’t wait to leave home for better places, and so he enlisted in the Army and found himself on a boat out to Korea. For years, he didn’t communicate to his parents. As most know who have gone off to war, while there are moments of chaos, there is also a lot of time to think. As the months went by, he started thinking about how good his home had been and how he had really messed things up with his dad. He realized that if he ever made it out of Korea, he was going to go home and ask forgiveness. When the war ended, he made the long journey back home. When he got to his town, he had to take the bus out to a state road which would take him home. It was about a mile from the bus stop to his driveway. As he got closer, he saw that his father was standing at the end of the driveway waiting for him. You see, every day, about the time his father knew the bus would stop along the highway, he would go out to the end of the driveway to watch for his son, hoping it would be the day when he finally came home. When they saw one another that day, they ran and embraced. What was lost, had been found, and they rejoiced, no strings attached.
As much as this story is about human wrongdoing, it is, most importantly, about God, about God’s generosity despite what we may deserve. This is a parable about God’s love which is deeper and wider than we can ever fathom. God’s dogged persistence which beckons us to come home, no matter how far we have strayed or how long we have been away. God’s boundless love. For “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.” This is just how God is to each of us, and not just once, but again and again and again and again, until we have all been found, every last one of us.
You know, we don’t really know the rest of the story, how it all ends. Does the older son get over his anger in time to join the party? Some days I think he may have been moved by his father’s plea. Other days I think he remained out there on the fringe, unwilling to let go of his resentment. But isn’t this also how it is for us? Some days we are stuck, unable to get over our hurt. But other days, our better ones, we find ways to let go, to love despite the hurt and join the party. None of us are ever forced to go inside, but the invitation is always on the table. God is hosting the party for all of us for we, too, had been lost and have been found. Amen