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The Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C

Our Prodigal God

Readings: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 34:1-8; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 22-32

All of us have key moments in our lives when we realize who we are and what we must do. All of the Scripture passages this morning illustrate such times. It is a new beginning for the people of Israel. They are poised between the wilderness and their first conquest in the new land. As they make the transition to their new life, they begin by taking the time to observe their traditions. For the people of Corinth it is a time of decision as Paul calls them to further their relationship with Christ. He wants them to understand what God has done for them. In the Gospel, Jesus tells that wonderfully familiar parable of the prodigal son, speaking to us of those moments of self-realization in our lives when we move from flight to return, from abandonment into discovery, from dying into living.

The parable is a familiar one. Yet in its familiarity it continues to speak to us on a deep level about our own lives and our relationship with a loving God. If we examine our lives we can see ourselves in the characters in the story.

There is first of all the younger child, the prodigal son. He does something unthinkable in a Jewish family. He demands that his father give him his inheritance. Think about it! What he is saying to his father is, "I wish you were already dead.'' He wants what is coming to him, and he wants it now.  He wants to have it all now.  He wants to see it all.  He wants to explore it all.  He wants all of life, and he wants it now. He has no regard for the consequences to his family. He is thinking only of himself. By his actions he cuts himself off from his whole family and even from the community. He severs every relationship in his life. And then he skips town with his new found wealth.  He wants to get going, no matter where as long as it is away from home. 
 
The story gets even more shocking. He is wantonly wasteful. He squanders his whole inheritance. He leads a dissolute life. In his new found sense of freedom, he goes all out. He spends money lavishly. He becomes a slave to his appetites until there is nothing left. 
 
Just when you think things cannot get any worse for the son, they do.  A famine hits the land. He has no money.  He has no job.  He has no prospects. He has no friends or relatives to fall back on. He hires himself on to the only job he can get, the lowest of jobs, this young Jewish man, feeding the pigs.  He even envies the pigs their carob pods; the only time pigs will eat them is when there is nothing else to be had.  He is totally lost. 
 
Then he comes to his senses.  Not that he is thinking about anyone else!  He is still thinking only about himself.  This is not a point of conversion in his life.  It is simply a realization that there may be a way out of his troubles.  He might even be able to maintain a sense of dignity and pride through it all.  He will return home and offer himself as a servant.  He is willing to work, grant you, but only on his own terms.  He will save himself.   He will have to ask for forgiveness, but he doesn’t need to mean it.  Let us be clear about it! He is not repentant.  At least not yet!
 
That brings us to the father. It is not until his father comes running out to him, arms open in forgiveness, that there is a change of heart in the son.  “Father, I have sinned against you and against heaven,” he says to him.   
 
And the father forgives him.  Don’t we all expect something quite different to happen?  Aren’t you just waiting for the father to pounce?  Jesus audience would have been startled by the father’s behaviour.  They would have been hanging on every word that Jesus spoke, certain that the young son was about to get everything he deserved and more.  They fully expect to hear that the father has banished him forever, given him his just desserts.  Yet where they expect judgement the father shows love; where they expect condemnation he shows compassion.  This is, after all, no ordinary father.  This is the prodigal father.  Without any hesitation, he can forgive the wandering child and welcome him home.  As his son was lavish in living, so the father is lavish in love. He is prodigal in mercy, and in grace. What a transforming gift that is for the son!

The father’s mercy extends to the older son as well. Truth to tell, he does not come up smelling like roses in the story.  His younger brother spends his inheritance having a good time while he has been taking care of the family business. Then when he returns home, he gets all the attention. What about reaping what you sow? It just doesn’t seem fair. Shouldn’t he be paying for his sins instead of having a party?

The older brother asks for nothing. He wants nothing. He also enjoys nothing. He devotes himself to his father’s service. He never disobeys. Yet he is the centre of his every thought. He reacts with jealousy. “This son of yours…” he says. He is disappointed, to say the least. He fails to experience the loving relationship of a loving parent.

We may see ourselves like the younger son, wanting to live life recklessly. We may drift away from the faith. As the family grows up, somehow we get out of the habit of going to church. We intend to go. We sometimes yearn for the sense of community that we once had. But at the same time, it seems impossible to go back. We feel unworthy. We do not feel as if we belong. We do not see ourselves as beloved children. And so we stay away. That is somehow easier. For by staying away, we don’t risk being rejected. But if we go back, the parable assures us, God receives us back.

We may be rather like the older son, carrying resentments and jealousies. Here we are trying to serve God. Trying to do God’s work. Then the homeless, the addicted, the downtrodden, the hopeless sinners, get all the attention. “If I hear one more sermon about domestic violence or abuse!” “Where is the justice?” We ask. “Don’t I deserve more?”

In retreat a man was meditating on the story of the prodigal son. He used an etching Rembrandt once made of it with the father embracing his lost and found son. The man strongly identified with the younger son. It brought him with a jolt to the sudden realization that God forgave him. Even more he understood that God loved him. Then he had a further insight. It moved him to tears. He realized that the young son forgave himself. He accepted his shadow side and decided to do something about it. He loved himself as the father loved him. It lead him to the realization that he needed the same sense of forgiveness.

It is a profound learning. It is difficult to forgive others; it is much more difficult to forgive oneself. That is why it is one of the greatest gifts of healing that we could possibly receive. The sense of divine acceptance is so radical and sweeping that sometimes people cannot wrap their heads around it. It angers them. Like the older son they are filled with resentment and rage at a God who could possibly be so unfair as to offer forgiveness and grace so freely.

How like God! God gives us dangerous freedoms.  God allows us to live our own lives.  God entrusts the world into our hands, knowing that we are capable of destroying the wonderful work of creation.  God welcomes sinners to the table.  God offers us salvation, not because we deserve it. Not because we have earned it. Simply because God’s mercy extends to each of us.

This is a story that has the power to shock us. It has the power to offend. That is because it speaks to us of God’s free gift of grace. Grace not only has the power to offend us; it does when it is exercised. Let’s face it. Most of us want some assurance that our obedience and good behaviour and faithfulness to God actually count for something. We do not like to see someone get away with bad behaviour. The notion that God simply graces us, all of us, bothers many people. That is because we fail to understand the idea of free grace, of undying love.

At every turn God surprises us with grace.  God is merciful and loving beyond all reason.  The salvation that God offers us is more than a legal transaction; it is a loving relationship.  Our prodigal God rushes out to meet us, bless us, reinstate us, and call us God’s own.
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