This was yesterday’s sermon on the parable of the prodigal son, delivered at Christ Lutheran Church, Washington, DC.
Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 11b“There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ‘ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘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. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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 story we just heard this morning is one of the most beloved stories in the Bible. And for good reason! I mean who hasn’t identified at some point in their life as the younger son who goes out, makes a big mistake and needs forgiveness or redemption? Or who hasn’t felt like the older son who is rightfully irritated that his father is throwing a party for his irresponsible brother while he’s been working hard? Who hasn’t felt like the father who waits expectantly for his beloved son to return, and is so overjoyed that he can’t help but throw a party? Yes, this is a classic story. And I think the more we read it, ask questions of it and experience similar moments in our lives, the more we appreciate it.
But today, I want to focus specifically on the father. I would say that of the three main characters we hear about in Jesus’ story, this is the hardest one to relate to. When the younger son comes to his dad asking for his share of the property, it’s equivalent to wishing his father dead. And yet the father gives him the inheritance money and allows him to go off to a distant country. Then, to make matters worse, this kid goes off and wastes all his money, lands on hard times, and is forced to take a job working for a Gentile pig farmer. All of this has got to reflect poorly on dear old dad. After all, what will the neighbors say?
After a while of this rough life, the younger son realizes that he’s hungry and his dad’s hired hands have always had enough to eat. “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” What’s interesting is that we don’t know if he is actually remorseful, or if he’s just figuring out that being at home is better off than being among the pigs! So he heads home, hoping beyond hope that things will work out.
Then we have this really beautiful line that has jumped out at me in rereading this story: “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” The image of this father, running as fast as he can toward his son is so moving to me. He’s been waiting, heart aching as he hears rumors about what his son has been up to. He’s been sad knowing that his son has had to hire himself out to a Gentile in order to survive. He’s been watching the horizon, day after day, praying that his beloved son would come walking back down that dirt road. And then he sees him! And all his aches and pains can’t stop him from setting off at a dead run to embrace the son who he thought he might never see again.
He doesn’t even listen to the son’s apology because he’s too busy shouting to the slaves: “’Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’”
This father is quite the character. What are the neighbors going to say? Is he going to be laughed at for his extravagant welcome of his wayward son? They might say, “He’s a fool! He’s a sucker! He’s a sap!” But what if God is, too?
And I think that’s Jesus point in telling this story. Jesus is sitting there speaking and he’s got quite a crowd. This isn’t a polite group listening to a theology lecture. No, this crowd includes all the tax collectors who have been working for the Roman oppressors and squeezing the Jewish people for every dime they have. There are also sinners in this group – people whose actions disrupt the fabric of society. It’s a seedy and unpopular bunch, basically the prodigal sons and daughters of the day, and so, it’s no wonder that people are grumbling about how “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus is hanging out with the wrong crowd.
Listening to the song “Painted Red” by one of my favorite artists, JJ Heller, helped to put this into perspective for me. She sings: “Hope means holding on to you…Grace means you’re holding me too.” The younger son was ready to go back and beg his father for forgiveness, hoping that all would work out. He hoped that he would indeed be forgiven or that, at the very least, he’d have food and shelter.
But what he actually receives is far greater. Instead, there’s this incredible grace. The father bolts from his waiting place and takes on shame and foolishness to embrace his sinful son, not even knowing the son’s true intentions.
When I think about God, I imagine open arms, like that of the father in the parable. Arms that welcome and embrace us as we are. Arms that welcome us to the waters of baptism and invite us to the table. Arms outstretched in the epitome of love on the cross. This God of grace and open arms is the opposite of the judgmental and condemnatory God we so often hear spoken about. Instead of a finger pointing at us in condemnation, we receive the loving embrace of our Heavenly parent.
But in case we forget, there’s still the older son. I imagine the older brother standing with his arms crossed, closed off to the possibilities, refusing to go to the welcome home party. What do our arms look like? Are they extravagantly open to others? Or are they firmly crossed, refusing to show grace, compassion and love?
On Friday, I watched a Ted Talk video about a man named Jeremy Courtney. Sitting in a café in Iraq in 2007, talking to his waiter, Jeremy became aware of a terrible problem: tons of kids were being born with fatal heart defects and there were no hospitals in the country to give the children the crucial heart surgeries they needed. Hearing, this, Jeremy decided that he needed to do something and so he jumped in, trying to find out why so many kids had heart defects.
He found out that there were three reasons for the soaring rates of birth defects. First, Saddam Hussein’s use of mustard gas against his own people. Second, the US led sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s that led to the healthcare services falling apart and, as a result, the malnourishment of many pregnant women. Third, American soldiers also noted that they had children with birth defects and the cause was found to be due to the US and British forces’ use of depleted uranium munitions which vaporized upon contact with the ground.
Jeremy was beginning to come to a new understanding of violence – the understanding that “violence unmakes the world.” But he also believed that there was something able to stand against this destructive violence. He called this “preemptive love.” As Jeremy explains, “Now, unlike a preemptive strike where I seek to get you before you get me, preemptive love is where I jump forward to love you, before you love me. I jump forward to trust you before perhaps you’ve trusted me, because we all know that violence unmakes the world. But preemptive love unmakes violence. Preemptive love remakes the world through healing.”
With this hope in his heart, he created the Preemptive Love Coalition with his wife and others in order to get kids the lifesaving heart surgeries they needed. And one of the stories that Jeremy tells in his Ted Talk is about a young boy named Shad and his father. Shad’s father was a Kurdish taxi driver from one of the northern cities of Iraq who was willing to do anything to help his son get the help he needed. But when Jeremy suggested that they go to neighboring Turkey to get help from the doctors there, he was a little leery. You see, there’s a long-standing conflict between the Kurds and the Turks and so the very idea was terrifying to Shad’s father – that he should take his dear son to the enemy to seek healing. What would his family think? And what would the neighbors say? But this was the last resort and a Turkish doctor was the only one willing to put his reputation on the line to try to save this boy’s life.
And so they took Shad and his father to Istanbul, and after a lot of diagnostic tests to see if they could or should operate, late at night they received the news that they would get the surgery. Shad’s father and Jeremy were ecstatic! Shad went through surgery and then, after a few days he was released back to his room. But then, a blood clot went through his artery and after a third and fourth surgery, Shad died. Jeremy got dressed and went into the hospital to be with Shad’s father who was mourning and wondering what to do – what to say to the family back home.
And then Jeremy started to think, “oh no, the inevitable blame game will set in because a Kurdish boy has died in the hands of the Turkish enemy. Shad’s father is going to blame the Turks and this circle of violence will again unmake everything we’ve tried to do here.” But instead, something amazing happened. Instead of pointing a finger in blame, Shad’s father walked around to every doctor and nurse and looked them in the eye and said “thank you. Thank you. I know you’re sad. I know you didn’t want my son to die. You gave us a chance. Thank you.” Jeremy spoke about how incredibly healing it was for everyone. He realized that little by little, they were all remaking the world through preemptive love and through healing. And after that, 35 children were able to go to Istanbul to get the life-saving surgeries they needed.
In the stories of the prodigal son and Shad’s father, we hear about two fathers who would do anything for their sons – who would bear shame, become fools, and cross boundaries to help their children. Two fathers, choose love and grace, forgiveness and compassion, and transform the world and set forth a different way of living.
That’s the kind of God we have. A God who foolishly chooses to welcome people who continue to fall short. A God, who would do anything, even become human and die on a cross, for the sake of God’s beloved children. A God with arms flung wide open, who runs to meet us, embraces us and celebrates our return lavishly. A God who is transforming and remaking the world, showing us that there is a different way of living in the world – a way that involves embracing others, lavishing love on those we encounter, and forgiving, even if it seems foolish. A God who calls us open our arms and our hearts in order to transform the world by sharing the outrageous love and forgiveness we’ve received. Thanks be to God! Amen.
© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.
For those interested, here is the original TEDx Talk by Jeremy Courtney.