Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Loving Father

This is the sermon I shared with God's people at St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church on Sunday, 3/6. The text was Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.


The setting of today’s gospel consists of three statements: Jesus attracts tax collectors and sinners (v. 1). The Pharisees and scribes criticize his receiving and eating with such people (v. 2) and so Jesus responds with a parable. The issue at hand is table fellowship, breaking bread together and that being the sign and seal of full acceptance. How scandalous!

Let’s think about this in our context. It’s one thing to go someplace, like a soup kitchen, to help needy people, spend some time with them, but would we bring them home with us? Many of those living on the edge struggle with mental illness, addiction issues, hygiene issues and who knows what all else. Could we ever see ourselves opening up to the troubled, when the image of God is so marred in their lives that it is barely recognizable?

The story of the Prodigal Son is very familiar to us. Some of us may relate to the prodigal, while others relate to the elder son or do some of us relate to the father? No matter who you feel a kinship with, the one constant, the one person who is in the beginning, middle and end of the parable is the father.

Wanting to strike out on his own, the younger son asked for his part of the family inheritance. The father divides the inheritance between his two sons. The younger son's actions created estrangement between him and rest of the family.

After going through all of his money, the prodigal came to his senses. The son resolves to return to his own land and father. He realized he no longer had any claim on his father’s goods, and could no longer be called a son.

This is a lot like repentance. One theologian states, “Repentance means learning to say, [‘daddy’] again, putting one’s whole trust in the Heavenly Father, returning to the Father’s house and the Father’s arms” (Joachim Jeremiahs, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus). Neither the prodigal’s pride nor his shame mattered as much as his need to restore his relationship to his father. What's more is the father wanted to restore his love with his child.

The father was so excited that when the son was first in sight, the father ran to him and embraced him. The younger son didn't even have a chance to say to his father what he had so carefully rehearsed.
             
The Father calls for a robe, a ring and sandals. Why the big deal? This is a son who did not value his family very much, but left them. It was as if the estranged son was dead and is now alive, was lost, but now is found. The father’s celebration conveys God' joy in heaven. It is a picture of sheer grace. No penance is required. It is enough that we have turned back to God. The father has acted with such exuberance that it was worthy of scorn from the neighbors.

When the elder son hears all the hubbub and asked the servants what was going on, responded with anger and refused to join the party. Again the plot is characterized by distance and physical separation, signifying alienation. It’s bad enough that the father received the prodigal back, but to give a lavish celebration? The party is what is so offensive to the elder son. The elder son remained faithful to his dad and did whatever was asked of him.

Once again, the Father seeks his son, this time the older one. The father begged the older son to join the celebration. Here we have a second response to the return of the younger brother. In both responses, the role of the father is featured, with the theme of restoration stated by the father.

Doesn't it make you  wonder if the elder son thought, what does one have to do to get noticed? Does he have to be rebellious, putting the family in disarray? In talking to his father,  the elder son refers to the younger as “...this son of yours” (v. 30). He does not even refer to the prodigal as his brother. This expression has distinctly negative connotations.
           
When we are told that the prodigal participated in dissolute living, it does not mean that he did anything wrong, in spite of what the elder brother may accuse him of. Dissolute just means luxurious or extravagant living. To say that the younger son was evil or bad misses the point. He simply blew his inheritance in an irresponsible manner. The elder brother’s accusation concerning prostitutes is unproven, but the elder brother accuses his father of committing an injustice by rewarding his younger son’s unrighteous behavior. (Dave Westphal).

The father replied,”... we had to celebrate…” (V. 32). It was necessary. Your brother has returned. The father referring to his younger son as “your brother,” was a reminder to the elder brother that the younger one was still part of the family.

It's interesting to compare the sons' interactions with their father. Each is very different from the other. The father didn’t have to plead with the younger son, but needs to with the older one. Whenever the younger son addresses his father, he always respectfully calls him father. On the other hand, the elder brother refuses to acknowledge his relationship to his brother or to his father, referring to his brother as “that son of yours."

The elder brother had a litany of complaints about which he was angry. How did the father respond to the ways the elder son felt wronged? The father said, “...all that I have is yours.” The effect of this response on the part of the father, was to restore all of the family relationships, defending him against the charge of injustice toward the elder son and justifying the celebration of the younger son’s return. The generosity lavished on the lost son outside the household is now extended to the faithful son within the household. If repentance for the prodigal son means learning to say “Father” again, then repentance for the elder son means learning to say “brother” again. The father’s love knows no limitations.

Who needs a soap opera when we have the Bible? This story has everything in it--love, anger, wasteful living, frayed family relationships and finally restoration of the family. This parable has an ability to resonate with our life experiences. Unfortunately, like the younger son, we learn to demand our rights before we learn to value our relationships. The younger son may have been acting within his rights, but he was destroying his closest relationships in the process.

What does this mean for us today? In The Parable of the Prodigal Son, we are presented with a very hands on approach to ministry with those living on the margins of our society. Will we include them in our lives and rejoice as they become better acquainted with the Savior? If we are to celebrate with God, we must also share in God’s mercy. This means that we join in the celebration when others receive God's grace as well. The parable ends with a decision each of us must make. Will we go in to the party of the redeemed or will we stay out in the cold and be miserable?    Amen!


Resources:

Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke
R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Luke   

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