The Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Very Reverend Nicolette Papanek, Interim Dean
Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32

There was a man who had two sons. That’s how our parable in today’s Gospel begins. Bernard Brandon Scott, a scholar who writes about the parables, among other things, has retitled all the parables. You may have a Bible that has titles for the Parables and for other passages or stories as well. The trouble with this is that it makes it easy for us to simply look at the title and assume we know what the parable or passage means. But the Bible is multi-layered. Multi-layered is another way of saying scripture is thick, dense, and full of more than we can ever get in one quick pass through. A one time pass through scripture, particularly a parable, leaves us without the roominess scripture has in it to interpret, examine and reexamine how God speaks to us.

Hence, Bernard Brandon Scott titles the parables by their opening lines. Today’s parable for him is titled, “There was a man who had two sons.” Today’s scripture, though, for example, is often titled elsewhere as, “The Prodigal Son” or in some titles, “The Prodigal.” And in part because of that, most us of us tend to focus on the younger son and his behavior.

But here’s the thing: various dictionaries define the word “prodigal” this way: spending money or resources freely and recklessly, wasteful, extravagant, spendthrift, profligate, improvident, imprudent; things that would set an investment counselor’s teeth on edge. And the second definition listed is slightly different: having or giving something on a lavish scale, generous, lavish, liberal, unstinting, unsparing, bounteous. Now I ask you, even though the first definition certainly fits the behavior of that younger son, doesn’t the second definition fit the behavior of the father?

In most dictionaries the second definition listed is usually the one with a longer history. The second definition is generally the way the word was intended for use originally, or an archaic use. The first definition is how the word is used in contemporary common language.

But if for a moment we use that second definition to look at the Prodigal Father, we might see the behavior we know from God. Lavish, generous, unstinting, bounteous, and so on. And that is exactly the way the father behaves in Jesus’ parable.

A wealthy landowner in those days had dignity, presence, and power. He did not go running out to greet people, even his own kin. That is what servants were for, and wealthy landowners had plenty of those. What the landowner did here by rushing out to his son was to ignore convention and bypass the household steward, the servant whose duty it was to welcome.

In addition, the part we often miss is that the wealthy landowner/ father also went out to greet his older son. He sought his son out. He did not tell someone to bring his older son to him, which again was the proper etiquette for the time, place, and person.

This parable, in large part, gives us a picture of God’s generous, profligate, lavish, unsparing grace. It’s about God seeking us, not us seeking God.

There are two responses to this lavish grace. One is to receive that grace with surprise and wonder and delight. The other, especially when you have been working really hard to dig yourself out of a pit of despair, is to receive the grace with resentment. Resentment because it appears that all your hard work and effort have been useless and maybe even ignored.

But God is a God of generosity and lavish grace, poured out continually for all of us. God longs for us to respond to that grace with surprise and wonder and delight. Not as a reward for God being generous, but because God is a God who keeps on being generous, profligate, lavish, and unsparing of grace even when it means God appears where and how we least expect.

That landowner/father threw aside his customs, his station in life, and his dignity to run out and greet his son who was returning. And this is the same landowner/father who had loving words for his resentful stay-at-home son because that son stayed and worked.

Take a moment here and now to think about God’s surprising grace with you. Maybe there is one thing that really stands out for you, something you will never forget. Maybe it’s just a sense of overwhelming peace and love. Or maybe there have been many times and it’s hard to pick just one of those times. Just sit for a moment and enjoy the memory of God’s surprising grace… (Long pause)

What you have just remembered and enjoyed are those times when whether you were happy or sad, joyful or resentful or anything in between, God ran out to greet you. God so generously ran out to greet you when you least expected it, when you most needed it, and when you were empty and needed filling. AMEN.

The Very Rev Nicolette Papanek