The Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Rev. George Pejakovich
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

OF ALL THE PARABLES OF JESUS, THE PARABLE OF THE PRODIGAL SON IS ARGUABLY THE MOST WELL KNOWN. MOST PEOPLE WHO HAVE HEARD IT EVEN ONCE COULD PROBABLY RECITE IT ALMOST VERBATIM. ITS STRUCTURE AND DRAMA ARE SUCH THAT IT HAS EVEN ENTERED SECULAR LITERATURE AND ENTERTAINMENT AS THE PLOT FOR BOOKS AND MOVIES. IT IS SO COMPELLING BECAUSE ANYONE WHO HAS HAD MORE THAN ONE CHILD KNOWS OF THE TENSIONS AND CONFLICTS BETWEEN THE ELDER AND YOUNGER CHILD, AND ANYONE WHO HAS HAD A CHILD SET OUT ON THE WRONG ROAD IN LIFE KNOWS OF THE PAIN AND HEARTBREAK OF THE FATHER. THE PARABLE, HOWEVER, IS MUCH MORE THAN THE TALE OF A DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY, AND, OVER THE CENTURIES, COMMENTATORS AND PREACHERS HAVE STRUGGLED WITH ITS MEANING.

ITS PLACE IN THE GOSPEL OF LUKE IS THE LAST IN A SET OF PARABLES; THE LOST COIN, THE LOST SHEEP, AND THEN THE PRODIGAL SON. ONE IS ALMOST TEMPTED TO RENAME THE PARABLE AS THE PARABLE OF THE LOST SON; OR EVEN LOST SONS. BETTER YET, PERHAPS IT SHOULD BE CALLED THE PARABLE OF THE PRODIGAL FATHER.

THE SCRIBES AND PHARISEES WERE GRUMBLING ABOUT THE FACT THAT JESUS ATE AND DRANK WITH TAX COLLECTORS AND SINNERS, PEOPLE WHO WERE OUTCASTS FROM THE RELIGIOUS LIFE OF ISRAEL, AND WITH WHOM NO RIGHTEOUS JEW WOULD HAVE ANYTHING TO DO. IN RESPONSE TO THEIR GRUMBLING, JESUS TOLD THIS PARABLE; WHICH IS NOT NECESSARY FOR ME TO REPEAT SINCE IT IS SO WELL KNOWN, BUT SOME BACKGROUND IS ESSENTIAL.

THE INHERITANCE LAWS OF ISRAEL WERE SUCH THAT THE ELDEST SON GOT TWO THIRDS OF THE PROPERTY AND WEALTH AND THE YOUNGER SON, OR SONS, GOT ONE THIRD. THE PROPERTY AND WEALTH WAS HELD BY THE FATHER UNTIL HIS DEATH, AND THE ONLY CIRCUMSTANCE IN WHICH SOME OF THE INHERITANCE WOULD BE DISPENSED BEFORE THE FATHER’S DEATH WAS IF ONE, OR MORE, OF THE SONS MARRIED. SOME OF THAT SON’S INHERITANCE WOULD FUND THE BUILDING OF AN ATTACHMENT TO THE FAMILY HOME AND PROVIDING HOUSEKEEPING ESSENTIALS.

FOR THE YOUNGER SON TO ASK FOR HIS INHERITANCE BEFORE HIS FATHER’S DEATH, WAS THE SAME AS SAYING TO HIS FATHER, “I WISH YOU WERE DEAD.” THIS WAS SUCH AN OFFENSE THAT THE FATHER COULD HAVE HAD HIM KILLED BY STONING, BUT TO THIS OFFENSE THE FATHER RESPONDED WITH LOVE; HE LOVED HIM SO MUCH HE LET HIS SON GO. SO GREAT WAS HIS SIN, THAT THE YOUNGER SON HAD TO GET OUT OF TOWN IN A HURRY, AND WENT TO A FAR COUNTRY WHERE HE QUICKLY HIT ROCK BOTTOM; FOR A JEW TO END UP FEEDING PIGS WAS ABOUT AS LOW AS ONE COULD GET. SOME SEE IN THE PHRASE, WHEN HE CAME TO HIMSELF, THE REPENTANCE OF THE YOUNGER SON; BUT I DON’T SEE IT SO MUCH. HE DEVISED A PLAN TO WORK HIMSELF BACK INTO THE GOOD GRACE OF HIS FATHER, AND HE REHEARSED HIS SPEECH AS HE WALKED THE LONG WAY HOME.

THE UNSPOKEN TENSION IS THAT OF THE ELDER SON SLOGGING AWAY ON THE FARM FROM DAWN TO DUSK, WHILE THE FATHER CONSTANTLY SEARCHES THE HORIZON FOR SOME SIGN OF THE RETURN OF HIS YOUNGER SON. ONE CAN WELL IMAGINE HOW RESENTMENT AND JEALOUSY COULD BUILD IN THE HEART OF THE ELDER SON. WHEN THE FATHER DID SEE HIS YOUNGER SON OFF IN THE DISTANCE, HE DID WHAT NO EASTERN PATRIARCH WOULD EVER HAVE DONE. HE PICKED UP THE HEM OF HIS ROBE AND RAN TO HIS SON. HE RACED TO HIS SON, EMBRACED HIM, AND KISSED HIM, AND WOULD NOT EVEN LET HIM FINISH HIS PREPARED SPEECH. IN THE EYES OF THE VILLAGE, THE FATHER ACTED LIKE A FOOL, DRESSING HIS SON IN HIS OWN BEST ROBE, PUTTING A RING ON HIS FINGER AS A SIGN OF HIS ACCEPTANCE AS A MAN, SANDALS ON HIS FEET AS A SIGN OF WEALTH, AND CALLING FOR A FEAST. HE THEN WALKED WITH HIS SON BACK TO HIS HOME TO CELEBRATE HIS SON’S RETURN.

THERE IS NO CHEAP GRACE HERE; IN FACT, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CHEAP GRACE. WHILE GRACE COMES FREE TO THE RECIPIENT, IT ALWAYS HAS A COST TO THE GIVER. THE FATHER TOOK UPON HIMSELF THE DISGRACE OF HIS SON, SO THAT WITH THE FATHER ACTING AS THE FORGIVING FOOL, THE SIN OF THE SON WOULD BE OVERLOOKED BY THE VILLAGE AND HE COULD RETURN TO THE FAMILY.

WHEN THE ELDER BROTHER, COMING IN LAST FROM THE FIELDS, HEARD ABOUT WHAT WAS GOING ON, HE LET HIS SIMMERING RESENTMENT TAKE OVER. JUST AS THE YOUNGER SON HAD SEPARATED HIMSELF FROM THE LOVE OF HIS FATHER AND FAMILY, WHEN THE FATHER COMES OUT TO PLEAD WITH HIS ELDER SON TO COME TO THE FEAST, THE ELDER SON SEPARATES HIMSELF FROM THE LOVE OF HIS FATHER AND FAMILY. “LISTEN!” HE YELLS AT HIS FATHER, WITH NO SIGN OF RESPECT OR LOVE. HIS COMPLAINT THAT HIS FATHER NEVER GAVE HIM ANYTHING IS ABSURD, BECAUSE EVERYTHING THE FATHER HAS IS HIS. HE CALLS HIS BROTHER, “THIS SON OF YOURS,” REJECTING ANY RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THEM, AND EVEN ADDS THE UNSUPPORTED CHARGE OF HIS BROTHER’S CONSORTING WITH PROSTITUTES.

TO THIS TIRADE, THE FATHER RESPONDS WITH GRACE; AND AGAIN IT IS NOT CHEAP. THE FATHER HAS TO TAKE THE VENOMOUS DISRESPECT OF HIS ELDER SON ONTO HIMSELF, BECAUSE ANYTHING ELSE WOULD CAUSE AN IRREPARABLE BREACH BETWEEN THEM. “SON, YOU ARE ALWAYS WITH ME, AND ALL THAT I HAVE IS YOURS. BUT 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 FATHER LOVINGLY TELLS HIS ELDER SON THAT HIS YOUNGER SON IS NOT JUST HIS SON, BUT IS YOUR BROTHER; WE ARE ONE FAMILY.

THE PARABLE ENDS WITH NO RESOLUTION BECAUSE WE NEVER KNOW IF THE ELDER SON GOES IN TO JOIN THE FEAST; WHICH IS THE QUESTION JESUS LEAVES TO THE SCRIBES AND THE PHARISEES TO DECIDE ON THEIR OWN. THE GRACE OF THE FATHER EXTENDS EQUALLY TO THOSE WHO ARE SLAVES TO SIN AND TO THOSE WHO ARE SLAVES TO THE LAW. THOSE WHO ARE SLAVES TO THE LAW, THE RIDGEDLY SELF RIGHTEOUS, RESENT THE APPARENT LAVISH GRACE THE FATHER EXTENDS TO THE SLAVES TO SIN, THEREBY FAILING TO SEE THE LAVISH GRACE THE FATHER EXTENDS TO THEM. SECURE IN THEIR RIGHTEOUSNESS, THEY REFUSE TO JOIN THE GREAT FEAST OF THE FORGIVENESS OF THE FATHER.

IN THIS TIME OF LENT, WE ALL SHOULD REFLECT ON THE COST OF THE GRACE OF GOD. AS THE FATHER IN THE PARABLE WENT TO SUCH ABSURD LENGTHS TO RESTORE HIS FAMILY TO HIMSELF AND TO EACH OTHER, SO WE OUGHT TO REFLECT ON THE LENGTHS TO WHICH OUR HEAVENLY FATHER WENT TO RESTORE US TO HIM AND TO EACH OTHER. GOD’S LOVING GRACE, WHILE DESCENDING UPON US UNDESERVED AND WITHOUT COST, IS NOT CHEAP; ITS COST IS THE SACRIFICE OF THE BLOOD OF GOD’S ONLY SON. ON HIM WAS LAID THE SINS OF THE RIGHTEOUS AND THE UNRIGHTEOUS, AND IT IS ONLY THROUGH HIS BLOOD THAT WE CAN JOIN THE GREAT FEAST OF REJOICING FOR ALL THE LOST ONES; INCLUDING OUR SELVES.
AMEN

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