The Prodigal Son's Return

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March 31, 2019

Even if I waste my life, I am welcome home.

As bible readers know, not all of Jesus's stories end like the Prodigal Son. Elsewhere in Luke, a stern householder turns back a crowd of latecomers who’d wasted first and second chances. Please sir let us in, they beg. “I tell you, I do not know you,” he says as he locks the door. Last Sunday in church we heard Jesus comment on the deaths of some people in a building collapse. Do you think they were worse sinners than you?” he asked. “No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish just like they did.” “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” Jesus warns another crowd, “when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of God and you yourselves thrown out.”

With harsh words like that in mind, someone who had never heard this morning's gospel, might shudder at the thought of the prodigal son’s return home to take his chances with his father. “Uh oh, this ain’t gonna be pretty, hoss.”  The son's hope that his father would hire him on at minimum wage seems naively optimistic. More likely, the father would meet him at the door to rebuke him: “You wasted your fortune and broke my heart—you are dead to me.”  

But you heard the story and know that isn’t how it goes. Our father sprints down the road to greet his lost son with grateful tears and open arms, plus a ring for his finger, a robe for his back, the fatted calf for dinner, with wine for everyone.

I doubt we can hear this story without thinking of someone that we love and worry over—or of ourselves at wasteful, foolish moments in our lives. This parable offers hope to everyone.

In parables, Jesus teaches from previous experience. We have seen, and understand, a parent’s love for wayward children. He applies that to disclose a truth we would not otherwise have known—the steadfast love of God for people who are behaving badly.

How could we know God loves us even when we don’t deserve it? Jesus in the bible tells us so. But there he also warns us to repent, or else. The American eagle holds an olive branch in one talon, arrows in the other. The bible does that too.

Jesus knows his mind and these different emphases are not at odds. Carrot or stick, he calls us: “Turn around and come home.” Sometimes Jesus echoes John the Baptist: Repent! Unless you do, you’ll perish. As a matter of fact, that happened. A generation after Jesus, Rome destroyed the Temple, dispersed the Jews, and Israel was no more for 1900 years. Only God knows how things might have been different had the crowds heeded the warnings and embraced the gospel. In today’s parable and others like it Jesus makes clear the offer is unconditional.

No matter how fouled up your life is; whether respectable people approve of you or not; one strike, two strikes, three strikes, four: you are invited to a feast—fatted calf and wine included. The accent moves back and forth: Warning! Promise! Warning! Promise! but the invitation is the same: change your ways and follow me. Leave the far country and come home.

It would be helpful to know how Jesus wanted his followers to change. What were these people doing wrong? If home is how we are supposed to think and live, what is the far country where the foolish squander their inheritance?

Violations of the ten commandments? Yes, violations of the ten commandments! People murdered, lied, stole, and betrayed their wives and husbands then, as we do now. That is life in the far country. Hypocrisy? Yes, hypocrisy: people bold to make a public stand for righteousness who do not practice what they preach. Of that, Jesus was a fierce critic. In the far country, we let greed direct our actions, instead of resisting it as a temptation. The far country is a value set that ignores the needs of others, including the poor, the sick, the hungry and those in prison.  The far country is a faithless, hopeless, loveless, self-indulgent soul. Said Jesus to crowds in the Far country: Come home. You will be welcome back with open arms by God.

The offer is still good. The far country lives in us, of course. We bring it to church. Show me a church and I’ll show you people who have failed to toe the lines drawn by the ten commandments.  Charges of greed, neglect, indifference to neighbor, hatred of enemies, ignorance of God, could also stick to most or all of us. Critics say the church is full of hypocrites and we are guilty as charged. I feel safe in saying that, without exception, the call to repent applies to all of us with new things to repent of daily.

The Big Chill is a movie that I re-watch often. Near the end there is a tender moment between Kevin Cline and Glenn Close. She is preparing to ask him for an unusual favor, and requests a word alone in the kitchen.  She takes her husband in her arms, and looks softly into his eyes.  It will be a big favor.  Without knowing what she will ask, he assures her that he would do anything for her.  “I'd even marry you, he says.” “Oh wait, I forgot.  I already did that.”

So here we are in a church, in a tender moment between ourselves and God, prepared to say, “Yes, Lord, we realize that we have done wrong.  We haven't always kept the commandments.  We haven't done all we could for other people. We've been greedy at times. We haven't paid enough attention to you. We admit our mistakes.  We confess and repent. We will arise and come home to you.”

Oh wait, we forgot. We already did that. It being Lent, we started the service with confession. In and out of Lent we repeat it every Sunday. For our soul’s health, we make a habit of it. Week after week we do the one thing Jesus warned we must do: repent and return to face God who waits with a robe for our backs, a ring for our fingers, music and dancing.

As everyone who has ever tried to be a Christian knows, we are never able to completely leave the Far country. It lives in and all around us. Show me a saint and I will show you a sinner. That much is obvious.

We do not need to come to church to be reminded of the obvious.  We come to be reminded of the truth that isn’t obvious and is presented front and center in the gospel.

In the gospels, Karl Barth writes, everything runs to meet the passion story, yet also . . . everything in the passion story runs to meet the resurrection story and . . . nothing can be understood except from these two, or better, from the turning point between these two.  

Parables of grace and judgment run to meet the passion where their two messages converge, are changed, and made ready to meet the resurrection—where an even greater change occurs. This culmination of the passion in the resurrection is a new creation. In Christ, in church, we are participants in that. We are born again. This is a fact.

Barth backs up and sets the stage by blending the stories of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.  In this blended parable, the son demands his share of his inheritance and journeys to the far country, where he squanders it in reckless living, just like before. But now, the father does not wait for his return.  He leaves home and goes to find his son.

In being gracious to [humankind] in Jesus Christ, Barth says, God . . .. does not hold aloof.  In being gracious to [humankind] in Jesus Christ, He also goes into the far country. . . . He does not shrink from [us]. He does not pass [us] by as did the priest and the Levite the man who had fallen among thieves.  He does not leave [us] to [our] own devices.  He makes [our] situation His own.

In Christ, God is the Good Samaritan. The whole world is the traveler who’d been robbed, ditched, and left for dead. God comes to our assistance, bandaging our wounds.  Now the story runs to meet the passion. The father is captured, tried, and crucified. Good Friday, the prodigal world looks on. By now, repentance is beside the point. The grace of God is moving by its own steam towards Easter morning and the new creation. “The old has passed away. The new has come.”

Therefore, Paul writes if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation . . . He made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

T.S. Eliot, a Christian, knew better than to brag on Christians and our new creation.

                For most of us, this is the aim
                Never here to be realized;
                Who are only undefeated
                Because we have gone on trying.

That is what we are doing here this morning, undefeated: trying!

Even out here in the far country, the love of Christ is behind us, forgiving our sins, and before us, inviting us to follow the spirit’s leading homeward, into a different kind of life, a better life, the life that doesn't want to let us go; a life that fills the far country with sights and smells of home.  The love of Christ is to the left and right of us, reminding us to see people the people there—both to our left and to our right–– as far country dwellers like ourselves and new creations just like us. “Forgive us our trespasses, we pray, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That prayer makes home contagious.

Undefeated, we march on to meet the passion, and through the passion, double time, to greet the resurrection. Christ removes the problems in our past, and struggles in our present, as barriers to our return.  His gift of faithful, hopeful, loving life is our new inheritance, and our share in the righteousness of God.

i. Barth, CD 1.2, 56
ii. Barth, CD IV.1, 158.