Sunday, March 21, 2004

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

There are two questions I asked myself when I read today’s Gospel lesson. First, why do we jump over the two other stories of lost things? Second, how does this story end? I suppose that when it comes to preaching on this text, the three parables would make for a very long sermon, each filled with wonderful images and lessons to be learned. At least the first two have an ending – they both end with a celebration because lost things have been found.

The parable of the lost son, however, leaves us hanging. The party is going on, but the elder son is outside. Does he join in the celebration? What happens the next morning? How will the relationships play out the days, weeks and months following the reunion?

Something we do not often consider when discussing this parable is that both sons received their inheritance. The father willingly gave each his portion. According to the tradition of the times, the elder son would have received a double portion as the first-born. The inheritance was split into three, the younger son getting just one third of the inheritance.

After a time, the young son decided to leave – we don’t know why. Perhaps he was unhappy at home; perhaps he was just anxious to spend his money. He went to a foreign land and spent everything. Apparently, this is easy to do. According to a study, a windfall – even a large windfall – is spent within eighteen months of receiving the money. Lottery winners, heirs to a fortune, sports stars and actors often lack the constant vigilance to sustain the profits of their riches. They think it is an unlimited amount of money and spend it without care.

The movie “Brewster’s Millions” was about a man who inherited a huge fortune. To receive this money, however, he had to spend thirty million dollars in just 30 days. He had to be left at the end of the month with nothing but the clothes on his back and he could not tell anyone about the wills provisions. He spent like he was out of control, using the cash in every possible wasteful way. He bought a stamp worth a million dollars and mailed on a letter. He hired a huge staff and paid them extraordinary wages. He rented everything by the day. Everyone around him thought he was crazy and did all they could to make money to sustain the inheritance.

In the end, he managed to spend every penny and he ended up inheriting ten times as much. His late uncle wanted him to hate spending the money so that he would not waste the whole thing when he got the real gift. Three hundred million seems impossible to waste, but with little thought, Brewster managed to spend more than a million dollars a day. Three hundred million would be gone in less than a year at that rate.

In our story, we have a son who has taken one third of what was probably a large inheritance, and he’s gone to another land. Without an income, that money would not last forever. He did not just live off the money, though. He squandered it in wild living. Unfortunately, when the money ran out, so did the rain and the land in which he was living suffered a severe famine. He managed to get a job, but it did not pay well and he began to starve because there was no food to eat. He was so hungry he was willing to eat the pods the pigs were eating. But since that was fodder for the animals, to eat it would have been theft from his employer and he would have lost his job.

He was hungry and alone, wishing for the comforts of home and the love of his family. He did not expect either but he realized that even the slaves at his father’s house were living much better than he. He decided to go home, to admit his sin before God and his father. Then he would ask for a job. He did not think he would be welcome as a son. His asking for the inheritance was akin to calling his father dead according to the traditions of that day. He broke the relationship with his family, but he knew his father to be merciful. He might be treated as a stranger but at least he could have a paying job that would provide food and a place to sleep.

The father’s reaction was not what the son expected. Rather than accusation and rejection, the father showered the son in love and mercy. Even when the son was a long way down the path – perhaps so far as to be beyond recognition – the father knew it was his son. He must have been a sight. When he left he was wealthy, most likely wearing fine clothes and standing tall in pride of his accomplishment (getting daddy to give up a fortune was quite an accomplishment.) This trip, however, was much different. I am certain the son must have been quit thin, filthy, slumped and weary – a much different man than the one who left sometime before.

Yet, the father recognized his son from a long way off and ran to him. It was improper for a father to run, and to run after that son was unbelievable. Everyone associated with the father’s estate most certainly knew what had happened. They would expect the son to give a visible witness of his repentance. A little knee bowing and humble pie was the order for the day, according to the ways of these people.

But the father saw things differently. His son was dead, but now he lived! As the wife of a military man who has gone off to war, I understand what the father was feeling. When a soldier goes off into a dangerous situation, the family does not know if they will ever see them again. Whenever there is a story about something in that area, the family holds their breath until they hear from their loved one again. Until that day when the soldier is restored into their arms, they do not know if he is alive or dead.

The reaction of the father is incredible joy. His son is alive, but he knows that there is much to overcome. Reunion is never easy. During a separation everyone changes. In the case of a military family, a soldier has seen and done things that will affect the way they see the world forever. The family left behind has learned to be self-sufficient. The relationships have changed and everyone wonders where they fit. The soldier wonders if he or she is needed. The spouse wonders if they are loved. The children, who have been the sole focus of the stay-at-home parent, must find a way to accept the other parent’s role in the family.

While the first moments of reunion are filled with joy and expectation, the days, weeks and months that follow can be difficult as everyone finds their place. This often means sacrifice, selfless actions of loving kindness toward the other members of the family. On the first night, when the soldier is exhausted after an 18-hour flight and six months of 12 hours/7days a week work, the spouse must understand that the physical aspects of a relationship might have to wait. That the husband does not have the energy to make love on that night does not mean that he does not love her any less. Just because the stay-at-home parent is able to deal with the running of a household does not mean that the other parent is not needed. Each must work hard to rebuild the relationship through mercy and grace.

The father knew that there were relationships that needed to be rebuilt. The elder son was the sole beneficiary of the father’s love and attention for some time. He was, in essence, an only child. This is not only true of the financial aspects of the estate, but also the emotional. When the younger son returned, the elder son would have to learn how to allow another into the dynamics of the family relationship.

It would be difficult. The elder son thought of himself almost like the Pharisees in the beginning of this lesson. The lesson begins with the Pharisees and teachers of the law coming to Jesus to complain about the company he keeps. “This man eats with sinners.” The elder son was the one who stayed home. He was the one who worked the land like a slave. Isn’t it interesting that while the son who returned intending to be a slave found he was accepted as a son, but the one who lived as a son all those years thought of himself to be a slave? The young son sought out the father, asking for mercy and getting far more. The elder son expected everything and missed out on the joy of being in his father’s house.

The father sought to restore the relationships. He went out to both sons, again an act that was improper according to the customs of the day. He invited the elder son to join in the joyous celebration. What happened? We do not know. We do not see the end of the story, though I’m sure we have experienced it in our own way. Too many military marriages end up in divorce court following a deployment because they never learn how to become one again. It even happens in our churches, as old time members can’t accept the changes that occur when new people join. They leave in a huff and join other congregations seething with anger and bitterness.

Perhaps that’s what happened to the elder son. The end of the story might include his own wandering travels to a foreign land. “If my brother could waste the inheritance, so can I.” We often think that revenge is the best way to find justice and we end up hurting ourselves.

I would hope the story would have a much better ending. The father went to his son. He knew his firstborn was hurting. “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that is mine is thine.” Remember, in the beginning of the story the father did not only give the young son his inheritance, but also the older son. He gave everything out of love. His love did not stop when his son left, but continued to hope that one day his son would return. When he did, the father had to rejoice and share his happiness with all.

The idea of homecoming is found also in the story from Joshua. The Israelites had wandered in the wilderness for forty years after a four hundred year sojourn in Egypt. Finally, they have crossed into the land promised to them through Abraham. They were not done wandering – they had to battle against those who lived in the land God had given into their hands. Yet, they were home. First, God gave them Jericho, which established their right to the land on that side of the Jordan. Then they restored the covenant of circumcision. The Israelites who crossed the Jordan were not the same ones as left Egypt. A whole new generation was entering into this new life. They did not know what it meant to be God’s people. They did not know what it was like to eat food from the earth. They had an extraordinary relationship with God during their wandering, but now was the time to get back to normal.

After the circumcision, they celebrated the Passover, the first time in many years. From that moment, God stopped sending manna. They would eat the fruit of the land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Though they would not set up the temple for many years, they did set up altars along the way, establishing a new relationship with God and blessing Him for the great things He did. As we read through the scriptures, we see how the story ends… they could not keep up that relationship, disobedient to the Law and looking to human help in all their needs. They suffered the consequences of their lack of trust in God.

Yet, the story does not end there. It begins with the coming of a savior, the Savior Jesus Christ. He did not come simply to tell stories like the lost coin, the lost sheep or the lost son. He came to be like the woman, the shepherd and the father. He came to find the lost and to bring them home, to restore relationships and make everything new.

Paul writes, “Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new.” We are changed by our relationship with God, no longer looking at the world in quite the same way. We see things through grace. We act on mercy and love. God reconciled the world to himself in Christ and freely gave forgiveness to those who sought His face.

Jesus ate with the sinners because they had a heart for God – they knew they needed Him because they were broken – so they went to hear Jesus speak. The Pharisees did not hear His voice because they did not think they were broken. They missed out on the blessings of knowing Jesus, hearing what He had to say and knowing God through His life. They thought they were better, good and clean, especially compared to the sinners. The elder son thought he was better because he never left the estate; he stayed by his father’s side and did his duty, never realizing that he was missing out on the incredible blessings such a relationship could provide.

David sings about the joy of living forgiven. “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered.” He knew forgiveness because he too had sinned before God. Yet, he sought God’s mercy and saw God’s grace. He lived in faith, rejoicing in the goodness of God. He did not consider himself a slave to God, though his obedience is well known among the Jews. He knew that true righteousness was living in his Father’s kingdom and that it was a joy to be shared. “Be glad in Jehovah, and rejoice, ye righteous; And shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.”

As you consider the story of the prodigal son, with which character do you most identify? Are you like the prodigal son, running off into a foreign nation and leaving behind everything you knew – your home, family and faith? Are you like the elder son who stayed home with the father? Have you squandered your resources or have you worked the land? Are you forgiven or are you a slave? I believe in some ways we can identify with both – sometimes squandering our gifts, at other times feeling burdened by them. We run away from some of our responsibilities and we are bound by others. We love our Father, but we do not always understand the relationship in which we live.

The Jews did not understand, that’s why the often wandered from their God. But God is like that father. Despite the sense that it is improper for the Almighty God to come to us, He did. He took on flesh and became man. Jesus Christ lived and died for our sake, sacrificing Himself so that we would be reconciled to God and each other. As Paul writes, “Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Through Him we have the most incredible homecoming. It is more than our father’s estate, more than the Promised Land. We are home in the kingdom of God, inheritors of eternal life in Christ and heirs to the incredible blessings of God.

This is a reason to rejoice. Yet, we are called to rejoice not only for ourselves, but also for those who are lost but have been found. We are called to rejoice with the heavens for every sinner that is saved. We are called to live in joy as the kingdom of God grows bigger. For God is not limited in time and space, but He has more than enough for all to be blessed today and forever more. Thanks be to God.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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