Preached at St. John United Methodist Church, L’viv, Ukraine
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Our text from Luke today is a familiar text to many of us. As soon as we hear the intro, “There was a man who had two sons…” some of us begin to think – oh, I know this story. This is a good one. It’s like those old favorite hymns – you know them backwards and forwards and they speak to you whether because of their foundational and transformative messages or because of their familiarity and the feelings and memories they evoke. I remember listening to the story as a child and being fascinated by the younger son feeding the pigs and wanting to eat what the pigs were eating. Could have been my love for animals or it could have been the funny pictures of pigs that we put on the felt board in Sunday School, but for some reason, that was what stood out to me in the story. My romanticized view of getting to sit with the pigs quickly changed as I got older and sitting in the mud with pigs stopped being so appealing.
One of things about the familiar is that sometimes it’s really easy for us to let the words and the meaning slip by us. When it comes to the routine, it’s easy to go on autopilot and miss what God is speaking to us today.
Because we know this story so well, we have lost some of the shock and horror at the behavior of the younger son. Since we know the beautiful ending that is coming and can almost hear the orchestra tuning up the celebratory music, we forget the harshness of the younger son’s words and the father’s great hurt. The broken relationship that is clearly present.
Culturally, in Jewish tradition a son was allowed to obtain possession of his inheritance, only after his father died or the son got married. As his father is still alive, he had no right to dispose of it. He’s demanding what he wants when he wants it, disrespecting his father and cultural tradition and acting like his father is dead. He’s all geared up for rebellion – no matter the cost or whom it hurts.
Several studies have shown people that have won the lottery or somehow received a great deal of money, for the most part end up right back where they started, no matter the amount, and some even worse off than they were before. There are a lot of reasons for this – an extravagant lifestyle, thinking the money will never run out, a false sense of reality, not thinking things through. The prodigal son easily could fit the profile of one who gambles it all away – the text tells us “he squandered his property in dissolute living” and “he spent everything.” Here he was a Jew tending pigs for a Gentile and longing to eat their slop. He had lost everything. Both his wealth and his integrity.
Just because Jesus eats with sinners, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t take sin very seriously. As seen in the consequences of the younger son’s actions – sitting in filth and coveting pig food. Sin does have serious consequences and can lead down a devastating and degrading path. Not only has the son been led to a physically desperate place, his sin is also seen as broken relationship with God and the community, as he is left in self-imposed isolation in his pigsty.
I like the phrase, “when he came to himself” in verse 17. It’s as if he’s been in this stubborn and disobedient state and he’s finally beginning to snap out of it. Praise God for those lightbulbs of awareness – the Holy Spirit – coming to us and helping us to realize how lost we are, helping us to come to ourselves. It’s not easy to face the reality of our disobedience, but it’s definitely necessary to move forward.
The road back is paved and well lit, because we have traveled this story many times. We forget how scary it is for the prodigal to come home. The shame, the feelings of unworthiness, the lack of hope. I read of a man who had committed a crime for which he was deeply ashamed. When he’d served his prison sentence and was about to be released he wondered if his family would reject him because of the scandal he’d caused and the shame brought on the family. He wrote his parents saying that he would be coming back by bus but didn’t want to embarrass them with his presence if they didn’t want him back. He asked them to tie a yellow ribbon on the ooak tree at the beginning of their street if it was all right for him to return home. If there was no ribbon on the tree when the bus passed he wouldn’t get off the bus. He was nervous on the bus and as he got closer and closer to his street he couldn’t bear to look so he asked the driver to look for him. But, he needn’t have worried because the tree was covered with yellow ribbons!
The father in this passage offers his son yellow ribbons, and following his lead, the community joins in the celebration as well. It is clear in this passage that the father is representing God. God does not stop us from making choices or from the consequences of those actions, but as our loving parent God is ready and waiting for us to come home. In the passage, the father also goes above and beyond to show his love and forgiveness to his son. The son had dishonored his father and the village by taking everything and leaving. When he returns in tattered clothes, bare-foot and semi-starved, he would have to get home by walking through the narrow streets of the village and facing the raised eye-brows, the cold stares, the disgusted looks of the village. So when the son is still far off, the father sees him and decides immediately what he must do. In compassion for his son and to spare him the pain of walking through the gauntlet of the town alone, he runs to him, falls on his neck, and kisses him. The expected thing for his father is to wait in the house and let the young man be brought before him. Let the boy fall down on his face before his father and grovel in the dust. The father may then reluctantly accept his apologies and put him on probation. This father does not do any of that. Instead, he not only runs to his son but also falls on his neck and kisses him.
A man was commissioned to paint a picture of the Prodigal Son. He went into his work fervently, laboring to produce a picture worthy of telling the story. Finally, the day came when the picture was complete, and he unveiled the finished painting. The scene was set outside the father’s house, and showed the open arms of each as they were just about to meet and embrace. The man who commissioned the work was well pleased, and was prepared to pay the painter for his work, when he suddenly noticed a detail that he had missed.
Standing out in the painting above everything else in the scene, was the starkly apparent fact that the father was wearing one red shoe and one blue shoe. He was incredulous. How could this be, that the painter could make such an error? He asked the painter, and the man simply smiled and nodded, assuring the man, “Yes, this is a beautiful representation of the love of God for His children.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, puzzled.
“The father in this picture was not interested in being color-coordinated or fashion-conscious when he went out to meet his son. In fact, he was in such a hurry to show his love to his son, he simply reached and grabbed the nearest two shoes that he could find.”
“He is the God of the Unmatched Shoes.”
Praise God that our God is a God of the unmatched shoes.
The great God of the universe came down and dwelt among us, took our sin upon himself, and died on the cross for each of us. Wow. Talk about grace in the face of disobedience. We believe deeply in God’s grace. God’s prevenient grace – that God loved us even before we knew it and God draws us to God’s self even when we don’t realize it. God’s justifying grace – where we realize the great gift of God’s salvation for us – that he died for our sins so that we can be again in right relationship with God. And lastly, God’s sanctifying grace – that God doesn’t leave us where we are, but we’re on a journey constantly growing and stretching in our faith and our understanding of God and discipleship. Grace. Nothing we’ve earned, but we’ve been given freely.
Before we close the book on the story, let’s look at the elder brother. The elder son was in the field and heard music and dancing as he approached the house. After he hears what has happened, he is angry and refuses to join the party. Again, the father could have easily reacted in anger, but he goes to his son, rushes out to him, and begins to plead with him. The son is extremely rude to his father. This son begins his speech with a Greek word that is often translated “Behold!” This version of the Bible has correctly caught the mood of the son by translating the word as “Listen!” His bitterness and anger are clear in his response. He sees himself as a slave working for his father rather than a son who is taking care of his own property.
Henri Nouwen, one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century, commented on the “lostness” of both sons in the story of the Prodigal Son. He wrote, “Did you ever notice how lost you are when you are resentful? It’s a very deep lostness. The younger son gets lost in a much more spectacular way — giving in to his lust and his greed, using women, playing poker, and losing his money. His wrongdoing is very clear-cut. He knows it and everybody else does, too. Because of it he can come back, and he can be forgiven. The problem with resentment is that it is not so clear-cut: It’s not spectacular. And it is not overt, and it can be covered by the appearance of a holy life. Resentment is so pernicious because it sits very deep in you, in your heart, in your bones, and in your flesh, and often you don’t even know it is there. You think you’re so good. But in fact you are lost in a very profound way.”
The thing is, whether we think we have it all figured out or if we have blatantly been living a life of disobedience, as Romans says, we have all fallen short of the glory of God. None of us has an edge on the sin market. We’re all in need of God’s grace. We are each part prodigal and part elder brother. As Karl Barth wrote, “If Jesus himself had not left the Father and traveled into the far country to share a table with sinners, we would still be there, eating those pig pods.”
And that is what we are to remember. Our text for today does not begin with the parable, but with Jesus interacting with the Pharisees. Our parable and the two that precede it, that of the lost sheep and the lost coin, are in direct response to this opening grumbling made by the Pharisees, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” We are called to do the same thing. I feel like I’ve been saying this all weekend, but we have got to share the light of Christ to all the world, to be the salt, to eat with sinners and Pharisees alike. If we share our little sparks in our daily walk with Jesus, may they become a raging fire, fanned by the flame of the Holy Spirit.
Spark by The City Harmonic