Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 31, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
In today's gospel lesson, we hear the last in a series of three parables that portray God as seeking out that which is lost, the first being the parable of the Lost Sheep and the second, the parable of the Lost Coin. Jesus addressed these three parables, not to the tax-collectors and sinners who had come to hear him, but to the Pharisees and scribes who weren’t happy with Jesus’ scandalous insistence on spending time with sinners.
It’s a very familiar story. There was a man with two sons. The younger son asked his father for his half of the property he will inherent one day, but while the father was still alive. The father presumably sold half of his property and gave the proceeds to the younger son who left to go off to a distant country and squander it on “dissolute living.” As the Jews considered their ancestral land holdings to be God’s gift to their families, the Pharisees and scribes who first heard this parable would have understood the younger son to have committed blasphemy. The younger son’s fortunes changed after he had spent everything when a famine struck, and he wasn’t even able to afford to feed himself with the food given to the pigs.
Then, the he had a realization. He realized that he’s in a foreign land with no family, no faith, no food, no friends. He realized that despite his shame, despite the fact that his family may reject him, he needed to go home. His entire perspective about his life changed in an instant. One might say that began the process of repentance.
He rehearsed the speech he would give once he sees his father, and then takes off. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. The Father was already looking for him and had already forgiven him before he had time to say anything at all. He was filled with compassion, not anger, and runs to him. The younger son then formalizes his repentance by saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
The Father did something remarkable in response – he had his slave bring out a robe, a ring, and sandals, all signs that he viewed his son truly as a son, not as a slave.
And then they celebrated. They celebrated and ate the fatted calf, for the father’s son was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.
When I hear someone’s private confession, I often counsel him or her to read this parable in thanksgiving for God’s compassion and forgiveness. Essentially, without saying it, I’m asking the penitent to put himself in the place of the younger son in this story. It’s easy to focus on the younger son’s journey as it’s outrageous and full of drama and emotion. But remember…Jesus’s message here isn’t for the tax collectors and sinners, it’s for the Pharisees and scribes – the religious people of the day.
Enter the elder son onto the scene. He came in from working the field and is furious at what’s going on, despite his father pleading for him to come to the feast. He said, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you! You killed the fatted calf for my brother who devoured your property with prostitutes, but you’ve never offered me and my friends even a small goat to celebrate. This isn’t fair!”
When I think back on my own life, I tend to identify more with the elder brother. I was the eldest son, and growing up, I was a rather prudish Southern Baptist teenager who judged my parents for having even the slightest sip of alcohol. My younger sister, a year-and-a-half younger than me, felt a bit freer to go off the reservation. For example, I was obsessed with going to church multiple times a week, while my sister had a slightly different approach to church: she once had my mother drop her and a friend off at the all-night church lock-in retreat, only to have some boys pick them up before the doors were locked. I worked in the school office as a side job for a couple of years in high school, and handled the attendance records. Let’s just say that my sister couldn’t really skip class without getting caught. I remember one rather tense fight between big bro and little sis in which Carri yelled at me with a snarl, “Why do you have to be so good?”
At almost 39 years of age, I’m still more prone to identify with the elder brother. I’ve often looked upon those who live an outwardly disobedient life with a strange curiosity…but if I admit it, a think I might envy them. Like the elder brother, when God’s grace is lavishly bestowed on someone who has committed all the sins I wish I had had the courage to commit but didn't, I often respond with resentment. It’s not fair! For I try to do all the right things, and check all the boxes, and stay out of trouble. The elder brother in this story represents the Pharisees and scribes, and Jesus’s message to them was, “God is not fair.” He doesn’t dole out his grace according to our good and bad actions, he goes after he who is lost in order to find him. He doesn’t reward us for our good deeds and punish us for our sins, he chose to bear the punishment for our sinful deeds himself on the Cross.
How does the Father respond to the elder brother’s resentment? By inviting him to the feast to celebrate the redemption of his brother.
The truth of the matter is that both sons were lost. A lot of biblical editors call this the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it’s more accurate to call it the Parable of the Lost Sons. The elder son, full of resentment, didn’t realize that he too was lost. He hadn’t recognized, “I can’t do this on my own. No matter how hard I try, I won’t be able to earn my Father’s favor. I’m not worthy to be called my Father’s son.” Instead, he saw his Father as an accountant. “All these years I’ve been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command, yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” Like the Pharisees and scribes didn’t understand Jesus, the elder brother didn’t really understand his Father at all. In some ways, the elder son might have been more lost than his younger brother was.
God is not an accountant. God is not a task master who treats all of us like slaves. God is not fair! No matter the extent of our sin, no matter the amount of shame we’ve accumulated, God is a loving Father who doles out his grace before we even have time to think about changing our perspective and coming home.
Whether you identify with the younger or older son, God is inviting you and me today to a great feast. We aren’t killing the fatted calf today to celebrate someone else’s redemption. Across time and space, we are joining in the once-and-for-all sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the whole world. But before we do, we would do well to echo the words of the younger son when he said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” For it is only when we recognize who we are and who God is that we can begin to perceive his unconditional love for us. It is only then that we can begin to perceive that this celebration – this feast – is not only for the wayward son who has come home, it’s for us too.
 David Lyon Bartlett, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Kindle edition, location 4010 of 18450.
 Same Old Song podcast, Mockingbird ministries. https://www.mbird.com/podcasts/
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!