I preached this sermon at my internship site this past weekend on the prodigal son story from Luke 15 (NRSV):
So here we are at a story we hear once every three years – the story of a reckless son who runs away from home, and with a changed heart, is welcomed home by his dad with a big feast and a big party.
This is one of the most well-known parables that Jesus tells to make a point. He’s telling it to a group of Pharisees and scribes—as a part of the “Lost” stories: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. In a lot of Bibles, the little title above it will say “The Prodigal Son” – which means recklessly extravagant—that the younger son recklessly spends his dad’s money, and likewise, the Father showers extravagant love to his son as he returns, even though this son is repenting for all the money he wasted and life decisions that ran him into the ground.
But if you ask people from other areas in the world, they don’t see it that way. When asked “Why did the Son end up where he did?” An answer from Russia: famine. Another from someone in Africa: Nobody helped him. In North America: He squandered/wasted his money (Powell, What Do They Hear?). Perspective matters.
Just like it totally matters if you are the oldest child or youngest in your family as you read this text, right? If you’re a younger child, you might identify with the younger son who was wanted to travel and see a whole different place but realized he had been wasteful and receives the abundant love of his Father as comes home. But if you’re the older child, you want justice for the son who stayed diligently by his family at the house.
One way or another, you are in this story.
The first people to hear this story would have been appalled. The younger son doesn’t even say “please,” he just asks for the money that will be left to him, and he leaves. In the ancient world, asking for this money, is like saying that you would rather have your parents be dead. It’s pretty awful, but the Father gives it to him, and the younger Son spends it on “dissolute,” meaning, “lacking in morals.” A famine comes, he starts eyeing the pig’s food jealously, and he confesses his sin and comes home. Before he even get to the house, his Dad is runs to the returning son, gives him nice clothes, throws a big party and supper, and it’s like he doesn’t even need to hear his son’s confession—he is just overjoyed that his youngest son is back.
But the older son.
He’s in the field, and in addition to his own work, he has been picking up the work his younger son tossed aside ever since he left. No one found him to tell him the news that his brother has come home, but as he was working and approached the house, he heard it. Music, celebrating, affirmation, laughter, connection, forgiveness.
I wonder, in that moment, the older son said to no one in particular: “But I stayed.”
You can hear the spite in his voice when he confronts his dad, “I have been working like a slave for you & have never disobeyed or did anything wrong or anything that wasn’t helpful.” It’s important for us to hear his anger, but also to hear his allegiance that boarders on obligation. He’s hoping that his hard and harder and hardest work and perfect attendance will earn his dad’s love. His recklessly extravagant love. His joy and his gratitude has been worn to a nub. It’s almost as if his lack of joy keeps him from hearing.
His dad, ready to celebrate, ready to hold one son under each arm, looks at his oldest and says:
Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
I can almost hear his dad wondering inside: Where are you? Where are your eyes? Where is your spark? I want to tell you this—you need to know! This is yours! I am yours! Why can’t you hear this, I’m right here!
But he can’t hear that.
Because his mind is loud with the stirring thoughts, trying to add, subtract, divide all the ways he somehow failed:
“…the harder I worked, It felt like I was a slave for you”
“…the longer I stayed, did you see me?”
Did you see me? Dad, did you see me?
Yes. I saw you, and I see you now: Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
When you stumble, try and forget God, and leave home, son, you are seen. When you keep tally of wrongs, and bitterness almost eats your heart, daughter, you are seen. When you forget that you are dust, and to dust you return, child, you are seen.
The giver of new life, the savior, makes beautiful things out of dust, and makes beautiful things out of us.
When our eyes are closed, when our hearing is drowned out by “what ifs” and “if I only I was better”—God takes us by the face and says “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” I see you. You are a beautiful thing made out of dust, and everything that I make is good.
Now this story ends with a celebration, as all the Lost stories do.
But if only all our days ended with celebrations. Maybe there is a part of you that is lost, or someone you know who is lost. This story lives in the pages of Scripture and it lives deep in our hearts as people who shame the wise with our foolishness and faith in a recklessly extravagant God.
I’ll end with these words from a compline night service that would bless a person into their night.
“Be present, merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of life may find our rest in you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”