It’s hard to preach on this Gospel, because this story of Jesus, the story we know as the parable of the Prodigal Son, is itself one of the best sermons ever preached. I’m going to start by just telling the story again, with a few details added or explained. I invite you to listen, notice, imagine, whether you’re hearing this for first time or the hundredth.
Jesus was making his way slowly towards Jerusalem, preaching and teaching and healing along the way. And among the people who gathered to hear him and be near him were the lowest of the low. The scum of the earth. Prostitutes. Tax collectors. People rendered unclean by illness or work or sin. Now, there were also religious people, even religious leaders, who were drawn to Jesus’ teaching. And they grumbled about having to share space with those other folks. They said, “This Jesus fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them a parable. He told them three, actually; the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and this one.
There was a man who had two sons. He was a landowner and farmer, and reasonably prosperous. His two sons were grown, young adults, maybe in their 20s or 30s. In that place, as in the traditional American farm, adult children would stick around and help run the farm, eventually taking it over when the patriarch retires or dies. The oldest son would inherit most of the property, but the younger son had a share coming to him too.
However. The younger son didn’t want to help tend the farm. He wanted to see the world and taste its delights. He wanted that so much that he did something pretty unthinkable. He went to his father and said, I want my inheritance now. Imagine that happening in any family that you know well. Really imagine. It’s almost as if the son is saying, I can’t wait for you to die. He is definitely saying, I don’t want to be part of this way of life we share as a family anymore.
And here the father’s gracious nature first reveals itself. He doesn’t say, You are no longer my son, you selfish ungrateful twerp. He doesn’t even say, Nope, sorry, no can do, you’ll just have to wait. He finds a way to give his son what he asks, perhaps selling some land to turn it into cash. Breaking up the family estate, diminishing the land that supported the household. Our translation says he divided the property, but the Greek noun there is “bion” – the life, the livelihood of the family.
It probably didn’t surprise anybody when a few days later, the younger son packed up his newfound wealth and cut out. He makes his way to a far-off country, someplace where his family can’t find him, where he can live his own life, make his own way. And he proceeds to blow his inheritance on dissolute living.
Dissolute – profligate – prodigal. That word – asotos in Greek – is where this parable gets its name. Prodigal is a wonderful old word, rarely used now beyond this parable. Its first meaning is: Wastefully extravagant. Reckless, spendthrift, imprudent. The text allows us to draw our own conclusions about the specific nature of this young man’s dissolution. I think we can assume that it involved wine, rich food, gambling, and the kinds of friends – male and female – that you make by throwing a lot of money around.
I’m sure it was fun while it lasted. But it didn’t last. It never does. He ran out of money. And about that time, a severe famine took place in that country. And he began to be in need. All those friends he’d made weren’t returning his calls. His favorite restaurants and wine bars wouldn’t let him in the door. So, desperate, he took a job working for a local farmer, feeding the pigs. He’d been raised a practicing Jew, believing pigs were unclean, impure; but now he has no choice but to spend his time in their company.
The situation is so bad that he’s actually jealous of the pigs. Even though he has work, the pay is so low and food is so expensive, due to the famine, that he’s starving. He watches the pigs scarfing down carob pods and plant husks and thinks, I wish I could eat that. And no one gave him anything. Because nobody cared whether he lived or died.
Imagine a morning, another morning of this grinding, awful life. His once-fine clothes are filthy and tattered, and they hang on him, he’s lost so much weight. His skin is grey with hunger and poor health, his hair is matted and dirty. He’s tossing out the pods for the pigs as the sun rises, beginning to soften the dawn chill. And he comes to himself. I love that phrase so much: He comes to himself. He remembers who he is, and who he once was. He sees that he can’t go on like this, and he sees – maybe, just maybe – a way out. A way home.
He says – out loud – My father’s hired hands have plenty of bread, and here I am, dying of hunger! I will stand up and go to my father. He has no reason to welcome me home, after everything I’ve done. So I’ll apologize, and ask for mercy. I’ll say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ Then maybe he’ll have mercy and take me in as a worker, and at least I’ll have food and a place to sleep.
He set off at once, leaving the pigs to their pods, and walked the long journey home to his father. I like to imagine him practicing his little speech on the road: “Father, I have sinned against you,” etcetera.
But while he was still far off, his father saw him. Give that detail a moment’s thought. His son had been gone for months, at least – maybe longer. How many times, during his absence, had his father checked the road? Cast his eyes into the distance to see whether, by any merciful chance, his son was coming home yet? This time – he sees a figure in the distance. And somehow he knows that it is his son, his lost son. And the father is filled with compassion. He runs to meet him. Listen, grown men don’t run; it’s undignified. But this father runs. And he throws his arms around his son’s neck, embraces him, filthy clothes and all, and kisses his dirty, beloved face.
The son begins his speech, the one he planned out among the pigs: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son….” But his father doesn’t let him finish. A crowd has gathered, the slaves and servants of the house gathering round, and he tells them, Quickly, bring a robe, the best one, and put it on him, to cover his rags with dignity! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, so that he looks like a child of this house again. And kill the fatted calf, the one we keep ready for a special occasion. We will eat and celebrate! For this son of mine” – Notice, he refuses, refutes his son’s words, I am no longer worthy to be called your son – “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
So they began to celebrate. But somehow nobody thought to tell the older brother. Or maybe lots of people thought it, but nobody wanted to do it. So he knows nothing of the homecoming and the party until he’s headed in from the fields, where he’s been working, and he hears… music. He calls a slave and asks what’s going on, and is told, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” The older brother is furious. A party? For that loser? After all the trouble and grief he has caused? After his selfishness nearly killed their father? A party? He refuses to go inside. So his father comes out to plead with him.
The older son lays out his grievance: LISTEN. For all these years I have worked for you like a slave. I’ve always done what you wanted. But you’ve never even given me a young goat for a party with my friends. But this son of yours comes back, after wasting your property on prostitutes, and you kill the fatted calf as if he were an honored guest! Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours – and he is still your brother – this brother of yours was dead, and has come to life. He was lost, and has been found.”
Jesus leaves the story hanging right there – it’s up to the religious leaders in the crowd to decide: does the older son, the good son who follows all the rules, does he find it in himself to celebrate the return and restoration of his reckless, thoughtless, sinful little brother?
The word “prodigal” has a second meaning, related to, but distinct from, the first. It can also mean giving lavishly, generously. Prodigal: abundant, unstinting, unsparing. Who’s prodigal in this story, the younger son or the father?
I don’t want to explain this story, so rich in meaning and beauty, so like and yet unlike our real lives and families. I don’t want to reduce it to any simple moral lesson. Instead I want to reach out and grab our Epistle for today, and bring it up alongside this Gospel parable.
Our Epistle comes from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. Paul is talking here about what 20th century theologians call the missio Dei. The mission of God. This idea arose as an alternative to the older idea that the Church as God’s people was primarily responsible for carrying out God’s mission in the world. The theology of missio Dei says, Actually, God is already in the world, carrying out God’s mission, doing the things God does. In the words of one of my favorite prayers, working through our struggle and confusion to accomplish God’s purposes on earth.
Our job, as the Church, God’s people gathered and sent, is to notice where God is at work in our world, our city, our neighborhood or school or workplace or family, and join in. Help it along. Become allies, partners, co-conspirators with God. This theology invites us to seek God’s action in the world by looking for the kinds of things God does – known to us from Scripture, tradition, and our own walks of faith. God works in minds and hearts, in families and communities and institutions, to heal. Restore. Renew. Liberate. Transform. And to reconcile.
Paul says, in today’s text, “All these gifts of grace and renewal are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal to the world through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
To reconcile means, simply, to bring back together. To restore relationship. The re- prefix assumes an original unity or connection that has been lost – whether particular to a situation, or the fragmentation that besets us all, as children of one God and one planet who forget those facts so easily. To reconcile is to re-establish or mend a relationship, to create harmony or compatibility. I was interested to learn that in Greek as in English, reconcile has a monetary meaning too – I stumbled on this definition: “To reconcile is to make one account consistent with another, especially by allowing for transactions begun but not yet completed.” I like that: the idea that sometimes you have to get numbers or people to match up somehow, even knowing that everything isn’t settled yet, that there are still bills to be paid, balances to be resolved.
Turn your mind and heart back to the parable – to the father’s embrace, his reckless loving welcome, his refusal of his son’s effort to write himself out of the family. This parable gives us a bright, full-color, finely drawn image of God’s reconciling heart. Everything isn’t settled yet; there are debts to resolve; we don’t know whether the older son will be reconciled, soon or ever. But this parable, the prodigal hug on the road, shows us in story what Paul tells us in theory: that God longs to reconcile the world to Godself, to embrace and welcome home, regardless of sins, mistakes and failures.
Reconciliation is one of the core activities of God. A sign of God’s presence we can seek; a gift of God’s grace we can receive, and not just receive: encourage, help along, initiate. God is working to reconcile humans to God, to each other, to the cosmos. And God calls us to be ambassadors of reconciliation, to carry the ministry and message of reconciliation. To join God’s movement to heal the many brokennesses that divide and separate us. In the words of somebody who was probably not St. Francis, we are instruments of God’s peace – God’s reconciliation – invited to participate in God’s quiet persistent loving work of sowing love where there is hatred, pardon where there is injury, trust where there is doubt or fear, hope where there is despair.
Now, just about every week when I’m working on my sermon, I ask myself, will people be able to connect this with their lives? Because if it’s all too abstract, if you can’t reach and touch what I’m talking about, then I have failed. And this is a thing we’re trying to learn to do, here – to talk about our daily lives and work and relationships through the lens of the Gospel, the lens of faith.
SO. Today you’re going to finish this sermon. First, take a moment to think of a time in the past week when you saw God’s reconciliation at work – perhaps when you were able to help it along; or perhaps a moment when you wish you’d taken that “ambassador for reconciliation” role, but you didn’t. Recognizing both successes and missed opportunities is really important! So, in silence, think back, find a moment…
NOW, Turn to a reasonably friendly-looking stranger sitting nearby. Let’s do this in threes. Kids too!… And I invite you to share about that moment you thought of, as you’re comfortable. There’s no pressure to share anything overly private. I’m going to give you two minutes, so keep it simple, and whoever goes first, please leave some time for others too! Start by sharing your names, then tell each other about what being an ambassador for reconciliation could look like in your daily life.