A Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent
by Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So Jesus told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “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.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. 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. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 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 was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”
-Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The story we just heard from Luke is well-loved and well-known as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”. That title is a little misleading, though, because the story is not just about that one particular son. It’s about the dysfunctional behavior of an entire family.
Because I’m fascinated by family dynamics, this story is one of my all-time favorites. We know these characters; we run into them in our own families or hear about them in other people’s families. It doesn’t matter that the story was told over 2000 years ago. The personalities and the attitudes and the issues are timeless.
As we heard this morning, the story involved a wealthy Jewish family and began when the younger son asked his father for his share of his inheritance. Even by today’s standards, this would be a rude and disrespectful request; but in the Jewish world of Jesus’ day, this request would be the same as the son saying to his father: “I wish you were dead!”
The father, however, didn’t hesitate to give his son what he wanted and divided up his property between the two brothers. The older son stayed on the estate and looked after his share while the younger son sold his share and used the proceeds to travel and engage in every form of self indulgence.
It wasn’t long before the younger son had spent his fortune and found himself “in need” as the story tells us. He was so much in need that he hired himself out to feed the pigs of a Gentile man. That was about as low as any Jew could go. And maybe it took reaching that low before he was able to consider an idea that came to him- an absurd idea, really. He considered returning home – returning to the place he had been so eager to leave.
He knew it would be difficult because he had burned so many bridges. But if he had to, he would grovel. Even then he knew that his father would never take him back as his son. But perhaps he would take him back as a hired hand. Surely that would be a better way to live than tending pigs.
Now the older son was back on the estate, working hard to please his father as any responsible first-born child would do. There wasn’t a day that went by, though, that he didn’t think about how foolish and hurtful his younger brother had been. His resentment fueled everything he did.
He was actually out working in the field on the day that the younger brother showed up. He didn’t actually see his father run to embrace and kiss his younger brother nor did he hear the excitement in his father’s voice as he asked the servants to dress him in the best clothes. He didn’t hear the joy as his father planned how to celebrate his wayward son’s return.
What he did hear when he was coming back from a back-breaking day in the fields was the music and the dancing. And it sounded so foreign to him. He couldn’t even remember the last time he had heard or seen such festivities on the estate. Why hadn’t he been consulted about it? There was no money in the budget for such foolishness. Someone would have to answer to him about this. And then he saw the cause of all the excitement and he could not believe his eyes!
In his mind, his younger brother was dead to him and certainly he should have been dead to his father. Yet there was that brother of his- looking and acting like royalty while his father stood proudly by with tears of joy in his eyes. “This isn’t fair!” he thought. After all he had done to look after the estate and his father, he was the one who deserved the big party. He was the one who deserved to be dressed like a prince. He was the one who deserved to be feasting on that fatted calf – not his brother who was an embarrassment to the family name.
And there it was -exposed for everyone to see: the older brother’s ego in all of its resentful, judgmental splendor.
An ego is something we all have and whether we like to admit it or not. It controls how we present ourselves to the outside world. It shapes our image. What it also does really well is mask our fears, which, in turn, affects our behavior.
If we look at the behavior of the younger brother, we might see that it was based on a fear of responsibility, or maybe a fear of seeing his father age and a fear of having to care for him. So, instead of facing his fears, he let his ego talk him into taking his share of his inheritance and running as far away as he could. If we look at the behavior of the older brother we might see that it, too, was based on fear – perhaps fear of losing control of what was his or fear of being adventurous. Or maybe it was based on a fear of losing his father’s respect and love. So he wouldn’t have to face his fears, he let his ego talk him into working hard as he could as a way to control himself and as a way to earn that love. The sad part is that neither son’s behavior made their fears go away. It only made them worse.
And I think that’s what Jesus wanted his audience of Pharisees and tax collectors to recognize in his story. He had observed their foolish behavior and wanted them to see how it had only reinforced their fears and suspicions of each other.
The Pharisees feared losing their status and authority in the Temple and they let their egos shape their image of holiness, which, in turn, prevented them from associating with the likes of such sinners as tax collectors. They and the older brother in the story shared a sense of self-righteousness. The tax collectors feared being social outcasts and let their egos rationalize their engaging in unfair business practices. They and the younger brother shared a sense of entitlement.
Jesus wanted to expose their foolish behavior by using the two brothers in the story as mirrors by which his audience could see themselves. Their fears, however, kept them in a safe state of denial.
But what about the father? How could he have been so forgiving of a son who wanted him dead? Where was his self respect? Didn’t he have a reputation to protect as a wealthy land owner? What would the neighbors think of the way he acted?
Of course these are all questions the ego thrives on asking. But the irony of it all is that the father didn’t seem to have an ego. His behavior wasn’t constrained in any way. Yet some could argue that he was acting like the biggest fool of all. (pause) Some could argue that he was acting like Jesus.
Jesus didn’t care about what other people thought of him. He wasn’t running for public office nor did he have shareholders to please. What he did care about was how people treated each other. And to that end, he modeled forgiveness in a world that valued judgment. He modeled grace in a world that valued resentment. He modeled love in a world that valued barriers. It wasn’t easy living in such a world – the same world we live in. He became fearful and angry at times and would often have to go away by himself and pray in order to regain his balance. He knew that in the stillness and silence of his heart he could reconnect with his Father’s will.
And so can we. As hard as it is to do, our fears are meant to be faced. Otherwise they affect our behavior in such a way as to alienate each other and to cause us to become less than the joyous community of creatures God intended us to be. In the stillness of our hearts at least during the remainder of Lent, maybe the best thing we can do is ask for the courage to face our fears and in that holy space of prayer, listen for God’s answer. How foolish could that be?