Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Wicker Park Lutheran Church

The Rev. Jason S. Glombicki

March 31, 2019

One place that I enjoy visiting is the Art Institute. For those of us who bathe in words day after day, it helps open my mind to imagination and plurality. How one person views a work of art can be markedly different from another. Shading, color, perspective, medium, and the viewer’s state of mind all impact the experience.

And, today’s reading from Luke is like a work of art. As a parable, the intent is to both describe a reality and provide a picture. After all, the word translated as “parable” comes from Greek meaning “speaking otherwise than one seems to speak.”[1]  And, much like art, a parable can be experienced and entered in many ways. Today, I’d like to explore three points of entry for this parable, namely the younger son, the older son, and the father.

If you’re anything like me, I’ve been taught that this parable’s focus is on the younger son, often called the “prodigal son.” He was “prodigal” by spending freely and recklessly. As a young Jewish man, he unabashedly asked for his inheritance, which he spent it in “uncontrolled excess” within Gentile lands.  He put his Jewish community in jeopardy when he lost that land to outsiders. Then, he foolishly spent money on a playboy lifestyle just before a severe famine hit. In a change of events, his extravagant excess turned to extreme want so much so that this Jewish boy violated his pride and honor and took on a cursed role to work among pigs.

Now, when you hit rock bottom sometimes you find a way out. This Jewish boy found it when he realized that his father’s hired hands were well-fed. So, he decided to ask his father to be a hired hand. Ok, so, quick poll:  Do you think the younger son was genuinely repentant? The Rev. Dr. David Lose notes that he’s wants to see the young son as repentant, but maybe he’s just conniving and scheming. Maybe he realized that his father is a sucker; after all, his father had already agreed to give him his inheritance. Based on what’s written, it’s hard to tell if the son is sincere or scheming, genuinely repenting or a total con.[2]

As Dr. Lose says, maybe I want to think of the younger son as sincere because I like to think I’m sincere. I want to believe that I always learn from my mistakes and that when I apologize I really mean it. But, if you’re anything like me, I know that’s not always the case. Sometimes I’m sincere and sometimes I’m just sorry that I got caught. So, perhaps this parable gives us a moment to pause and evaluate our sincerity.  For example, we may talk about the need to address climate change but we still order take out, drive in a car, and take plane rides. We may verbalize the need to care for the poor but we don’t show it with our advocacy, our financial support, or our vote. We may say the “right” words but showing sincerity is an entirely different thing.

But what about that other son? The older son. The son who sticks around, and was committed to the father, the family, and the community. It was that son who worked hard to get it right. It was also the son who was annoyed, frustrated, and appalled by his brother and his father’s reaction. I understand that son. It doesn’t seem fair that his father treats the young son this way.

We feel like the older son when we believe that we do all the work and no one ever helps. We have the same mentality when we complain about social safe nets that never seem to benefit us. And, it’s the same mindset when we believe the lie of nationalism. But when we’re on the sidelines complaining and refusing to enter into the abundance that God has already provided, we’re missing the party. We’re missing the ways that this community is gathering with people to celebrate the gifts of God in this place. We become too absorbed by what we do that we forget about the gifts of God poured out at that font and broken at this table. We become too focused on what we think we deserve that we cannot see that God is found in bodies nourished by food stamps, that God is found in acts of service, and that God is found within the least of these.

And, that’s where we can open our minds by looking at the prodigal father. For me, the father is probably the most offensive person in the story.  After all, the father, seeing his son at a distance, quickly runs to him sending a signal to all in the town that the young son is not to be cast out, but rather, this young man is one with the community. The father humiliates himself as he runs, and takes a subservient role to the son. The father kisses him as a sign of the father reconciling himself to the son in opposition to the cultural expectation that it would go the other way. The father gives him a fine robe and a ring of authority that might be sold again at the son’s whim. Then, the father invites the whole town to celebrate with him not knowing how the son might respond.

You see, this is often how grace works.  Grace is nothing less than scandalous. Grace is offensive. Grace is not fair, it is not equal, and it is not something we are good at giving. Grace does not question the sincerity of remorse. Grace does not care what others think. Grace is not a gift to the righteous, but it is resurrection for the lost.

So, it’s no wonder that today’s Gospel began with grumbling religious leaders. It’s no wonder that the marginalized and outcast heard those complaints. It’s no wonder that we heard Jesus’s parable today. For the thing about grace is that it values relationships over being right. Grace sees that community and restoration are the end goal. Grace sees us not based on what we deserve, but based on who we are – beloved children of our God.

So, there it is, parables help to expand our vision much like a piece of art. Parables challenge us, shape us, and enliven us. In today’s parable, sometimes we’re like the young son in our recklessness followed by questionable repentance, sometimes, like the older son, we’re bitter and angry about grace, and sometimes we’re gracious and welcoming like the father. That’s the thing with parables, they both convict us and liberate us. But, we know that our God has gone and will go at foolish lengths to reach us. We have a God that shamelessly welcomes, a God who foolishly forgives, and a God who always chose a relationship with us, and that, my friends, is divine grace. Amen.

[1] Stiller, Brian C. “Parables: A Window on Truth for Postmoderns.” Preaching Parables to Postmoderns.p 9-10.