(A sermon on Luke 15:1-2, 11-32 preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church, March 14th, 2010)*
It is an ancient storytelling technique: two persons in a similar situation with some important character difference. One is set up as the good example, the other as the poor example. One ends up with good fortune because of her virtuous character or decisions, the other ends up in trouble because of character flaws or poor decision-making.
We have numerous examples of this type of story in the Gospels.
A wise woman builds her house on a firm foundation, where the foolish woman builds her on the sand, and it washes away.
One son says he will go and work but does not, while the other says he won’t go, but later changes his mind and helps.
Martha runs around concerned with work, while Mary chooses to sit and learn.
Sometimes Jesus turns these stories on end. The “rich man and the poor man” turns out differently than expected: with the rich man losing out, and the poor man in heaven. It’s essentially the same type of story with a twist. It’s the surprising example that is lifted up as the one we should follow.
The story of the prodigal son appears to follow this theme of a surprise reversal. The set up is the complaints of the Pharisees and Scribes, grumbling over Jesus’ decision to welcome and eat with sinners.
So Jesus starts the story: “There was a man that had two sons.” The youngest son leaves home with his inherence. He goes off and foolishly squanders what he has. Broke and alone in a distant country, he finds his thoughts returning to home.
He wonders about what could have been, back before he left. We can only guess what really made him leave home to begin with. Perhaps he had his share of arguments with his father. Perhaps he found himself finding his older brother being a tough act to follow. Perhaps he simply dreamed of a different, more exciting life than home offered. But his mistakes had left him with nothing except his job feeding the pigs.
As the young son thinks of home, a thought occurs to him: what would happen if I returned home? It would be a shameful experience: coming home with nothing, poor and broken. His father would say “I told you so,” and his brother would laugh at the mess he had become. They would rightly be angry for him leaving. Perhaps they would not even want him back! But as he thought, he remembered that for the most part, his father was a kind man: he treated his servants well, they always had enough to eat. Yes, he would serve his father, he would earn his keep. He might never deserve the right to be “family” again, but his father’s house offered some refuge.
The trip home is agonizing. The younger son plays the reunion scene over and over, getting more nervous with each step. He rehearses what he wants to 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.” He imagines being accepted in, and he imagines himself being cast out.
Finally, the moment comes. But before he can open his mouth to utter his first words, his father embraces him and kisses him in obvious relief and joy. The son eyes are already red when he starts his speech, his words drenched with real emotion. But his father somehow already understands his remorse, and shows him more grace than ever could have been hoped for: welcoming him in the home and throwing a party of great celebration.
And only now the second son enters the story. He is angry over the turn of events: so much so, that he refuses to join the party. Why has his father thrown a huge party for his brother who doesn’t deserve it? He rages at his father that this is just not fair: he’s “always worked hard and done things right,” but he’s never had a party thrown for him. His brother squandered everything he had: not only doesn’t he deserve a party; he doesn’t even deserve to be welcomed back.
But his father rejects this logic. “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.”
It is easy to reject the elder son’s words outright. After all, in the context of the Pharisees and scribes’ grumbling at Jesus eating with sinners, one can assume that the elder son represents the scribes and Pharisees, and must be in the wrong. But in the story, it’s completely understandable why the elder son reacts the way he does. He has been witness to the effects of the younger son’s selfish past actions. He has seen his father’s pain. He knows that life has been harder without his brother: there not only has been more work to do without him, but others have suffered without his full presence. When his brother returns home, it is only natural that the elder son wants an example made. He wants to see consequences for his brother’s self-absorption and callous actions.
But the elder son misses what the consequences are. He is unaware of the alienation that the younger brother has gone through: he doesn’t understand the internal shame that his brother has faced, or the courage that was necessary to come home. The elder son misses that reality that the celebration marks the beginning, not the end, of the journey of reconciliation and the rebuilding of the family. There are painful steps to come. Trust has to be rebuilt: the younger son has more people he must encounter and be vulnerable to. There is a long road back to health.
What the scribes and Pharisees confronting Jesus have missed is that the “sinners” who have chosen to eat with Jesus are those who have realized that something was missing from their lives. They are those who are searching to rebuild relationships. They are those who are taking the initial steps to look honestly at their lives and attempt to live more fully. Mistakes have been made in the past, and shame and low self-worth have alienated them: but in a first act of courage that admits that something is amiss, they seek out Jesus to help them rebuild their lives.
Jesus makes no attempt to judge them, and makes no attempt to point out their failings and mistakes. Instead, as the father in the story, he welcomes sinners with open arms. Jesus makes them the focus of the dinner party. The work of reconciliation: the repairing of relationships, the full understanding of how selfish actions have hurt others, and the rebuilding of trust are all still to come. But the generosity of Jesus makes it clear that this incredible grace of forgiveness is open to all, and the beginning of healing is worth celebrating.
We all, at one time or another, walk the road of the young son in this story. We have made mistakes, squandered opportunity, and hurt those we should love. We are all invited to take the difficult steps of rebuilding, and Jesus promises his love and support for this painful journey. The message Jesus is giving the scribes and Pharisees is that everyone is welcome at the table: that everyone is worthy of grace and love, and the occasion should be celebrated.
Now, before I finish, I wish to take you back to the beginning:
There once were two sons...
Remember how I said these stories usually work? One example is lifted up, while the other is shown as the wrong way. That’s the usual formula.
Well, this morning there’s an important change from the usual. There is an additional message for the scribes and Pharisees, (hear: those with power and authority), that is different from the “you’ve got things wrong” message that you often hear from Jesus.
I hear Jesus pleading with the grumblers, as the father did with the elder son, to come back to the party.
Jesus is telling them “All that is mine is yours.” The scribes and the Pharisees, with their vast resources, have the opportunity to use their power and authority to help rebuild lives and to cause great and wonderful change. If they would only stop grumbling about what others get and what others deserve, they would realize that there is more than enough for everyone.
This morning we are they as well: we are both the younger and the elder siblings of the story. We are all on the younger’s path: journeying towards reconciliation, facing our shame, dealing with our past and seeking a love-filled present and future. But at the same time, every one of us is faced with the choice of the elder: blessed with the power and ability to love, to forgive, and to make new.
All that is mine is yours.
It is this phrase that holds such promise: it invites all of us to the party. It makes us the one who is celebrated, and it calls to be the gracious host of others.
All that is mine is yours.
*(I originally preached this sermon at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland on March 18th, 2007, my birthday. It's one of the only times that I have reused the same sermon without major changes: I actually think I got it right the first time!)