A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo on March 14, 2010.
Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32
March 14, 2010
Most of us have heard this well-told story and known it as the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s about the boy, we think. It’s about the boy who grabs it all in a rush to walk out of the story of his family, leaving it all behind, so he can carve his own path. He demands that which his father still has and disregards the dark tone that implies something along the message, I wish you were dead. Then he abruptly leaves and Jesus tells us the sum of his downward story including all its ugly and painful scenes.
But there are two other characters in this parable, the elder brother and the father. In the end, the true nature of the story unfolds as the boy comes to his senses and returns home where he discovers his father has no punishment or shame to offer, but instead embraces him with love. By the end of the story, we realize this is a parable told of us whether we are acting as the younger or elder sons, but at its deepest understanding, the parable’s about the love of a father who can only offer love as his answer to the boy’s fool-headedness.
The boy’s story is painful to watch as he makes every wrong-headed turn imaginable. Everyone but him can see how self-destructive he has become. One of my old deacon friends down in San Antonio would say wisely, That boy just had to climb fools’ hill. Those who love him the most share his pain as they watch him insult his family and strike out on his own.
Over the years, we’ve come to call this parable the story of the Prodigal Son. The word prodigal comes from the Latin word, prodigere, which means, to squander. Squander is a delicate way of saying he burned his inheritance like there was no end to it. Tomorrow was a day that had no meaning. All he had was today and today he determined he would live as fully as his daydreams of freedom.
The story of the prodigal is known deeply to all of us because it is a classic story that is fresh with each generation. It is an archetypal story consisting of only three characters, but a story so deeply understood, all of us find some way for the story to have meaning. Writers have taken the archetype and fleshed it out in stories and we don’t seem to tire of it in its many forms.
A story came out a few years ago that reframed the themes of Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son. Jim Harrison’s slim novella, Legends of the Fall, is the story of Colonel William Ludlow, an Irishman who brought his family west and settled in the isolation of western Montana in the early 1900’s. When the Great War broke out in Europe, he tried in vain to keep his three sons out of it, but they all blindly followed the other young men of their day and Colonel Ludlow suffered a father’s grief in the tragic loss of Samuel, his youngest son. In his own grief of having failed to protect Samuel as his father instructed him, Tristan, the middle son ran away from home. One Stab, a Native American Indian who worked for the family said about him, Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness and they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy, or they become legends. Tristan abandoned his wife and his family to wrestle with his demons on distant seas and shores.
While he was away, Colonel Ludlow had a debilitating stroke taking away both the strength of his body and his ability to communicate through speech. Alfred, the eldest son, was left behind to take care of the ranch and the family’s business interests. Having lost one son to war and another son to his inner demons, Col. Ludlow painfully suffered a double-dose of grief and sorrow.
In the homecoming scene, Tristan strode up the porch of their immense log cabin home and his paralyzed father staggered out to meet him, scribbling on the slate he now wore around his neck a barely legible message that said plainly, I’m happy. The prodigal had come home and was greeted by the simple joy of a father who had lost his son and had found him once again.
As the book came to a tragic conclusion, the two sons stand by the grave of the woman they’ve both loved and the eldest son complained bitterly to his younger brother, I followed all their rules, man’s and God’s. And you, you followed none of them. And they loved you more.
The fifteenth chapter of Luke is a pivotal and compelling bit of storytelling because there are three stories told sequentially that each teach the same lesson. In many ways, Luke 15 has been considered a gospel within the gospel because it so typifies the message that Jesus embodied. The three stories he are told in response to how he is received by the Pharisees who note that … a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently … the Pharisees and religion scholars growled, ˜He takes in sinners and eats with them, treating them like old friends,’ (Luke 15:1-3).
The notion of grace and forgiveness is uniquely divine. Only in the mind of God could such an idea come among us. It’s not in our nature to think up the idea of grace. In order to see that the divine message of grace gets shared, we have to treat the subject with care so that our own fallen natures don’t corrupt that which is divine.
The church has always wanted to intervene with the idea of grace and forgiveness by making the church a ticket booth to God’s grace. In order to receive grace, you need a ticket that only the church can dispense. That’s the human twist we give to grace: We take that which is free and liberating and we make it cost something. In order to obtain the ticket of salvation, you must meet the prior approval of the church. We question whether the grace of God is enough for certain sins. We expect that you clean up appropriately before receiving God’s grace and afterwards that you meet our expectations of behavior and belief.
That’s why Jesus had to tell these stories … about a lost coin, a lost sheep, and ultimately a lost son. Why, we’ve even gotten the nature of the stories confused. They are not stories of things that are lost; they are stories of things that are found.
Jesus wanted in the deepest way possible for the Pharisees to discover how they had missed the point of the message. The point was God is out on the front porch looking for any sinner who realizes they need acceptance and forgiveness. He is out there waiting and willing to offer grace to them all, no matter how lost they have been. He has already paid the price for their sins … all they need to do is simply come home and receive it. That’s our message, too, if we are willing to hear it for ourselves.
All of us can see ourselves in the lives of the two sons. We’re either the younger lost son who took everything that was due him and left, or we’re the older son who obediently stayed at home and yet resented the father who gladly welcomed the wayward boy. Which are you?
We’re both lost and broken and we come to realize it, or we’re lost even while we’re obediently trying to earn our acceptance by being good enough. I guess ultimately in the good grace of God, there is even a grace for us lost older sons who are lost in our goodness, our niceness, and our morality.
That is what Robert Capon calls, Being a Bookkeeper. He says, The human race is positively addicted to keeping records and remembering scores. You stay at home, near God, where it is safe and predictable. What you don’t realize is that, given time, your bookkeeping behavior has, in fact, become your god, and you, too, are far away from Home.
Grace is a kind of mercy that we in the church have had a notoriously difficult time handling. We’ve taken that which is free and we’ve made it something to earn. It’s sad in a way because we first come to God seeking forgiveness and the desire to be whole. And then, after experiencing the liberation that only God can bring, we go out and get lost all over again.
Seminary Professor Tom Long tells of the seminary student of his who went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood. As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary about urban ministry, and his father, who was the pastor in the inner city, related experiences of his own with his son. About halfway into their run, they decided to call a local pizzeria to order their lunch to coincide with their arrival back home. A phone booth (remember those?) was on the corner and as they stopped, a homeless man approached them and asked for spare change. The father reached into both pockets and pulled out all the change he had, offered it to the man and said, Take what you need.
The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, Okay, I’ll take it all, and scooped the coins into his own hands. It only took a second for the father to realize he now had no change for the phone so he called out, Pardon me, I need to make a call. Can you spare some change?
The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins and said smilingly, Here, take what you need.
Professor Long claims we’re all homeless prodigals and beggars. Head home, he says, and expect nothing. Be astonished beyond all measure when the dancing begins, the banquet table is set and the Voice of God says, ˜Here, take what you need.’
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).