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Sermon for Lent 4 – Luke 15

March 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Sermon for Lent 4 – Luke 15

Augustana, 2010

16 Sermon for Lent 4 MP3 Audio

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Jesus tells three parables within the earshot of the tax collectors and sinners and the scribes and Pharisees.  We’re concerned with the last one, commonly referred to as the parable of prodigal son.  This parable is not primarily about a spendthrift, good-for-nothing younger brother but rather about the relations between God and the sinner and the self-righteous.  Try to stay with me as we get a few things out of the way as quickly as possible.  The request of the son is a tremendous insult to the father that to him the father is better off dead than alive.  This boy was lost long before he ever left home.  Maybe this will be understood a little better here in Catawba County than in other places I’ve served.  What is happening here is that the younger son wants his portion of the estate.  In the ancient near east what was the estate?  Flocks, herds, land and perhaps orchards.  This ingrate child is selling off the family estate, portions of the family farm, the family identity.  He is cutting himself off not just from his father and family and intimate community, but from the wider community as well.  What he is doing is unheard of and unrecorded in ancient literature except here in the mouth of our Lord.  He wants his father dead.  As an unbelievable act of love, the Father grants his request.

All the rest of this stuff you’ve heard.  He goes to a far off country.  He better, he is not welcome in his own community.  He spends his wealth on wild living.  He looses everything, has to work for a gentile feeding pigs.  Even the gentile wants nothing to do with this kid so he doesn’t pay him except pig slops.  Suddenly it dawns on him his father’s servants have bread enough and so he hatches a plan to try to go home and be a servant.  This is not repentance, per se.  He doesn’t want to be a son; he still wants to call his own shots.  He returns home and before he can get his pitch out to his father, his father has run (first century Palestinian heads of household don’t run anywhere, by the way, they don’t in the 21st century century either—you won’t see sheiks running anywhere, it’s not becoming, but this one runs) to meet him on the road and hears nothing of his little pitch for servanthood but instead restores him to full sonship, robe, ring, fatted calf, etc. etc.  You know the story as well as any in Scripture.  Before we move on I want to just highlight again, the unbelievable love of the father.  As Jesus tells this parable this father is an obvious symbol for God our heavenly Father.  This father calls it like it is: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”  This father had every reason to wring this boy’s neck, not throw his arms around him.  He chose to forgive and restore.  Remember now who is listening to this parable, tax collectors and sinners and scribes and Pharisees.  Who are the tax collectors and sinners in this parable?  Right.  The prodigal.  Who has not been mentioned in the parable yet?  Right, the older brother.  Of all the people listening to Jesus who is the older brother?  Right, the Pharisees.

Now basically this is where this sermon starts, with the older brother.  Where was the older brother as all of this was going on?  In the field, doing the work of the father.  In most sermons I’ve heard on this passage, the older brother pretty much gets a pass.  Sometimes a preacher will note that we are often stuck up like the older brother and they really should be more forgiving toward those who return to the church but I’m convinced it’s deeper than that.  The older brother insults the father in every way possible here and in fact, I think, to a greater extent than the younger son.  Kenneth Bailey, a Biblical scholar for many years at the Near Eastern School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon, counts seven direct insults of the father: 1) the older son addresses his father with no title, 2) he demonstrates an attitude and spirit of a slave not a son, 3) he insulted his father publicly and still says, “I have never disobeyed your commandment,” 4) he accuses his father of favoritism, 5) he declares he is not part of the family by calling his brother, “your son,” 6) his concept of joy is celebrating with his friends not his family, not the recovery of his brother from the dead, 7) he attacks his brother by accusing him of living a life of sin and thereby insulting his father for forgiving it.  The older son is every bit a prodigal as his younger brother, if not more so.  Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I am the older brother.  I confess it.

Years ago, as a youth, I was on a youth trip.  We had a girl on our trip who was a smoker.  The rule for the trip was that if anyone were caught smoking in the van or in the facilities in which we stayed, they would eat a cigarette in front of the group.  Well, you guessed it, she smoked.  And she was hauled up in front of the group.  And she was forgiven.  I cried out for justice.  And then in some kind of surreal moment where everything goes wrong, my pastor, somebody I liked, somebody I thought was on my side, recounted my sins of the trip back to me.  If I wanted justice, I would have to suffer the consequences of my sins.  Which did I want justice or mercy?  Her sins were worse than mine, I remember thinking, and I mean to tell you that lasted for years for me.  But they weren’t.  Chief of sinners though she be, Andy Smith was worse than she.  Trust me.

But today is the fourth Sunday in Lent, the most joyous of the 5.  If we did such things we would have not purple on the altar but rather pink, not the color of penitence but rejoicing.  So what is there to rejoice about you might wonder?  Your brothers and your sisters who were dead are now alive.  Come in and join the feast.  The older brother in trying to set himself up as more loyal and faithful than his brother actually committed a greater sin; he failed to rejoice in what he had been given by his Father.  He chose to live like a slave instead of a son and he chose to look at his gracious and loving father as a slave master rather than as a loving father who had given him everything.

Lent offers us a tremendous opportunity to reflect on who we are and how far we’ve come in life.  It is a chance to explore humility.  Dennis Ockham, in a recent book I read, offers two thoughts I think are applicable here.  [Humility] is grounded in a realistic acceptance of who we are—our unchangeable past, our inherited DNA, our innate gifts and aptitudes, our failures and successes, our weaknesses and strengths, and our relationships with others and with God.” (70)  And, “If a person possesses a realistic assessment of who she is, whence she’s come, and where her place is in the scheme of things, she has a good change of accepting others for who they are, whence they’ve come, and what their place is in the scheme of things—without necessarily approving of all that is included in the assessment. (71)  I think this is excellent advice on how not to be a Pharisee or in our case, an older brother.  “What humility does then is it puts us in the right posture to receive God’s grace.  Humility opens us up to receive God’s grace.”  (74)  And I would add and recognize when God is working by his grace in the lives of others just as he has done for us.

Ockham continues with this story:  “I live near the southern California beaches, and occasionally we see or hear about rescues of those who have been swept out by a riptide.  Lifeguards promptly assess the situation and rush out to save the person who is struggling futilely against the stubborn current.  In order to be saved, the swimmer must stop fighting the current and the lifeguard and give in.  The problem is that by the time the two get back to the curious crowd on the beach, the lifeguard—the one who can save himself and another—is lauded and the rescued is written off as a fool for ignoring the warning signs of a rip current or being a weakling.  It’s humiliating to be saved because it requires that I acknowledge my enslavement to narcissism and the riptide pull of tendencies that I prefer not to admit—even to myself.  But if I persist in believing the inflated percentage of my self-approval rating, then I will never admit that I really need God.  (74-75)

That is the profile of the older brother.  That is the profile of the Pharisee.  That is my profile.  And while I think there may be some of us here who are just glad to be restored to our position in God’s household, most of us, I would bet, are more like the older brother.  We labor in the father’s vineyard not in the joy of father’s love, not in humility, but out of a sense of obligation, or perverse pride, boasting of our own self-righteousness compared to that of others.

God’s way for us is recognizing that we are nothing but those having been given to.  Life in God’s house then is rejoicing with our father that our brothers and sisters who were dead are now alive and joining them at the feast.  And so, just as the parable is left unresolved by Jesus, I leave it with you.  But I leave it with the final words of our loving father.  “Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  Amen.

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