Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sermon from Sunday, March 18

Based on the Prodigal Son, Lk 15:11-32 (Read it here: )

The story of the Prodigal Son is one of those stories that touches a nerve deep in our culture. Even in our often biblically ignorant culture, people still know the story of the prodigal son, the young man who looked at his father and demanded his inheritance early and went and spent that inheritance on wild living. While the money was flowing, he had many friends. But after the money ran out, all his friends left him behind, and there was nowhere left for him to go. So he took a job feeding the pigs, and eventually got tired of it, and said, “Well, it would be better to be a slave back at home than to be a slave out here feeding the pigs.” So the prodigal son returned home. And he was all ready to throw himself at his father’s feet and beg for forgiveness, beg to be given a job as a slave. But what does the father do? Instead, he throws his arms open, and welcomes his son home; he gives his son a huge party, and celebrates, because as he said it, his boy once was dead but now was alive again.

The story of the Prodigal Son has been preached on countless times. I’ve actually preached on it at least twice since I’ve been here. And I’ve heard at least ten sermons on it in my life, I’m sure. It seems like one of those passages where, you know, how could you find anything new? Hasn’t everything been said about the prodigal son that could possibly be said?

I always get nervous about questions like that; they seem to imply that the point of a sermon is saying something new, not saying something faithful. And I don’t really think that is the point of a sermon after all. Sometimes when preachers run around trying to say something new they say something very foolish indeed.

But yet—there is something new here. Or perhaps I should say it is very old, but it is new to me. It is simply this: what does the word prodigal mean? Although we know this story generally as “the prodigal son,” the word “prodigal” never actually appears in the story. Somewhere along the line, a tradition arose that called this parable the “prodigal” son and it just kind of stuck. In fact, it stuck so well that when the New King James Version was released in 1979, the translators used the word “prodigal” even though it wasn’t the literal best choice.

Most of us assume it means something like “lost.” After all, this parable occurs in the same passage as the parable of the lost coin, where a woman has ten coins and loses one and sweeps the house until she finds it. Also in this chapter is the parable of the lost sheep, where the writer asks, “what shepherd, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go searching for that one” lost sheep? So people tend to think of this parable as kind of finishing off the trilogy: lost coin, lost sheep, lost son.

Or we may assume that “prodigal” means something like rebellious. This son intentionally insulted his father, ran away and did everything he just knew his father didn’t want him to do, rebelled against his dad in every way he possibly could, until he knew he could rebel no more and eventually he went home.

But “prodigal” does not mean “lost” or “rebellious.” It means “wasteful.” So, somewhere along the line, there was a tradition that defined the son in this story as first and foremost wasteful. The prodigal son. The wasteful son.

Now, it seemed to later commentators (and quite rightly, I think) that this story is about way more than just waste. It’s about way more than just a son being wasteful. So some commentators have tried to find new names for the story of the prodigal son. Some call it “the parable of the lost son.” Some call it “the parable of the two sons” because they notice that the elder son also has a part in the story. Remember that when the younger son came home, the older son became angry. He wondered why the father would throw a party for the younger son who had been such a brat. So some call it “the parable of the two sons.”

An influential German theologian named Helmut Thielicke started calling it “the parable of the Loving Father.” He argued that the real story of the parable was not either of the two sons, it was the love of the father. That was the real point of the story, he argued; the depth and richness and infinity of God’s love that loves us all no matter what we have done, who is always willing to welcome us home.

Now those are all really important thoughts, and good ideas for renaming the parable. But yet I think it’s important to realize that for a long time, the name that stuck with this parable was the prodigal son. The wasteful son. I want to look at the parable this morning through that lens: the wasteful son.

Remember that as a parable, the story is not just a story. It is a story about the Kingdom of God and the human condition; as such, the story is about us. We all can see something of ourselves in the younger son; and some of us can see something of ourselves in the older son, who gets angry when his brother gets a royal welcome and he doesn’t. And we are to see God as the loving father. In contrast to other stories of the time that talked about fathers as angry, domineering controllers, God is a father who loves his children endlessly and extravagantly.

And so we are meant to see a little bit of ourselves in the younger son who comes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance early. We all do this; and it’s not simply an act of rebellion. I think we do this every time we pray, in fact. Look at how it’s phrased in the Scripture: “Father, give me my share of the property that will belong to me.” The son knows that one day, he will receive this inheritance for his very own, but he asks for it early.
I think we do this every time we pray. Like the prodigal, we are promised an inheritance beyond measure. God has promised those who believe in his Son Jesus an eternal inheritance, eternal life, a life that we cannot see yet, but is ours, just like a financial inheritance. All the son does is ask for his inheritance early; and isn’t that what we do when we pray? We know that in that world, for example, there is no sickness; and in this world, there is; so we ask for a miracle of healing, we ask for that world to touch this world. We ask for our inheritance early. And God, of course, answers prayer. Just like the father in the story gives the inheritance early to his son, God does give us those good gifts.

If we really look at this story in terms of the son being prodigal, or wasteful, the thing that is so shocking is not his rebelliousness, but his wastefulness with these good gifts God gives him. “He squandered his property in dissolute living,” as the scripture says. The father gives the son good gifts and he just wastes them.

I wonder if we ever think about our prayer lives in just this way. A great deal of our spiritual lives are spent asking God for a touch of our inheritance. We ask God to heal our bodies, we ask God to provide for our physical needs like shelter, food and water. We ask God to provide us with work and play that is meaningful and life-giving. And all this is good, all this is as it should be.

But we should be very careful not to waste those gifts when God gives them to us. We should be careful not to be prodigal with them. In the story, the son takes the gifts that the father has given and he uses them to distance themselves from his dad. He uses them in a certain way because he thinks by using them a certain way, he could buy himself new friends, a new family, a whole new life. Think of all he could have done with his inheritance. He could have invested it wisely, to prepare for tomorrow; he could have used it to better the world. He could have used it to care for the community. Instead, he chose to waste it.

When we pray, God gives us a touch of our inheritance early. What do we do with it? What do we do when we pray for healing and we are healed? Do we go and live new lives to change the world with God’s love? When we are touched and healed, are we changed? Are our priorities new and different now that we’ve gotten a piece of our inheritance? Or do we simply waste it and use our healing to continue the same old patterns in life?

What happens when we are in physical need and God takes care of us? This is something facing Jill and I right now. God has been extraordinarily good to us in giving us our inheritance early. We both are going to be able to get our degrees without going into educational debt which can take years to climb out of. That is such an answer to prayer in our lives. Now that God has answered that prayer, given us what we need, we are under obligation not to waste it. We are not supposed to take the good gifts he’s given us and use them to chase the almighty dollar; we’re not supposed to take the good gifts he’s given us and use them to make ourselves comfortable somewhere. That would be so wasteful with God’s good gifts. Instead, we are called on to use those gifts in the best way we can for God’s Kingdom goals. If we don’t do that, we will be prodigal, wasteful, and we will wind up further away from God than where we started.

When God answers our prayer, and blesses us with a miracle; when God touches now with eternity and gives us a glimpse now of the good life we will know there, we must not be prodigal with that. We must not waste it. To do so would be offensive to the good God who gave us those gifts.

When I look back at my life, there are so many times I realize now that I’ve been prodigal. I’ve been wasteful with the good gifts God has given me, and haven’t used them to further His kingdom in the way he’d want me to. Can you see those in your life, too? It can be painful to look at them, for certain; but honesty compels me to see those finances, and relationships and healings God has given to me and I have not been faithful about using them for His glory. I have been prodigal; and so have you, I’m sure.

Here’s the good news for those of us who are wasteful, us prodigals: God is even more prodigal than we are. Now what do I mean by this? Far more than simple wastefulness, “prodigal” also carries the connotation of extravagant, or unnecessarily luxurious. The son is “prodigal” not just because he wasted his money but because he wasted it on wild living, on extravagant luxuries.
And so we might think that the story is against luxury, until we read what happens when the son comes home: he is treated to a party. A party the likes of which had not been seen. The father commands that the fatted calf be killed, a special calf that people would get extra fat and kill when it was time to have an extra-luxurious party. When the son comes home, all worn out from being prodigal, the father doesn’t say, “Well, you know, you shouldn’t have spent that money on luxurious living, you should have used it for something wiser.” No, he says, bring out the best robe for my son, not just any robe, the best one. Put a ring on his finger, put sandals on his feet, kill the fatted calf and let’s celebrate!

God is way more prodigal than we are. Why do I say that? Because when we are wasteful with his gifts, God’s answer is not, “Well, I’m not giving them anything more until they straighten up and fly right!” No, his answer is to give still more. And to give, and to forgive, and to give and forgive some more, and then finally, when we are willing to be forgiven, to throw us a party. In this sense, we might just call this story “The Prodigal Father.” The extravagant, lavish father who keeps on giving even when it will not be appreciated because giving is what he knows best how to do. When faced with human waste of his gifts, our Father God simply keeps on giving.

Of course, the greatest joy that this father knows in the story is when his son comes home, and he’s stopped looking for extravagant luxuries in a far country; and he starts to recognize that he has a luxurious lifestyle at home. The father is so happy when his son finally realizes that he will enjoy life better not by taking his inheritance and running away, but simply enjoying the gifts his father gives freely. He doesn’t need to run away to find luxury—he just has to enjoy the gifts that are given to him.

I pray that this is true for you this Lent. It is very tempting for us to be sure we know what we need to be happy—just the right job, being healthy, having just the right family situation. And so we take God’s good gifts and use them to try to get our way with them. But I pray that, this Lent, you will know how good it is to have a prodigal father, one who gives and gives and gives so that we might enjoy him to the full.