Does this story sound familiar to you? Do you know a family with a ‘good’ kid and a ‘bad’ kid and a parent who is WAY too forgiving? I can think of a few. I wonder what lesson Jesus wants those Pharisees to learn when he tells them this story. Where are we in this story and what are we supposed to get out of it?
Let’s set the stage first: Jesus has really been pushing the buttons of the local religious authorities. He seems to go out of his way to annoy them: eating with sinners and tax collectors, flaunting religious law right and left. The more annoyed they get, the more outrageous his behavior and his stories get. They’re grumbling today about him and he actually tells them 3 lost and found stories. In the first story, a shepherd has 100 sheep and loses one of them. He leaves the 99 sheep to go off after the one sheep and when he finds it he’s overjoyed and throws a big party. Jesus says, “Count on it - there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over 99 good people in no need of rescue.”
The Pharisee’s think Jesus is nuts - no shepherd would leave 99 good sheep in a vulnerable place just to get 1 lost sheep! Crazy!
Then Jesus asks them to imagine a woman who has 10 coins and loses 1 of them. She goes wild - turning her house inside out and upside down, looking for that 1 coin. When she finds it she is so thrilled that she also throws a big party. Jesus says, “Count on it - that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.”
“Hmmm,” think the Pharisees - “that doesn’t make sense - all that effort for 1 coin? This fellow is trying to tell us that God loves lost souls and sorry sinners more than he loves people like us who follow all the rules! No way!”
Jesus has one more story with this lost and found theme and this time, I guarantee you, he will get those Pharisees spitting mad!
A man has two sons. This man has worked hard all of his life to improve his family’s holdings so that he can leave a healthy estate to his sons. His wealth has grown through the toil of generations to get to where he is today. He is a proud man with land, animals, servants and two sons.
One of his sons is also proud, too proud. He is arrogant and full of himself. He knows that he will be on easy street when his dad dies and he decides that he doesn’t want to wait for his share of the estate. You know, if I had asked my Dad for my half of his estate before he died, he would have had to sell his house, sell his car, and liquidate half of his assets so that I could have money. This would have left him impoverished and it would have been so unfair to my sister. It was so unacceptable for this young son to ask his dad to do this. The village would have been scandalized, the father, deeply shamed and the older brother would have been incensed.
Despite all this, Dad sells out and gives the money to his young son. Our young hero goes off with his heavy bag of money and parties like a wild man. He completely wastes all the money on prostitutes and drinking until he doesn’t have two coins to rub together. He is desperate and has to get a job feeding pigs, a Jewish boy feeding pigs! Can he get any lower? Yes. He’s so hungry he’s ready to eat the corncobs in the pig’s slop.
This brings him to his senses. He’s just going to have to go home with his tail between his legs and beg his father to let him take the lowliest job on the farm. Ouch. This is going to hurt this proud, stupid boy.
I wonder if the father was watching for him, staring down the dusty, bright road, hoping for any sign of his lost son. He stares, sees his boy in the distance and his heart gives a leap. This proud, wealthy man takes off running. He doesn’t care who sees him. He doesn’t care how silly he looks, sweaty and dusty, pounding down the road on his old legs. HIS SON IS HOME! He wraps his arms around him and kisses and kisses him.
The tired young boy is trying to get an apology out but his dad doesn’t even hear him. He’s shouting to the servants, “The best robe! Rings! The good sandals! Quick!” “Let’s have a feast! Prepare the calf we’ve been fattening and invite everyone to a party! My son is home. He was dead and now he is alive. He was lost and he now he is found!” Let’s get this party started!
Let’s just end this story right here OK? Such a happy ending, nice and clean. It’s in keeping with the other lost and found stories Jesus told. All’s well that end’s well.
But no. Oh, No! This time Jesus continues with this story and invites those petty, judgmental Pharisees and US into the story.
The ‘good son,’ the obedient son is livid when he sees the party going on and can you blame him? He has been the good child who stayed behind and did the work. He has probably been mad at his reckless brother for years. Perhaps, like the Pharisees, he has been petty and judgmental. Most people relate to this character in the story. Do you? Well, he lights into his tired, happy father. “What are you doing old man? I’m NOT going to this party!”
Listen to the father’s response: “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.”
We are left there. A riotous party going on, the young son happily celebrating being home again, the older son and his exhausted dad standing outside at an impasse. The older son doesn’t want to forgive his brother, after all, he is right and his brother is wrong. The father forgives both of his sons because he loves them.
That angry, judgmental son is sinning just as much as his dissolute brother. His father stands by him, loving and forgiving. When we are angry and judgmental, our father stands by us, loving and forgiving as we try to change.
We are approaching Good Friday, a day of great sorrow when we remember Jesus dying on the cross. He is brought back to life on Easter Sunday by the power of his father’s love. Twice in our story the father says that his son was dead and is now alive. All the terrible sins committed by this bad son are washed clean by the love of his father. But what about the good son? Will he find it in his heart to forgive his brother? It doesn’t sound like it, he’s pretty mad. He sounds pretty entrenched in his anger and seems unwilling to make any effort toward reconciliation.
Jesus stands there, telling these lost and found stories to the Pharisees, who, like the good son, follow all the rules and harshly judge those who don’t. Jesus tells them that God cares more about that lost sheep, that lost coin, that lost son than self righteous people who don’t understand that they are sinning and they are also lost.
You see, no matter how hard we try to be the good sons and daughters, no matter how hard we try to live right and follow the rules, at heart, all of us are a bit lost. We mess up all the time. During this season of Lent we are supposed to look hard at ourselves and our behavior. Do we really love our neighbors? All of them? Do we really try to forgive everyone? Look hard. Let’s find our failings, our weaknesses then get to work on them. We are lost but we can be found. God WILL forgive us with bountiful grace.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this story: “Any way you look at it, this is an alarming story. It is about hanging out with the wrong people. It is about throwing parties for losers and asking winners to foot the bill. It is about giving up the idea that we can love God and despise each other. We simply cannot, no matter how wrong any of us has been. The only way to work out our relationship with God is to work out our relationship with each other.”
I am reminded of the churches in our diocese which have left because of the issues surrounding the ordination of gay people. This story reminds me of the deep, painful work Bishop Warner did, striving at all costs to remain in communication, in communion with all churches. This work took a great toll on him. In the end, people in at least one of the churches said that they were sorry to have left the diocese.
We will always have deep differences with people at all levels, personal, in our community, in our churches, in our government. That’s human. This story of a father who poured a prodigal amount of forgiveness on his son might inspire us to hopes of reconciliation. It is becoming increasingly popular to simply shout out ‘NO’ to whomever is in power. To make no effort to hear both sides of an issue. Rather than becoming more deeply entrenched in our differences, let us look to our commonality. Let us try to hear each other. We cannot love God without at least trying to love one another.