The Fourth Sunday in Lent; Year C (3/14/2010)

Radical, Universal, Prodigious Love

Lessons: Joshua 5:9-12 Psalm 32 (11) 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 St. Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Prayer of the Day God of compassion, you welcome the wayward, and you embrace us all with your mercy.  By our baptism clothe us with garments of your grace, and feed us at the table of your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 11 “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’ ”

St. Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

This week’s Gospel lesson begins with a remarkable statement. St. Luke tells us that, “…all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus].” In first century life, where the primary objective of most religious people is to keep themselves isolated from non-believers, this is unprecedented. Not only are tax collectors and sinners in the audience when Jesus speaks, and in the congregation when Jesus worships, but they are coming near to him. They are traveling with him. They are sitting at the well with him. They are eating with him. There is literally nothing that separates these outsiders from being with the rabbi from Nazareth.

What’s more, his contact with them is not incidental. It is not coincidental. It is central to who he is and what he is trying to accomplish. At the very heart of our Lord’s ministry is the desire to tear down every wall that separates us from God and from one another.

This, of course, is enough to enrage the Pharisees and the scribes, whose penchant for order and exclusivity is strong enough to keep them forever at odds with what Jesus is trying to accomplish. They are grumbling because Jesus is working against everything that they hold dear, and so he offers a series of stories in response:

  • God is like a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness, to go after the one who is lost until it is found; and who, when it is found, calls all his friends and neighbors together to celebrate (15:3-7).
  • God is like a woman who loses a coin, literally tears her house apart to find it, and when she does she calls all her friends together to celebrate (15:8-10).
  • God is like a father who welcomes back the son who has been gone and calls his entire household together to celebrate (15:11-32)

In other words, whenever someone previously excluded (even those who are excluded by religious insiders!) becomes included, there is cause for the faithful to celebrate. Take that, Pharisees and scribes! You may be irritated that Jesus cavorts with tax collectors and sinners, but so does God. And guess what? When they are found, God throws a party in heaven!

Over the years, the church has called this story (of the father and his two sons) the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” That misses the point, because ultimately this story is not about the son – it is about the father, who is every bit as prodigious as his youngest son. The father is:

  • prodigious in giving his inheritance to the younger son.
  • prodigious in not forcing either of his sons to live in their father’s home (or come in to the party) against their will.
  • prodigious in waiting, day after day after day, for his son to return.
  • prodigious in welcoming this wayward son home (even before hearing whether or not he has returned to confess his misdeeds).
  • prodigious in extending the same limitless love to his grumpy older son.

With this parable, Jesus seeks to teach us about God’s prodigious love. A love that is radical and universal. A love that is extended as generously to cranky, judgmental people as it is to extravagantly wasteful people. A love that offers everyone a second chance at a new beginning (sound familiar?). A love that is shared with those whom many religious people would prefer to ignore. A love that stretches the lover as much as it stretches the beloved.

This story seeks to welcome every single one of us into the life-changing love of a father who is as determined to love you and me as he is determined to love a wayward son (Or, should we say, two wayward sons?).

May God’ s prodigious love transform our lives, and may it inspire us to honor God with all that we say and do.


David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. Why did it irritate the Pharisees and the scribes that Jesus was spending so much time with sinners?
  2. How is this week’s parable an answer to that irritation?
  3. How did this parable influence the life of the early church?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. Who am I eager to welcome home, with the prodigious love of the father?
  2. Who might I prefer to exclude – or at least to ignore?
  3. Who has loved me, in a time when I felt especially unlovable?