March 11, 2013

The Prodigal

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Robert Barnum
Yesterday, I had the privilege of preaching at St. Augustine's in southwest D.C. Sunday was the 4th Sunday of Lent and I reflected on the lectionary Gospel passage for the day. This is a portion of what I shared.

As a dad of three children I’m drawn to the father in this story of the prodigal son. Most often, we tend to focus on the son in this tale. After all, that is the title typically given Jesus' parable. But I tend to find myself thinking about the dad these days. My children aren’t yet old enough to come asking for their inheritance prematurely. (And that’s a good thing!) Nonetheless, the dad's response captivates me.

The father in this story has built a life for his family. His hard work has established a family business that will bring about the livelihood of his sons and their families. Hopefully, long after he is gone. It was likely hard work. But completely worth it. He was building a legacy. As a father, it's amazing what you'll find yourself doing for your kids.

The younger son takes his portion of that legacy and squanders it. Broke and humiliated, he begins the journey home to see if he can work for his dad.

As the runaway son turns off the main road and on to the road on which his family lives, the father sees him in the distance. And the text tells us that, “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.”

Why does Jesus tell this story?

Jesus tells this story because the religious leaders didn’t like that Jesus ate meals with "sinners." Who were these sinners? They were the unreligious–those unacceptable by the Jewish religious system. Jesus hung out with them. And where did Jesus hang out with these people?

Well, you certainly wouldn’t find them in the houses of religious leaders nor their followers. They wouldn’t find them in the temple or synagogue. If Jesus was sharing meals with these people, he was sharing meals with them on their turf–in their homes.

And the religious elite did not like this.

So Jesus tells us a story.

And we come back again to this most critical point in the story Jesus is telling: the father walks out, no, runs out on to the road and meets the lost son right where he is.

He doesn’t wait for him to arrive at the house.

How doesn’t wait for him to clean up and get his act together.

He doesn't lecture–he doesn't even say, "I told you so!"

He went out on to the road, meets his son where he is at and embraces him.

Those listening to Jesus’ story knew what he was implying. Those "sinners"–which good religious people misunderstood, felt uncomfortable around, possibly even despised–belonged to God just as much as the religious elite. By framing the story as he does, Jesus implies that these "sinners" are just as much God's as those who have their religious act together. And God runs out on to the road to meet them and embrace them.

It’s a good story. Americans like stories that root for the underdog. We like that story because if we ever feel left out or as if we’ve ever done anything disapproving, God will take us back.

But here’s the thing, there’s little that Jesus does in his ministry that he doesn’t ask his followers to do as well. He hung on a cross, he calls us to pick up our cross. He told us turn the other cheek, he turned the other cheek. He healed the sick, he told us to do the same.

And so it seems reasonable to assume that his followers are called to dine with the least, the lost and the left-out as well.

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