Moving Past The Prodigal Problem

One of my Deacons gave an Oscar-worthy performance this morning during my sermon as the eldest son – I wish we took video!  It was hysterical.

Anyway … here’s my sermon!  Enjoy.  xo

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Moving Past The Prodigal Problem

When Bruce and I got married my father-in-law said to Bruce, “Remember … what’s yours is hers … and what’s hers is … hers.”

That’s fair, right?

The parable of the prodigal son is a challenging one for many of us. The moral of the story is not really the one that we want to be teaching our children. The younger son in the story – the prodigal son – left with his share of the property that his father gave to him and squandered it all away on prostitutes. He was living in desolate poverty when he decided to leave his life of isolation, go to his father and ask to become one of his hired hands so that he would not starve.

But before the prodigal son even got to his father, his father saw him from a distance and was filled with compassion; he ran up to his son to embrace him, gave him his best robe, ring and sandals and celebrated his son’s return by feasting on the fatted calf.

Meanwhile, the father’s oldest son – the son that did NOT waste away his share of his father’s property, the son that stayed with his father and worked hard in his father’s fields, the son that remained loyal to his father, the son that always obeyed his father – got nothing.

The oldest son saw a commotion and asked one of the slaves in the field what was going on. The slave told the oldest son that his younger brother had returned and his father was giving him a feast and the oldest son reacted as many of us would.

Werner: {starting at the lecturn and storming out of the church}
Hey, that’s not fair! I’m the better son! He shamed our family and now is getting a party?! You can’t reward bad behavior! I am the good son! You should be giving me your nice robes and sandals! I WANT A FEAST!

Okay, okay, so that’s probably not exactly how it happened. But the oldest son did point out to his father that he had been loyal for many years; that he had always been devoted to his father, that he done everything his father had asked of him and never received elaborate clothing, jewelry or feasts.

But his father did not budge. He took a line from my father-in-law’s book: “Son … what’s mine is yours.” “But,” he went on to say (and I am paraphrasing here), “we have to celebrate, because your brother has returned to us.”

So … is this fair?

Just for fun – let’s take a quick poll in the congregation, shall we?
Show of hands: Who thinks this is fair?
Who thinks the oldest son has good reason to be a little bit annoyed?

I have been dreading this sermon. How in the world can I reconcile this parable? Everything that we have been taught and are teaching our children – do the right thing, follow the Ten Commandments, honor your parents, live a life of good morals – seems to get thrown out the window in this parable. The younger son not only was forgiven for his bad behavior, but he also seemed to be rewarded for his bad behavior. That does not seem fair. Where do you think Jesus was going with this?

19th century Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde once said, “Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.”

The parable of the prodigal son challenges us in so many different ways. It challenges our own sense of morals, it challenges our understanding of the morals of others and it challenges our ability to offer grace and forgiveness to the people in our lives.

The parable of the prodigal son is difficult because it reminds us that, at any given time, we may be one of the many characters – or one of the many faces of the characters – in this story. This parable may not be a vision that Jesus had for the way we should live, it was more likely a realistic understanding of the way we do live.

And, unfortunately, it does not give us much hope.

So how do we move past the prodigal problem?

It is probably easy for all of us to put ourselves in the shoes of the older son, the one who is trying to do the right thing, but ends up having to watch from a distance while others reap the rewards. We have all be there; we work hard and others seem to benefit. We make sacrifices so that other people are happy. We rush around tirelessly behind the scenes and never seem to get thanked.

It is also easy to think that we SHOULD be putting ourselves in the shoes of the father, who extended a hand of forgiveness when his son returned to him, despite squandering his money away, and welcomed him with open arms and a celebratory feast.

But there are some other facets to this parable that may often be overlooked.

It is not so easy for us to look in the mirror and realize that we may, in fact, be the younger son, the one who is doing the wrong things and still being rewarded. It is not so easy for us to look in the mirror and realize that we may be the older son, more concerned with whether or not we are being treated fairly than with whether or not we are extending compassion and tolerance for the people in our lives. It is not so easy for us to look in the mirror and realize that we may be the father, rewarding bad behavior (because that is one way of looking at it) and asking others to do the same.

I have always thought that the beauty of this parable lies in the actions of the father, who showed such genuine and wholesome forgiveness towards his son, but I am starting to wonder if the beauty of the parable may lie within our own understandings and constant re-evaluations of those understandings of ourselves within each character.

It is a frustrating parable. It is kind of unresolved and does not give us many answers for the lives that we are living.

Jesus never said that life would be perfect. Jesus never said that life would be easy. Jesus never said that life would be fair. Jesus told parables that showed realistic pictures of our humanity and our imperfections. This parable – the parable of the prodigal son – shows an unresolved and genuine representation of how life can sometimes be unfair, how sometimes we are the good guys and how sometimes we are the bad guys. We cannot explain it; we can simply see ourselves within it.

But these are the lives that we are living; these are the lives that Jesus and his disciples were living. And part of following Christ and living a life of faith means finding a way to gracefully and humbly continue along on our journeys through these lives.

It is not always going to be perfect. It is not always going to be easy. It is not always going to be fair.

But we are not in this alone.

And that is how we move past the prodigal problem.

Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth reminds us that Christ gives us a new life. “So if anyone is in Christ,” Paul writes, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Being part of the Christian story means having the opportunity to wake up every single day and face a new beginning. Because that was what the resurrection was; a new beginning. An opportunity for humanity to wake up and try it all over again. An opportunity for us to be forgive and embraced, like the father in this story did to his son, by God, our creator, redeemer and sustainer.

Will we get it right? No, probably not. But God gives us that chance to try.

We are about halfway through the season of Lent right now – three weeks from Easter. Lent is a journey to the cross where we not only remember the crucifixion, but also CELEBRATE the resurrection. We celebrate the resurrection that we know is coming and we celebrate the resurrections that happen every single day throughout our lives.

At the end of the parable of the prodigal son the father turned to the older son and said, “Son … we [have] to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Today I say to you all … Friends, we have to celebrate and rejoice, because – despite the frustrations and the imperfections and the unfairness of life – we are part of a new creation within the Body of Christ. And that creation gives us the opportunity to acknowledge the times that we have stumbled, but also to stand up, dust ourselves off, and look ahead to the future.

Moving past the prodigal problem allows us to fully embrace the new creation Christ gives to us, to let go of the past and to celebrate the journey of resurrection that we are all on.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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