2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The only time I ever hear the word ‘prodigal’ is in reference to this story. I don’t know if you’re like me, but I’ve always thought ‘prodigal’ must mean something like ‘repentant’ or ‘returning.’
Did you know it actually means wastefully extravagant? Lavish, imprudent, boundless, someone who is told to go to the store for milk and comes home with an entire barn of cows.
Jesus’ story is the story of an entire family who is wastefully extravagant.
He tells the story in response to the righteous, upstanding, church folk grumbling that Jesus is too generous for sitting down with sinners, even UNREPENTANT sinners, and sharing meals with them.
So the story goes like this:
A dad has a really good piece of farm land. He got it from his dad, who got it from his dad, all the way back to when they originally moved here. Over the generations, this farm went from a little single shoddy house in the wilderness to a big farm with hired hands. Now this land feeds not only the original family, but also the other families who work on the farm as farm hands.
This dad has two sons. The older son, let’s call him Bobby, is a really good boy. He does everything his dad tells him to do. He always goes to church with his dad, he always gets the crops in before rain, and he never, ever does wrong. Whenever there was a broken dish, or crayon marks on the walls, or a goat that got into the grapes… dad knew it wasn’t Bobby’s fault.
It was actually much more likely that dad’s younger son, let’s call him Timmy, forgot to close the gate. Timmy grew up in the shadow of Bobby. Bobby was older, the good kid, and always prudent. Timmy… well… sometimes Timmy felt like there was no place for him. He just couldn’t BE his older brother. His older brother was older- so of course he was better at things. He had more practice. To survive, to be his own person, Timmy had to find places Bobby wasn’t. Often, this was doing bad things.
I wonder if Jesus pauses here, before his crowd of church go-ers and sinners. The sinners are tax collectors, people who collect money for the Romans. Do you think these Jewish men would work for the Romans if they had an option? No! But, for one reason or another, this was the only job they could get. And what of these prostitutes? Do you think these women were little girls and said ‘One day, I’m going to have a job where I sell myself and everyone spits on me and looks down at me?’ No! Of course not. But circumstances, bad choices the girls made or that were made FOR them, forced them into this job. You Pharisees, you church-goers, you respectable people: listen up — this story is for you.
Jesus then continues that the younger boy Timmy wants to strike out on his own. He says, “Dad, when you die, you’re going to divide the farm between Bobby and I. Well, I don’t want to wait that long. Give me my share now.”
The dad is prodigal. He is extravagantly wasteful. He gives his son his son’s share of the farm.
And right away, the son is prodigal, extravagantly wasteful. He sells the land and sheep and goats and takes all the money far away.
Ancient Israelite farmers are much like modern Ohio farmers. The land we have is WHO we are when we say we’re farmers. This land has been cleared, fertilized, tilled and disked and cared for by our parents and grandparents. We love the land. It is a key part of our identity.
And our animals – and seeds – sometimes we have been breeding them from stock that’s just as old as the land.
The son does violence to his dad, to his ancestors, and to his community. Dad can’t hire as many farm hands now that a good portion of his land has been sold to strangers in a strange land.
These strangers come and they don’t know how to farm the land. Maybe they turn it into a McMansion or used car lot, or all the other development catastrophes we know. They bring in big trucks to build something in the middle of that beautiful piece of farmland and crush all the field tiles, tear down all the cattle fencing, and cut down the oaks your grandmother planted.
This younger son burns many, many bridges on his way out of town.
Where does he go? We don’t know. New York, Las Vegas, Columbus, Mexico – just somewhere that isn’t here. Somewhere where what it means to be a rural farmer isn’t understood.
And there, he blows through all the money from his dad’s work, his grandparent’s work, and his great-grandparent’s work. Broke, credit card debt past his eyeballs, the economy then tanks.
Hunger sets in. So Timmy looks for work. He’s a foreigner, a stranger, in this area. No one wants to hire him. They’d rather give a good job to a local. The only work he can find is being a farmer… ironic… and not a farmer like he knew back home, but a hired hand who has to do the dirtiest work.
Every good law-abiding Jewish person knows that swine, pigs, are dirty. The Romans eat them. But Jews do not. This foreigner, maybe a Roman, is making this Jewish kid help raise dirty food.
It’s kind of like the tax collectors. They are working for Romans… helping the Romans tax the Jews. It’s doing dirty work… so that they don’t starve.
I wonder if Jesus then asked, “Tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners – how many times have you heard people whispering behind your backs, ‘Dirty pig!’ Was it foreigners calling you names, or was it people who are supposed to be your own community? Your own brothers and sisters?”
I think Jesus asks us to reflect… what names are we calling our fellow Christians?
… Especially those ones we see are sinning?
Are we calling them something else than beloved children of God?
Jesus then returns to his story: Hungering in the field after the pig’s bean husks, Timmy comes to his senses. He realizes that his dad’s hired hands are eating better than he is. If he wants to survive, he could go back to his dad.
Maybe Timmy really is sorry. Or maybe Timmy is just really hungry. We don’t know. We never know why people repent — why they turn back — why they say sorry. Maybe someone is truly sorry… or maybe they are doing it out of self-interest. Maybe people are saying sorry because they feel badly about what they have done. Or maybe they are saying sorry because they don’t want cut out of the will, or go to jail, or are scared of hell. We don’t know. And Jesus’ parable says the REASON someone repents isn’t as important as you and I would like it to be.
Rather, repentance and forgiveness belongs to the realm of grace. The realm of God. The realm of forgiving seventy times seventy or more times.
There’s no rap sheet with God.
No long list of, “Well, I already forgave you this same sin two times — this third strike? You’re out.”
As long as you’re confessing, returning, seeking God – the mercy and forgiveness of God is still pouring out, still coming, still washing away those sins.
Kinda appalling, isn’t it? Not fair at all. Extravagant waste.
Jesus’ story just keeps getting more prodigal and more not fair.
Timmy goes home, back to the town he’s wronged big time. Back to where the neighbors hate him. Back to where everyone looks at Timmy’s dad and shakes their head saying, “What a shame! Why did he ever let his son get that way? Why did he give his son that land? I wouldn’t let MY son act like that.”
And as Timmy walks through the little town, his dad sees him and goes running towards him. It’s like this dad has no sense of shame at all. For everyone to see, this dad acts like a giddy school girl and goes running down the street towards his sinful son to greet him! Does this mean he approves of how the kid’s acted?! The kid has just started to return, and dad runs all the rest of the way to greet him.
Of course he doesn’t approve. He just loves his son that much. God loves us like this!
And the father greets him with even more extravagant waste! Kisses and hugs, brushing off the son’s practiced apology, calling for new clothing and riches to be draped over the boy, and to throw a gigantic feast for the kid. The dad is going to throw a party for the whole town to celebrate the kid coming home.
It isn’t just the good son who’s appalled. I think the town is too.
What are we going to do? What are we going to choose? There’s a great big party getting ready to be thrown for this kid. Are we going to cross our arms, huff, and refuse to join? Are we going to turn our noses up and refuse to associate with this prodigal family?
The older son, Bobby, is walking towards town from the fields. He’s been working all day. He hears the celebration in town.
And when he learns what’s going on – oh boy is he angry.
He crosses his arm and refuses to go in. He refuses to celebrate that idiot who did so much wrong, so much sin. “I don’t care if he’s back safe and sound. I don’t care if he says he’s sorry. He should have never left in the first place!”
So dad leaves the party to come talk to his eldest son, Bobby. Truly, this dad has no shame when it comes to pulling his sons into his presence. He’s willing to plead now before the town with his eldest son. Plead, not demand, but plead.
God pleads with us. Never forces.
But the older son angrily answers his dad’s pleading, “No! THAT son — I won’t call him my brother — THAT son of your’s devoured your property and you rejoice? I’ve been a slave for you and you don’t do anything special for me – not once!”
And dad replies, “All that I have is your’s, and you have always been in my presence. Your brother was dead, but now alive. He was lost, but now found. We must celebrate and rejoice.”
I think Jesus’ crowd was so, so angry over this story. You church go-ers have always had God in your presence. All of God’s love, and presence, and mercy has always been your’s.
This sinner, this lost one, who turned back… this is your brother! Your sister! I have to rejoice. I have to welcome them. I love them.
Will you rejoice, will you welcome, will you love them too?
It is appalling that God’s mercy knows no limits. It is appalling that God’s love is for those who stay by God and those who wander. It’s appalling… but so, so necessary.
That older son was also lost and dead. He was in the field, so concerned about working, so concerned about doing right – that he, too, had wandered away from his father. He was dead in his heart – he refused to call his brother a brother. He refused to welcome his brother home.
This story of abundant, extravagent, endless mercy and love is for both sons.
The son who sins openly; and the son who sins privately.
The sinner who the world points at with shaming fingers; and the sinner who the world lauds.
Jesus, sitting there talking to tax collectors and church go-ers alike, talking to prostitutes and priests – says you all need God’s mercy, and you all have God’s love.
God’s love isn’t limited.
When a person enters the circle of God’s love, there is not less love for everyone else. When a sinner is given a welcome home party, that party isn’t just for that sinner. The party is an invite for everyone – rejoice! God’s love knows no ends.
I once heard this story told as so: Saint Peter stood at the gates of heaven checking names off for who could enter. However, more people were in heaven than the number on Peter’s list. “Go keep looking and find out what the issue is,” Peter told some angels. So the angels looked through heaven, took another count, and again more people were in heaven than Peter had let in.
Finally, one of the angels found the problem. The angel returned to Peter and said, “Found the issue with the numbers, sir. It’s Jesus. He’s standing out by the back wall lifting people over.”
That is our God.
Endless mercy. Endless love.
It may strike us as unfair, as appalling…
… but without this endless mercy and love, who would get past the gate?