In the Prodigal Son we learn our right relationship to God; it is that of parent to child. In this parable, Jesus teaches that our actions never change our relationship to God and in this love we are always welcomed home.
Vicar Neal Cannon, Fourth Sunday in Lent (C); text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; Psalm 32; II Corinthians 5:16-21
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The Pharisees have a big problem with Jesus talking to sinners.
Every time Jesus talks to a tax collector, they call him out. Every time Jesus eats with a Samaritan, they hassle him. Every time Jesus goes for a walk with a Gentile, the Pharisees get all worked up!
Why is that? What’s the big deal? Let’s just let the guy eat his lunch already!!
But for the Pharisees this was a big deal, and they had their reasons why. In the Old Testament, we read the story of a people who were constantly struggling to maintain their relationship with God. One day, the people are being faithful to God, and God is blessing them, and the next day the people are worshiping other gods and sinning in various ways, and God is punishing them.
Over and over again in the Old Testament God tells the people to follow his ways, to remember the laws and commandments. God warns them that there are consequences to breaking the rules. And so the Pharisees learned the rules and they learned them very well. They taught that if the people followed the rules, they would have a good relationship with God.
But then Jesus and his disciples come along, and they don’t follow the rules quite as well. Sometimes on the Sabbath Jesus would heal the sick and his disciples would pick grains of wheat from the fields. And as we find out today, Jesus would eat with people who were sinners; he would eat with people who were breaking a lot of rules.
And for the Pharisees this is a big deal because if our relationship with God is dependent on following the rules, then breaking the rules would mean that God might punish us. To be a Pharisee you had to be very careful about making sure everyone was following all the rules.
So when the Pharisees confront Jesus for spending time with rule breakers, Jesus tells them the parable of the Prodigal Son, the story of a wayward son and his loving father who welcomes him back home.
This story is often read with one major inaccuracy. The inaccuracy in the story that we often hear is that the father accepts his son because his son repents. We think this because we hear the son practice his confession, so we think that it’s because he repents the father accepts him back as his son. But if we listen more carefully we realize that the father never hears his confession. The father sees his son a long way off and embraces him before he says a word. When the son does repent to his father, the father never even acknowledges his words but clothes him with his finest robe, sandals, and rings.
The reason that the story is sometimes read in this way is because we unintentionally use a lens that says, “Our relationship to God is dependent on what we do and say.”
We do this for a lot of reasons. We tell ourselves that this story is about what the son does to earn his father’s forgiveness because we want to believe that we can redeem ourselves. We want to believe that if we follow all the rules perfectly, God won’t be angry at us.
Here’s the problem. When we read this story the way that Jesus told it, we realize we got the story backwards. We think that it’s what we do that impacts our relationship with God, when in Jesus’ story it’s actually our relationship to God that impacts what we do.
In this story Jesus tells us that our relationship to God isn’t dependent on our actions. God loves us even when we sin. God loves us when we do well. God loves us when we are close by and God loves us when we are far away. Jesus puts this love for us into terms that we can understand. Jesus puts it in terms of a relationship. Jesus says, this is the kind of love a parent gives to a child, and anyone who has had a relationship based on unconditional love knows what this is like.
As some of you know, my birthday was last week. And as happens every year, I got a phone call from my parents. It was during the day so I wasn’t able to answer but my parents left me a message singing Happy Birthday to me. And then after singing Happy Birthday my Mom said something really incredible to me. She said, “Neal we love you. We were there the day you were born, and there is no one else who can say that but your Dad and I.” And I realized that this is the kind of love that we receive from God. This is the relationship a parent gives to a child, the kind of relationship Jesus was talking about.
This is the kind of love that says, I was there for you on the day you were born, and I will always be there. No matter how old you are, no matter what you do, no matter what you say to me, I will always see you as my baby, my child.
This has deep meaning for us. In this parable we discover that we are not objects or pets in God’s eyes. We are God’s children and God wants nothing more than to be in relationship with us. The Psalm today tells us, “Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.” In other words, God doesn’t use us as we would use an animal. God doesn’t force us to do God’s will.
Like the younger son, we are given the opportunity to leave whenever we want. We’re given the freedom to take our inheritance and waste it away. We can pollute the Earth and exploit its resources until the land is parched and withered. We can treat our family, friends, and neighbors with contempt until we are alone in this world. We can exchange love, and life, and community for immediate gratification until we’re empty inside.
But from the parable we learn, life is better when we have a relationship with God. And yes, there are rules when we live in God’s house, but our relationship is never dependent on how well we follow those rules. God is always our Parent and we are always God’s children.
But like all children, we think God’s rules are there to get in our way. We think they hinder us. Don’t eat too many sweets, treat your sister nicely, don’t stay out past midnight! Unfortunately, too often it’s not until we get sick from eating too many sweets, or a relationship with a loved one is ruined, or we get in a car accident because we drank too much at the party and decided to drive home that we realize that God made these rules to keep us safe, to give us life more fully. In the context of God’s relationship to us, we realize that the rules don’t define the relationship,
God’s loving relationship to us defines the rules.
The Good News is, as Jesus tells us in our parable today, that even when we do screw up the door to reconciliation and forgiveness, the door to coming home, is always open. When we realize the world and all its charms is not everything it’s cracked up to be, God is there waiting for us like a Parent waiting for their child to come home late at night.
During this time of Lent this is an especially powerful thing to remember because as we confess our sins, as we prepare ourselves to come before the altar we remember that before we ever uttered a word God forgave us. Before we did a thing, Jesus Christ, the living expression of God’s love, died on cross and was resurrected as proof of the length and depth that God goes to have a relationship with us. This relationship that God has with us, changes our very nature.
As St. Paul says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” In Christ we are new creatures, a new creation. God sees us as he would see a newborn child. And as such, we can do nothing to separate us from this kind of love, this relationship.
When we are in relationship with God, when we treat others as brothers and sisters in Christ, we become as St. Paul says, “ambassadors for Christ,” because we proclaim as Jesus taught us that God is our loving parent who has welcomed us home.
When our neighbors really tick us off, we forgive them because we know that God forgives us. When our children are too much to bear, we endure their childishness because that’s what God does for us. When a brother or sister sins and falls short of God’s will on Earth, we rejoice and celebrate when they come home safe and sound.
And when we screw up, we repent because of the pain and suffering it has caused us and the world, but we never have to fear God abandoning us because in Christ we have a promise that our sins are forgiven, and that our Loving Parent will never leave us. Thanks be to God.