Sermon – March 21, 2004

One may know nothing about Christianity, one may know nothing about Jesus Christ, one may know nothing about the church, but chances are that somewhere along the line you heard the story of the Prodigal Son.

This, it turns out, is a parable for the ages. The parable sustains because it resonates with us. How many of us have not run off to a far away land. We love this parable because it is full of hope for us, reminding us there is mistake no great, no distance so far that will separate us from God’s love.

It resonates with us because it shows us the father’s love is greater than our disobedience, the father’s welcome is greater than the insults we heap upon him with our behavior, it says to us the door to home has not closed behind us because we left the household of God. We know because we have returned home to him time and again.

Now, I think it is worth walking through this story to remind ourselves again how outrageous the son’s behavior was and how gracious the father’s was in return. This story is popularly called the Prodigal Son, but I think it is more about the Prodigal father. Prodigal meaning, lavish, excessive. While the son’s behavior was lavishly wasteful, the father’s love is lavishly forgiving.

The son’s request was the equivalent of wishing his father dead. No one came into their inheritance before the death of the father, so to ask for his portion now was to suggest that the father was dead to him. An outrageous request, a terrible slap in the face. But surprisingly, the father granted it to him. That’s the sign for us this is no ordinary father. He grants a request that was completely unimaginable in his time.

Then the son goes to a far off land, . . . read that a Gentile land. This good Jewish boy has gone to consort with the unbelievers, where he squanders all he has been give and ends up feeding pigs. Now, this is not just a hard luck story. For this young man, this Jewish lad, to be hanging out with pigs was in itself outrageous. You know that among the Jews of the time pigs were considered unclean, ritually forbidden. So, this was more than a matter of hygienics. . . it was a matter of moral failing, compounding his offensive behavior. This was morally offensive to anyone who heard Jesus story in his time. Here this disobedient son leaves home, heritage, and faith to pursue his own selfish interests. And it occurs to him finally that he is in a pickle. So, he decides to confess his failings before his father and return home, with the hope that his father would put him to work with the hired men.

Now, listening to this story for the first time, folks had to be thinking, now that kid is going to get his. He’s going to get what’s coming to him. He’s going to see the wrath of his father before he gets the boot right out of the house.

But no. Now the father is the one who acts outrageously. First, he runs to the boy. Now, a self-respecting Jewish man in the 1st century did not run. Period. It was unbecoming, undignified. It was a cultural thing. Moreover, one did not run to one’s children . That was improper. Respect required the children to approach the father. Yet here is the old man, running presumably through the village, to embrace his wayward son. Before the boy can say a word, he throws his arms around him and kisses him. (we might remember last week’s 2nd lesson, where Paul proclaims that when we were still in our sing Christ died for us.) When the kid finally tries to confess, the father cuts him off, has a robe thrown over him for his comfort, has a ring put on his hand to convey the authority of the family, and has sandals put on him so that no one would mistake him for a slave, for only the slaves went barefoot. The father set aside all propriety, tradition, reputation, expectations to welcome his son back. And just to be sure everyone got it. . . for this was a very public act . . . he called for the fatted calf to be killed. If we do an inventory of our characters so far, we have two sons and a father. Lot of meat for the three of them. No, this was meant to be a party. You see, if you killed an animal of that size then, you had to eat it all. . . no Fridgedaires. So, this was a public celebration meant to included the community, meant to make the point that this one belongs, that this one has come home and that all is now well.

Well, the older son got it that this was outrageous didn’t he? He complained of the father’s graciousness, seeing only in the dim light of his own self-interest. He was embarrassed and angry with the old man for being so forgiving.. How could you ? Here, in his anger and defiance, the older son is about as far away from his father as his brother. . . . yet he, too, is met by his fathers grace.

And now the parable confronts us in a new way. Which son are we? Are we the wayward, selfish one, or the resentful one angry with God’s graciousness, quick to judge the wanderer, eager to make the distinction between the sinner and ourselves? Which son are we, the parable prods?

I suppose the only honest answer is that we are both, sometimes the wayward one looking for the forgiveness of God, longing to return home and then finding that grace. Or maybe we are still on the road home, having now heard that God awaits us with eagerness and joy. And then, sometimes the one to quickly criticize others who oh so apparent sinfulness just can’t be met by God’s grace. It isn’t right after all we’ve done, after all the piety we have demonstrated. A caution here, that God’s grace exceeds both our expectation and our understanding. I guess the only honest answer is that often we are both sons. Either way, we are met by God’s patient forbearance.

But there is more to this parable I think. You see, Jesus tells this parable not only to reveal the outrageous love of the father, the broadness of his mercy and forgiveness, but also to teach us that we, too, are called to bear the same mercy, the same forgiveness, the same love for the wayward.

Pastor and professor Tony Campolo tells a story of a modern-day expression of this parable, as he traveled once to Honolulu for a conference. and thanks to jet lag he woke up around three in the morning. Hungry, he went out looking for a place to eat. He finally found a tiny coffee shop. As he sipped his coffee and munched on his donut he was joined by eight or nine skimpily dressed and very loud prostitutes.

Nice, pious Campolo, overwhelmed by all the noise and flesh, was about to leave when he heard the woman sitting next to him say, “You know, tomorrow is my birthday. I’m going to be 39.”┬áHer friend responded in a rather nasty tone, “So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? Do you want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?”

“Come on,” the women sitting next to Campolo said, “why do you have to be so mean? I’m just telling you that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you that it is my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

It was then that Campolo knew he had to do something really foolish. After the women finally left, he turned to the guy behind the counter and asked, “Do they come in here every night?”

“Yeah,” he answered.

“The one right next to me,” [Campolo] asked, “does she come in here every night?”

“Yeah,” he said, “that’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why do you want to know?”

“Because,” Campolo replied, “I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday.

What do you say we do something special for her? What do you think about throwing a birthday party for her, right here in the diner?”

The counter guy agreed, and even offered to bake the cake. The next morning, at 2:30 am, Campolo went to the diner and decorated the place. As he says, “The word must have gotten out on the street because by 3:15 that next morning every prostitute in Honolulu was in that place. There was wall-to-wall prostitutes — and me.” When Agnes walked in, everyone jumped up and yelled, “Happy Birthday!” She was floored. She burst into tears. She was so moved, she couldn’t even cut the cake. Instead, she meekly asked if she could take the cake home, to keep for a while, not eat right away. After all, it was the only birthday present she’d ever received. She promised to be right back. As she left, Campolo broke the silence by offering a prayer. The guy behind the counter looked at him skeptically and said, “Hey, you never told me you were a preacher. What kind of preacher are you anyway? What church do you belong to?” Campolo answered quietly, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” The counter guy thought a moment, and then almost sneered as he answered, “No you don’t; there is no church like that. In fact,” he concluded, “if there was, I’d join it.”

The counter guy was wrong. There is a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning. It is the church of the father who welcomed home his disobedient son. It is the fellowship created by the father who loved his wayward children so much that he gave his only son that we might ever return to him, that the door would never close against us, that we would be loved beyond our understanding or merit. It is the church that says to all people, come home, come back, for all is forgiven.