Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
March 6, 2016
The Fourth Sunday of Lent-Year C
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Luke is my favorite from the New Testament—bar none. I keep a bookmark with Rembrandt’s famous depiction of the reconciled father and son permanently in my Prayer Book at this morning’s Psalm 32. And I also posted a lithograph of the forlorn younger son, seated among the pigs and husks, on my office door at Saint Mark’s School, just below a copy of an icon of Moses at the burning bush, about which we heard last Sunday. That passage is my favorite from the Hebrew Bible—bar none! So it has been, as they say, a “red letter” few weeks for me with our lectionary!
I resonate so deeply with these two stories and images because together, they represent the complete story of my own spiritual journey to date in a nutshell: the one, a dramatic and sudden revelation of the Name of God, together with God’s summons to a fraught and dangerous mission in the calling of Moses; the other, the return of the prodigal to the “hesed,” the “mercy” and “steadfast love” of God’s embrace in Saint Luke’s Gospel. In fact, I always told the students in my New Testament class that if, by some happenstance, we had had no other record of Jesus’ teachings, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Good Samaritan—both unique to Saint Luke’s Gospel—together would tell us the whole Christian story of salvation in Christ. These two parables represent the substance of Jesus’ teaching about God, humanity, and the “kingdom of God.”
Very often, my bright and curious students would ask me to summarize Christianity in one sentence—a challenge they probably drew from the famous story about Rabbi Hillel that I always told in my Hebrew Bible classes. According to the Talmud, that marvelous compendium of Jewish lore and law, the famous rabbi was once asked by a seeker to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel obliged and replied: “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. Now, go and study Torah.” So, inspired by Rabbi Hillel’s response, I always gave my students a similar answer to their query: “Christianity is nothing more, but nothing less,” I told them, “than loving God by loving the person standing in front of you at any given moment.” Of course, I could also have simply quoted the holy prophet Micah: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” After all, Jews and Christians—both people of the one covenant—have been saying in diverse ways the same thing about God, and the human vocation to be truly human, for thousands of years now.
So, where to begin this morning? This parable of Jesus is so rich and so artfully constructed that we could spend a lifetime of reflection on it and still not plumb its depths and its many implications. And it really should not be called Parable of the Prodigal Son at all, because both sons are completely lost in this story, and only one of them is surely reconciled to his father at its conclusion. Both brothers have dishonored their father and rejected the counsel of the Torah by accepting their inheritance before the father’s death; both brothers busy themselves spending those resources without much regard for the honor and the needs of their father; and both turn their backs on his love and concern for them, each in his own distinct way. So, this is not only a parable about a prodigal son; this is also a parable about his resentful older brother, and both of them are completely lost, each in his own way!
And which is the greater offense: the youthful immaturity and impetuousness of the young Jewish boy who goes off to a distant place to spend his ill-gotten fortune in a first-century version of “wine, women, and song,” and who ends up starving in a pigsty with only the husks used to feed those most non-kosher of all animals; or is it the older son’s rude and resentful rebuke of the loving father, who would have bequeathed to the elder son a “double portion” of the inheritance in accordance with Jewish law? The truth is that both of these boys have behaved shamefully toward a loving and compassionate father who offers them unconditional love and forgiveness, and who never gives up on them or treats them in kind. And while “the foundations of God’s throne are,” according to the psalms, both “justice and mercy,” here we have, once again, in the parable’s figure of the father, a God absolutely committed to mercy, “who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Even before the younger son “came to himself” and repented with his mixture of genuine remorse and so-called enlightened self-interest, we discover that the father has been searching for him all along and runs to meet the prodigal in a complete reversal of the expected father-son roles. This is a God who puts aside all majesty and decorum; a God who makes himself foolish to redeem and to save a wayward son all undeserving of such incredible “steadfast love,” such extravagant “hesed.”
Now, Jesus’ parable might have ended right here with the reconciliation of the father and the prodigal, but rabbi Jesus has one more thing to say to his fellow observant Jews who, like many of us, are playing by all of the rules and may well resent such apparently egregious displays of unconditional love and forgiveness. After all, the older son does have a point: strict and unyielding justice would seem to dictate that there ought to be some sanction, apart from his self-inflicted suffering, for the younger son’s reckless and thoughtless behavior. Wouldn’t a quiet meal and a stern warning to “sin no more” have been mercy enough, followed perhaps by some period of probation as a household slave, just as the wayward boy fully expected? We can easily envision a human court of justice meting out such a penalty for youthful misbehavior. And wasn’t it just a bit steep for the father to have invited the entire village to a great celebratory banquet—complete with the best coat, the son’s signet ring and his sandals restored, and a fatted-calf prepared for the guests—and from his older brother’s flock no less? Isn’t this really a slap in the face to the older boy out there heaving and sweating in the fields day after day to earn his father’s love and respect?
Well, this is precisely Jesus’ point: Neither the older brother nor the younger brother—nor you or I, for that matter—can earn our Father’s love and forgiveness; rather, it is a grace freely given. Repentance and forgiveness are the only two acts of sovereign will with the power to free us from the iron grip of the past. The challenge for our God of justice and love is to “make all things new”; the great task for us sinners is always to live with the past and not in the past by letting go of our injuries, resentments, and anger. And so, the father of the parable gently and graciously reminds his observant older son—and us—“You are always with me, and all that is mine is [already] yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; was lost and has [now] been found.” And so, Jesus makes it clear to us, and to anyone else who may grouse over God’s unconditional forgiveness of repented sins, that his table-fellowship—like that of the father in his parable—does indeed extend to “tax collectors and sinners” because this is the will of Jesus’ “Father.” Thus, once again, we are reminded that we are not saved by morality; rather, we are saved and redeemed for morality! As Saint Paul tells us this morning in Second Corinthians, God in Christ may accept us just as we are, but God never leaves us there. We, the baptized, are “ambassadors of Christ” entrusted with his “the message of reconciliation.”
On this “Laetare Sunday,” when we mark the halfway point of our Lenten journey toward the definitive experience of divine forgiveness, redemption, and love in the Paschal mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, another very similar parable about a father and a son, drawn from the ancient rabbis and recorded in the Talmud, may also give us the spiritual strength and courage to persevere on our pilgrim way this Lent. Jesus himself may very well have known this rabbinic story, and he might even have used it as the basis for his own proclamation of God’s “hesed,” God’s “mercy,” God’s suffering and “steadfast love.” It goes like this:
“A King had a son who had gone astray from his father. The son was told, ‘Return to your father,’ but the boy replied, ‘I cannot.’ So, the King sent a messenger to his son and said, ‘return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to meet you.’”
And so, as we make our pilgrim way through the remainder of our own Lenten journey from “a far country”—whether we are lost through prodigality or owing to a resentment of others less observant—God invites all of us to “Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to meet you.”