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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Mar 31, 2019

Passage: Luke 15:11-32

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Sermons for Year C (2018-2019)

Category: Lent

Detail:

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (2019)
March 31st, 2019
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel at CCU) 

Joshua 5:9-12        2 Corinthians 5:16-21        Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

So this morning, we have the well-known parable of the prodigal son. And before we get to the parable itself, I want to make a couple of quick observations about just how powerful this parable is. First, I’d like you all to venture a guess as to how many times we hear this parable read to us in church on Sundays. I don’t want to do a straw poll, but my guess is that there are quite a few of us who might be thinking that we surely must hear this story at least once a year, and probably during Lent. But it’s not so. We don’t even hear it every other year. No, the parable of the prodigal son only comes up in the Sunday readings once every three years - on the fourth Sunday in Lent, in Year C. Which might strike some of you as surprising, considering that this is one of Jesus’ best-known parables.   

Of course, Christians tend to make reference to it on a regular basis - in Sunday school, in Bible studies, and in other educational settings outside of Sunday worship. So it makes sense that it would be familiar. But the story is also fairly well known even in the secular world; in fact, if you keep your eyes and ears open, I’d be willing to bet you’ll hear some non-church reference to “the prodigal son” at least once over the course of the next year. You might even say that the story transcends its associations with Christianity. It’s just that powerful. And it begs the question about why this parable has become so much a part of our common culture. 

Part of the answer has to do with the nature of parables themselves. The word “parable" comes from the Greek word “parabole,” which means, literally, "that which is thrown alongside," and the implication there is that a parable is an illustration or analogy about some greater truth. One New Testament Scholar, Charles. H. Dodd, famously defined a parable as “a metaphor or simile, drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” The force of the parable, then, is precisely that it’s not a clear and direct teaching but instead invites hearers to make the connections with truth for themselves. 

Jesus could just as easily have said something like, “God welcomes back the wayward with open arms,” and that would have been a true statement, but instead he used a parable, and the story is still widely remembered over two thousand years later even by people who otherwise aren’t interested in Jesus. And it’s widely remembered because in this parable, there are so many connections that people can make with the truth Jesus was teaching. 

Probably each of us can relate in some way to the son who decides to leave home on not the best of terms. Because we’ve either been in those shoes or have been close friends with someone who has done something similar. Probably we’ve all thought we can make it on our own and that we’re in complete control of our own lives and we don’t need anyone else. Or we’ve known someone who thought that way. We’ve all either made foolish decisions that got us into trouble, or we’ve known someone whose bad choices in life wound up landing them in hot water. And we’ve all either known hard times or known someone else who was about to hit rock bottom. And we’ve all been faced with hard decisions about the future or known someone who has. And we’ve probably all been in a situation where we knew we needed to apologize and face the music no matter what might happen. In short, most - if not all - of us can somehow relate to the figure of the son in the parable. It’s a scenario that remains as true today as it was two thousand years ago. And so we can make a connection with the truth that Jesus taught in the parable.  

And though it’s easier for parents to relate to the character of the father in the parable, I think most of us can imagine ourselves being in a position where someone we love turns their back on us. We can also probably relate to the certainty that if our loved one returns, we’d welcome them back without hesitation or condition. Perhaps we’ve even daydreamed about how joyful it would be to see our loved one coming home. Some of us may even have known what it is like to welcome home a wayward child or an estranged loved one. And we may know how others will think we’re crazy if we welcome someone like that back into our lives. And so we can make a connection with the truth that Jesus taught in the parable.  

We can also relate to the older brother, whose sense of fairness is offended by the younger brother’s return. Because we’ve all been in a place where we’ve felt that justice would not permit a good-for-nothing wastrel to be welcomed back home with such grace. 

I won’t belabor the point here, but the reason why the parable of the prodigal son is so powerful is that it allows us to throw ourselves alongside of it; and instead of us merely hearing a story about someone else, the parable allows us to think about the way its truth has played out - or has yet to be played out - in our own lives. 

And I do not doubt that everyone here - even right now - can somehow relate to the truth of this story; whether you’re the one who has turned your back on loved ones or have had a loved one turn their back on you; whether you are wondering if it’s too late to turn back or you’ve already known the grace of repentance and forgiveness; whether you’ve upset someone’s sense of fairness or you yourself have been angry at seeing someone not get their just desserts. There’s something in this parable for everyone. And that’s a good thing because the basic message is that God loves us and welcomes us home no matter what.  

And I take it as a really good thing that this parable is so well-known even outside of church circles because it means that the wider culture is at least somewhat familiar with the idea that we can screw up royally and still be welcomed home again. In a world where pursuing the pseudo-virtue of self-sufficiency leaves so many of us feeling isolated and starved for connection, it really is good news to hear that we are not alone and that God’s love is always there, waiting to receive us. 

So, even though we won’t hear this parable on a Sunday for another three years, I hope that we will all take the lesson of the parable to heart - this day and every day - and share with others the good news that heaven rejoices whenever one of God’s lost-but-still-beloved children comes home.