I Corinthians 15:50-58; Luke 15:11-32
Everyone loves a good story. Jesus loved good stories, too, and he often used stories when teaching his followers. Many of the stories Jesus told are known as “parables.” In the days of Jesus, a parable meant a story or fable with a wise saying. But, the parables told by Jesus were not just stories with a moral lesson. They were windows into a worldview helping us to understand the purpose of our human lives in relationship to God and our ultimate destiny as members of God’s eternal kingdom.
The parables told throughout the 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke describe a God who loves us with an equal and endless love. There is first the parable of the lost sheep, then the parable of the lost coin, and, finally, the parable of the prodigal son which ends with the father’s words, “he was lost and has been found.” Each of these three stories portray a God who never quits loving and who loves us all equally and unconditionally.
This well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son is used by Brian McClaren to conclude his book, We Make The Road by Walking. McClaren chose this parable because, like his book, this story is told to provide insight into how different God is from how humans often conceive of God. As McClaren writes, “…the story isn’t only about the identity crises of the sons. It also reveals the true identity of the father, whose heart goes out to both brothers, who graciously loves them even when they don’t know it, and even when they don’t love each other.”
As McClaren suggests, when Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son, his main point is not the waywardness of the son, but the unconditional and unceasing love of the father. When his younger son had left home it was clear that the young man had no any intention of ever returning. He had rudely demanded his inheritance, gathered all his possessions and traveled far from home to a distant country. For the father, it was like his son had died. This is evident in the words he exclaims upon his son’s return, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
Imagine how this rude and rebellious son must have felt when welcomed home by such love! After having disrespected and discarded his father and wasting all his inheritance, he no longer felt worthy to be called a son but had hoped to be treated as one of his father’s hired hands. Yet, as the story puts it, “while he was still far off down the road, his father saw him and was filled with compassion and ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” After having the best robe put on his son and placing a ring of honor on his son’s finger and sandals on his feet, he called for a party of celebration, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And so they began to celebrate.
The love of this father for his son is the same love which God has for each of us. It is a love that never gives up; a love that is truly without end. It is the one love that will forever keep us in its embrace of unconditional forgiveness and heartfelt compassion.
But returning to the story we note that it does not end with the love of the father being poured out upon the younger son. The father’s joyful celebration over the return of this son was interrupted by the elder son’s anger and refusal to join the party. This first-born, responsible son could not understand how his father could express such love for his good-for-nothing younger brother! Why had his father never thrown a party for him?
I’ve seen this same storyline played out time and time again in families whose members I have counseled or served as pastor over the years. While one child was always in trouble, the other was hardworking and responsible. While the parents were always seeking counsel and asking for prayer for their troubled child, they took for granted that the older one would never step out of line. On several occasions I have had conversations with the older child during which they shared with me how painful and upsetting and confusing it was for them to never experience the same attention or feel the same love that they saw extended to their younger sibling.
Similar feelings were shared by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who complained and questioned out loud why Jesus would welcome sinners and even eat meals with them! It was in response to the grumbling of these religious elders that Jesus told the parables recorded in Luke chapter 15. Jesus hoped that they would identify with the elder son in the story and come to understand that the joy that the father expresses upon the return of the younger son in no way diminishes the love that he has for the elder son. As the father pleads with his elder son in the parable, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
I believe many of us here today can empathize with the older, responsible brother in our gospel story. It is not uncommon for those of us who think of ourselves as good, church-going folk to also be good, responsible members of our families and of our community. But whichever brother we might most identify with, the story told by Jesus is meant as an invitation to us all. As McClaren puts it, “If we enter this story and let it do its work on us, we can look out from within it and see ourselves and all creation held in the parental love of God. We can empathize with God, who wants us all to come, all to enjoy the feast, all to discover or rediscover our true identity in God’s family, in God’s love.” He then concludes, “this short parable is one of the best mirrors of humanity ever composed. In it, both the rebellious and the religious can see themselves. But more important, it is one of the best windows into God ever composed, because it shows a gracious and spacious heart that welcomes all to the table.”
And so today, we come to the table of Christ. And it is good and right for us to celebrate a God who welcomes us all with an equal and endless love. At this table we gather as sisters and brothers of one family, a human family created by one God. And we gather as believers in one human destiny as we look forward to gathering with all who have gone before us in faith at that feast of eternal love and joy. Until that day, may we continue to walk together, not in fear, but in faith, sharing both the mystery and light of God’s amazing and unending love. Amen!