Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 31, 2019)
Luke, chapter 15 is the “lost and found department” of Luke’s Gospel. We hear the stories of the woman who lost her coin, the shepherd who lost his sheep, and now the father who lost his son. All three rejoiced at their find. All three are a response to the Pharisees’ and Scribes’ complaints that Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, outcasts.
No more striking account of God’s understanding and love for the sinner is to be found in the scriptures than in Luke’s story of the forgiving father.
Perhaps, you, like myself as we mature, see these two sons not so much as individuals, but as archetypes, those forces, extremely deep within us, that impel us. With the younger son, it is the will to independence. The younger son says, treat me like the heir that I am: “Father, give me my share of the inheritance that is coming to me.” He wasted it and was penniless – becoming a hired hand who could not even eat the food for the pigs he was tending and yearned to be a hired hand who ate well in his father’s house.
He presumed that the consequence of his sin was the loss of sonship. His memorized apology was based more on his own hunger and hard times than on having insulted his father. Perhaps, we identify more with this son in our younger years. Jesus saw this son’s identity in the sinners and tax collectors.
At first hearing, the elder son resonates with us because of a second archetype deep within us: self-righteousness. As we mature spiritually, we see that the elder son’s attitude is impelled not by love for his father but by: “look at all that I have done for you; I deserve better than this.” However, God does not keep score in his love as we tend to do when we are immature.
Did you notice that our father physically left what he was doing and went out to meet each son? He spotted the younger son down the road. He went to meet him. He did not let him finish his prepared, self-serving apology. He called for a robe and a ring and sandals and preparation for a wonderful banquet of joy. All these gifts clearly imply a relationship of a restored son, not a newly hired hand.
When the elder son was pouting and grousing outside his home, the father also went out to meet him. He did not “chew him out.” He spoke lovingly to him. His movement toward each son was divine grace.
The younger son must have been overwhelmed with his father’s loving forgiveness and finding that he did not have to crawl back, but simply come back to a place he did not even dream of occupying.
We do not know what happened with the elder son, who represents the scribes and Pharisees that accused Jesus. Hardness of heart involves deep pride with heels dug in - an “I’ll do it my way” mind set. These folks, so often, do not change their ways. The story does not reveal its outcome. At this point, Jesus’ story just stops; it does not have an ending.
As we spiritually mature, we finally “get it.” The story follows the Jewish leaders’ upsetment with Jesus’ eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus tells three stories about lost and found and the rejoicing, never rejecting at recovery. The climactic parable could easily be renamed, the greathearted father. Jesus gives us a story of how we should forgive as our father forgives. We remember that when Jesus said, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” it was in the context of the father’s forgiveness, not in our doing everything perfectly. Thinking that we have to do everything perfectly is a spiritual affliction currently known as “perfectionism.”
The church assigns to “Laetare” – rejoice-Sunday in Lent – this likely candidate for the most beloved parable, the story of great rejoicing. He presents for us the model of “the great-hearted father” during our season of self-examination.