preachinga sermon, based on Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32 (see accompanying blog post: Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32 – A Joint Reading), Psalm 32, and 2 Corinthians 5.16-21, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2016

Of all the stories Jesus told, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is one the most well-known, well-liked, and oft-quoted; through generations, inspiring countless painters and poets, preachers and pundits.

Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1669) by Rembrandt  van Rijn, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

There is an inherent risk in reading, rereading a familiar story. Because we know it well, the details and dialogue, the development and denouement, we, long ago forming opinions about its meaning or focusing our attention on our identification with the characters, won’t, almost can’t hear it; thus risking missing something new. Or something old we need to hear anew.

Let us, then, reexamine this parable, this veritable thematic embarrassment of riches, this treasure of trove of life-lessons, this smorgasbord for the soul.

With its simple entrée, “There was a man who had two sons,” I can make a case that the subject is parent-child relationships; this story bearing existential lessons about familial life.

Or, focusing on the younger son, considered prodigal, reckless and wasteful, who asks for his “share of the property that will belong to me,” requesting his inheritance, in effect, wishing his father was dead, then “squandering his property in dissolute living”, this is a fable with a moral about the dangers of greed and ingratitude.

Or, staying with the younger son, who, destitute and, during a country-wide famine, “dying with hunger”, finally “comes to himself”, the lesson is about that sometimes necessity for us to hit rock bottom, the nadir of our existence, below which, striking rock, we can dig no further, before we can climb up and out of the hole we have made of our lives to stand again on terra firma.

Or, looking at the elder son who, unhappy with his brother’s return, angrily answers his father’s plea to join the celebration, “Listen! I have worked like a slave for you, never disobeying you, yet you have given me nothing”, perhaps the lesson is life’s unfairness, that life is capricious and without conscience, for the rules we think are in play and by which we have structured our lives may not be honored in the end.

Or, continuing with the elder son who, rebukes his father, referring to his brother as “this son of yours”, the issue is sibling rivalry, the dysfunction and discord, the envy and enmity that destroy the capacity for mercy; truly a proverbial biblical subject as ancient as Cain and Abel,[1] Esau and Jacob,[2] Joseph and his brothers,[3] and, even older, the legend of Romulus and Remus, the mythological founders of Rome.

Or, putting this parable in its context of religious leaders complaining about Jesus’ association with “tax collectors and sinners”, and reflecting on the preceding parables of the lost sheep, “which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the ninety-nine and go after the lost one until finding it?”,[4] and the lost coin, “who, having ten silver coins and losing one does not search the house until finding it?”,[5] the focus is on the lost son who resolves to “go to my father, and say, ‘I have sinned against heaven and before you.’” This theme of repentance, turning around from the error of one’s ways to walk aright is especially appropriate for Lent.

Or, focusing on the sons and the father, it appears that each is prodigal, reckless, wasteful. The younger son in his avarice and imprudence. The father in his unconditional love that hungers to include, thirsts to forgive, even, especially when there is no reason worth common sense to do so. The elder son in blindly foolishly seeking to do the impossible, trying to earn, deserve the freely given favor of his father’s illimitable love.

Ah, the father, the parabolic image of God, whose nature, whose way of being and doing, love, is the subject, the “something old” to which I referred previously, for God’s love always has been the point of the parable, which, I believe, we need to hear again. Let us listen anew, the key word being “and”, to the parable’s testimony of God’s boundless love.

The father saw his son and filled with compassion (love that shares the suffering of another) ran and put his arms around him (not allowing his repentant son who is prepared to be treated as a slave to bow or kneel before him or to punish him or to demand recompense from him) and kissed him (treating him as an equal)…saying to the servants, “Bring out the finest robe (the father’s robe) and put it on him and put a ring on his finger (the symbol of authority), and sandals on his feet (the sign of sonship) and kill the fatted calf (reserved for the greatest festivals) and let us eat (invite everyone throughout the land) and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again (resurrected); he was lost and is found” (redeemed), and they began to celebrate.

Reveling in this story, the words of the hymn resound in my soul:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;

there’s a kindness in His justice, which is more than liberty.[6]

This is God. This is Love, which is another way of saying the same thing! The “something old,” the forever point of the parable we need hear anew. Why? For much in the world of human experience, the economy and politics of which are rooted in distinction and discrimination based on culture and class, clan and creed, age and gender, race and religion, denies, defies the all-embracing, all-inclusive love of God. And we, steeped in the environment, breathing the daily ether of division inevitably find it hard, perhaps impossible to believe that God loves without condition. So, hear again what our sign outdoors testifies: God loves you! No exceptions!

Epiphany sign, 2-28-16

Now, with our God-given freewill, we still need choose how to respond. As the elder son, refusing to believe kindly favor is free (for what in the world is?). Or as the younger son, returning, rejoicing in being loved and loving, choosing, as the psalmist, to be “happy” for “the Lord imputes no guilt”,[7] choosing, in Christ, as Paul proclaims, to become “a new creation.”[8]

Speaking always and only for myself, I choose to believe, I choose to be as the younger son. Thus the words of the hymn become my personal profession:

For the love of God is broader than the measure of my mind;

and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

If my love were but more faithful, I should take Him at His Word;

and my life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.[9]


Illustration: Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1669) by Rembrandt van Rijn, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


[1] Genesis 4.1-8

[2] Genesis 25.19-27f

[3] Genesis 37f

[4] Luke 15.3-7

[5] Luke 15.8-10

[6] From verse 1 of the hymn, There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, Frederick William Faber (1814-1863).

[7] Psalm 32.2

[8] 2 Corinthians 5.17

[9] There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, verse 3

2 thoughts on “or/and…

  1. Paul,

    Thank you for so eloquently pointing out to us that we can always learn something new from something old. I absolutely love this parable. I have have dreamed many times in my life of this parable in reverse. That I’d be the youngest child and my father would return home and I’d love him for returning and forgive him for leaving in the first place.

    Because that never happened in my life, I see myself instead as the hard working oldest child, helping everyone and feeling bad that the younger child was so foolish, squandering everything. Of course in real life I am the youngest child, who stayed at home.

    What I learned today from reading your sermon is that every time we hear this parable, we are in a different place in our life and thus may feel and respond differently to the parable. I read each part of the reading in your other post today, and let the words wash over me. Today, I’d welcome my brother home with open arms, because in this world of hate and discontent, family is everything. Forgiveness should be swift and love should be unconditional. The world can be a cruel place, so hopefully one place you can give and receive love is at home – even if it took someone years to figure that out.


    • Ah, yes, you as the younger child welcoming your father home! A wonderful hope and a vision. Also I appreciate your awareness/sense of “every time we hear this Lara me…thus may feel and respond differently…” So very true, I believe. For me, as I wrote and preached this sermon, I sought to absorb (accept, believe) God’s love for me, which I can’t earn, hence, I can give up trying to be worthy. At least for a moment I felt myself (and my self!) awash in the wonder of that love. And for that instant, I felt free of pretense. Marvelous!


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