There is probably no parable more important than the one we just heard, the story of two sons and their father. The story invites us to accept forgiveness. It also invites us to extend forgiveness.
First, let us consider how we are invited to accept forgiveness.
A man with two sons is rejected by each of them in turn, and he forgives each son in turn.
The younger son takes his turn first. He leaves home in disgrace. You see, one day he up and asks his father for his share of the inheritance. Now an inheritance normally comes after somebody has died. So this younger son sees his father as dead already. Strangely enough, the father goes ahead and gives the son his proper share, which consists of large tracts of land. This land is supposed to remain in the family, but the boy sells it as fast as he can, with no reluctance.
These goings-on do not remain a secret. People who hear about them are scandalized. They find the son’s behavior utterly disgraceful and the father’s acquiescence utterly inexplicable. The old man must be losing his marbles. The neighbors think so, as do the servants. The elder son remains silent, but inside is aflame with rage.
The younger son takes his money and flees. He puts countless miles between himself and his family. In a distant land, he goes through his money quickly, living a disgraceful life. He runs out of money, a famine strikes the countryside, and this one-time spoiled rich kid finds himself working as the lowliest of farm hands, slopping the hogs. Carob pods are what these pigs eat, and the boy is hungry enough to want to chomp down a few himself.
Remember that when Jesus tells this story, he is talking to a Jewish audience. Jews avoid any association with pigs, and here Rabbi Jesus talks about a wayward young man who is reduced to serving pigs, bringing them their dinner, enduring the way they butt and shove him!
Finally a light goes on in this young man’s mind. He’s figured a way out of the pigpen. He’ll go back to the family farm. It won’t be home any more, but he’ll get a job there, and he won’t be close to starving as he is now.
This realization is not true repentance. It is calculation, problem-solving. Going back from where he came from will mean a full stomach. There’s no clue yet that he’s concerned about his hungry heart.
So off the boy goes, crafting a smooth speech as he walks along. He manipulated his father once; perhaps he can do so again.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, the father has been keeping an eye on the horizon. He has been doing so since the day the boy left. But now he sees a tiny figure that looks familiar. It’s his son!
What matters to the old man is that his boy is back. Why he’s back, what his motives may be simply doesn’t enter the father’s mind. And so he does something that an old man in his society—or ours, for that matter—is unlikely to do. Hr runs down the driveway in the direction of his son. His heart doctor would not approve, but run is what he does. The fleet, portly figure catches the attention of some of the servants, and surprised, they run after him.
The old man is close to tears. He grabs the boy in a bear hug and plans a sloppy wet kiss on his cheek. The son doesn’t get chance to complete his smooth speech.
The father yells to one servant for the best suit in the closet, shiny black dress shoes, and a ring so flashy it would put a Mafioso to shame.
He tells another servant to slaughter and prepare the calf they’ve been fattening. The welcome home dinner will not be some small family affair, a father and mother and their two sons. Instead, it will be a party for the whole town, the whole world. Roast the calf, but don’t expect to have leftovers. This dinner will draw a cast of thousands!
Can you see it now? Such hustling in the kitchen! Out come the best china, the linen table cloths, the vintage champagne. Breathless invitations go forth to one and all and then some. A combo is hastily organized and the rugs rolled up to clear the floor. The boss has demanded a party, and a party he shall have! Soon the house rocks with music and dancing.
Other than his cross and resurrection, Jesus has no more overt way than this to tell us we are forgiven when we play the part of the younger son. When our behavior is scandalous and our repentance less than perfect, there still is this mighty welcome home. Our sin is never greater than divine love.
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But sometimes our poisonous behavior does not resemble what the younger son does. Sometimes we defect in place. We look righteous, act righteous, feel righteous. But inside, our heart is a cesspool of resentment. We hate anybody who seems to get away with anything. We hate the father who shows concern and compassion for them. In such a case, we do not travel, yet end up in a place of profound alienation.
Such is the case with the older son in the parable. He’s hard working, responsible, uptight, but he’s also bitter and spiteful. His soul is dry and hard.
Having worked longer than anybody else that day, he finally comes in from the fields. The house is alive with music and the sound of people dancing, and he doesn’t know why. He finds out from a servant: “Your brother’s back, and your father’s putting on the party of the century to welcome him home. Hurry on in, while there’s still something left from the calf we roasted!”
The older brother looks like a boiler about to explode. His father hears about this, runs outside, and though not accustomed to pleading, pleads for him to come in. The older son lets loose. “Listen!” he screams disrespectfully, “I’ve worked like a slave for you, and you’ve never had me throw a little party for my friends. But when this son of yours comes back, after blowing his money on prostitutes, you give him the party to end all parties!”
The father remains the model of a non-anxious presence. “My boy,” he responds affectionately, “you’re always with me. Everything I have left belongs to you. But your dead brother is back. Your lost brother has turned up safe and sound. It’s right to celebrate and rejoice. Come in and join the party!”
Other than the cross and resurrection, Jesus has no more overt way to tell us that when we take the older son’s part, we are forgiven. When our heart turns cold as ice, when our eye looks hard with judgment, when we withdraw because mercy disgusts us, still we are invited back into the house. Our highhandedness cannot outreach divine mercy.
A great question then, this Lent and always, is not whether God forgives, but whether we accept forgiveness. There’s something in each of us of both the older son and the younger son, and the father chases after both, insistent that both should come to the feast of forgiveness.
So this story invites us to accept forgiveness when we tend toward indulgence, arrogance, or both. But as I said at the start, this story also invites us to extend forgiveness. Not only does the father set us free form our entrapment in sin, but he offers us an example we can follow of what it means to forgive, and thus he reveals a deep dimension of how to be Christian, how to be human.
A great question then, this Lent and always, is whether we will not simply accept forgiveness, but extend it to others. We find ourselves in the younger son or the older one or both of them together. We can also find our role to be that of the father. Women and men, we are called to the exercise of this ministry. It belongs to our vocation.
Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son is an extended reflection on a splendid Rembrandt painting that depicts the father welcoming back his younger son. In the epilogue of this book, Nouwen writes: “Rembrandt portrays the father as the man who has transcended the ways of his children. His own loneliness and anger may have been there, but they have been transformed by suffering and tears. His loneliness has become endless solitude, his anger boundless gratitude. This is who I have to become. I see it as clearly as I see the immense beauty of the father’s emptiness and compassion. Can I let the younger and the elder son grow in me to the maturity of the compassionate father?” [Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons (Doubleday, 1992), p. 129.]
It is disconcerting to find in ourselves the younger son, the older son, each in desperate need of the new life that comes with his father’s mercy.
—That mercy bears fruit when we accept forgiveness of ourselves.
—That mercy bears fruit when we forgive others as we have been forgiven, when we welcome others as we have been welcomed.
How then do we change? We are made to feel at home at a party that lives through eternity, an event so great we don’t want to miss it and we don’t want anyone else to miss it either. And so we walk through the door of forgiveness.
—Copyright for this sermon 2007, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).