LENT 4C March 21, 2004
Outrageous! by Linda Kraft
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 I have a confession to make. Not a big one, but I must make it just the same. You see, when I first read the appointed lessons for today, I wasn’t really very excited about them. In fact, I must admit, my attitude was more like, "Ho-hum. This story again. Maybe there’s a nugget in the Old Testament Lesson or the Second Lesson I can draw out into a sermon of acceptable length." You see, this story of the prodigal is SO well known, I kinda figured I knew what it was all about and so do you, so I’d probably end up doing a presentation that would allow y’all to catch a few winks and then we’d just go through the motions of the rest of the service. Isn’t that a terrible attitude for a pastor to have!? BUT, it turns out that I was WRONG! There is a LOT here that I’ve never really explored. And, I hope you’ll agree, there’s a fresh approach to this old old story that’s surprising and invigorating and refreshing and even scandalous and outrageous! When I first reviewed the gospel for today, I got caught up in old expectations. Here is a story I’ve heard at least a hundred times before. I thought I knew what to expect from it. I thought I knew what it was all about. So, without any real hope or expectations, I started looking for clues about the story’s importance. I checked out some of the words in Greek to see if there was something I’d overlooked there. Nothing new, just as I’d thought. I checked to see where this story comes in the context of Luke’s gospel, and I found a little bit of a connection to build on there. Luke places this parable of the prodigal right after two other lost and found stories: the lost sheep and the lost coin. In the two other stories, I think it’s safe to say, the sheep and the coin can’t be held responsible for getting lost. Still, they ARE searched for and everyone rejoices when they’re found. I started to think maybe today’s lesson about the prodigal was meant as a contrast to those two stories. Maybe it’s meant as a lesson about maturity. After all, coins have no choice on where they land or don’t land. Sheep are led by their stomachs. But, human beings make decisions. There are consequences for OUR actions. To choose against our parent, God, to choose a foreign land, to choose another home than the one God has provided for us, to make a deliberate decision not to follow God’s way... Maybe there was something there I could build a sermon on. Still, it didn’t feel right. It felt like it’d all been said before. There was, after all, nothing new there. Yup — nap time. So, I started looking for different kinds of connections. I looked at what it might mean to be found. I remember a bumper sticker from the 70’s and 80’s that followed around a lot of cars. It said: "I found it." I always wondered what it was that was found. I heard someone explain one day that the bumper sticker meant the car’s owner had found God. Well, *I* didn’t know God was lost! In the story of the lost coin a lamp is lighted so the woman can search for the coin. The shepherd searches for the sheep and it’s restored to the community. Some preachers would say that the prodigal son makes a personal decision and is restored to the father. THAT is not really the case! Yes, he comes to his senses and decides to return, but only when faced with crisis and starvation. In fact, he doesn’t really expect to be restored to his position of "son". He hopes he MIGHT be treated like a household servant and at least make enough to ward off starvation. Not too good a prospect. No, I don’t think this story is about us finding God, but about God finding us. About the joy God feels when we come home. There’s some good stuff to think about on that level. I mean, just picture what happened all those many years ago. Here we have a report of total outrageousness — from beginning to end! Ask anyone in the Middle East today about this story of the prodigal being based in truth and they’ll tell you: it just couldn’t be true! It’s totally unbelievable!
  • Kenneth Bailey, who has lived there for forty years and has studied the peasant culture in that part of the world actually went around asking people what they thought of our gospel lesson for today. He told them about the younger son’s request for his portion of the inheritance and then asked: "Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?" "Never!" "Could anyone ever make such a request?" "Impossible!" "If anyone ever did, what would happen?" "His father would beat him, of course!" "Why?" "This request means — he wants his father to die!"
No tradition in the Middle East promotes the idea that an heir should get a share of the inheritance while the parent is still living. It’s like saying: "I can NOT wait for you to die!" The father in this parable would be expected to explode and discipline the boy for his cruel, unthinkable request. Even before the younger son runs off and squanders his money, to Jesus’ hearers the request itself would have been unthinkable. Then there are the other surprising and even scandalous events: What good Jewish boy would get anywhere near pigs? And the way he spent his inheritance? Family property lost to Gentiles was a serious matter — a violation of the whole Jewish community. When the prodigal comes home, the village would know what he’d done and would probably want to take him out to the edge of town and stone him! On top of it all, we have the younger son himself. Time after time I’ve heard him celebrated as turning his whole life around, getting himself back on the straight and narrow path — "coming to his senses" is how Luke puts it. And, we usually applaud his repentance and his restoration to the family. BUT, looking at this account a little more closely, we can see that this guy hasn’t changed AT ALL! He’s still playing the angles. He sits there in the pig sty, his belly grumbling with hunger, his failed attempts to make it on his own weighing heavily on his mind, and he comes up with a shrewd, face-saving idea. He’ll go home, hat in his hand, make an apology and play on his father’s sympathy. He thinks, "I can never hope to get back what I’ve lost, but at least I won’t starve. I’ll hire on as a servant on my father’s estate." Well, he’s not risking much. He’ll still be a free man, not a slave. He’ ll be able to make enough in wages to live on his own in the village, and maybe even be able to pay back what he "borrowed" from his father. Sure, his neighbors won’t let him forget what he’s done. They’ll mock him and ridicule him. But, that’s a small price to pay. He’s going to go home, where he won’t starve. He won’t ask for grace. He thinks he’s got it all figured out. So much for the son. But, then, we get to the REALLY outrageous part. Imagine this: One of the richest, most respected elderly men in town is suspected of being a little eccentric. After all, his neighbors already know he sits out on his porch each day waiting for that disrespectful wastrel of a son to return home. Oh, the tongues have been wagging alright! What could he be thinking of, giving his fortune away like that in the first place! Then, the neighbors’ suspicions are confirmed when one day they see him jump up out of his chair, pick up his robes and begin to run! How undignified! He runs and runs and throws his arms around some dirty, disheveled traveler who stinks of pigs! The man must be crazy! But, the old man is crazy like ... well, kinda like God! Great men never run in public! But, the Bible says, the father "had compassion." He ran the gauntlet for his beloved child. He put himself up for public humiliation. He ran to meet his son and kissed him on both cheeks right there in public! By his loving actions we can see the lost money and the son’s questionable lifestyle are not what matters to this loving father. The relationship that had been broken is now restored. The family is on its way to wholeness once again. Kill the fatted calf! Let’s party! Bring out the best robe! Put shoes on his feet! Restore my son to his rightful place! He was lost, but now he’s found! Outrageous! So why are we uncomfortable with this story? Most of us look at this story of forgiveness and reconciliation as if we were the older son. Like the older son, we resent the fact that the old man seems to forget all about the humiliation, the separation, the wasteful behavior of the forgiven one. We want to nurse that grudge and feel justified in our pouting. After all, you and I are here today, as usual, in the right place, doing the right thing, being the respectable honorable older sons — almost each and every one of us. At least that’s how it might seem right this minute. "When Jesus tells this story, Jesus is offering an image of himself as he makes his way to Jerusalem. Jesus will face what the prodigal deserves. Jesus will be met on the edge of town by a mob. Jesus will be mocked and beaten. Herod will put an elegant robe on him and send him back to Pilate. Jesus will be ultimately humiliated by death on a cross, but he will die saying, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’" Outrageous! You see, you and I are not the older son at all. You and I ARE the younger son. Each and every day we waste our inheritance and forget to give thanks. But, in love, God comes running to meet us, robes us in forgiveness, puts the shoes of righteousness on our feet and a ring filled with hope on our finger. You and I are the younger sons whose inheritance has been restored. Each of us is God’s own beloved child. Let the village say what it will. God’s love is outrageous. And, it’s ours. Amen
  1. Kenneth Bailey, Poet & Peasant & Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables of Luke. Eerdman’s, 1983.
  2. Agnes W. Norfleet, Abingdon Women’s Preaching Series. Ed. Janet Childers.
  3. Ibid., p. 69.
Let us pray for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus, for all people according to their needs. Gracious Lord God, you provide for our every need – spiritually as well as bodily. Your generosity offers us new life in so many ways. Help us to be generous, as well, sharing from our many gifts with those who are in need. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. (Josh 5:9-12) Loving Lord God, we rejoice that we can lift our voices in prayer during any time of distress. Today we pray for all those who live in fear. Wherever health, violence, abandonment or addiction cause any of your children to fear, Lord be with them. Be their hiding place; preserve them from trouble; surround them with glad cries of deliverance. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. (Ps 32) Creative Lord God, in your mercy you make all things new. You reconcile us to yourself through Christ and encourage us to start over with a clean slate. Send us out as ambassadors for Christ so that all the world may know your forgiveness and embrace its opportunity to begin again in love. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. (2 Cor 5:16-21) Healing Lord, you rejoice in the wholeness of each of your children, especially when we return from illness to health. Be with these friends and loved ones who need your healing touch... Are there others we should include in our prayers? Embrace them with your love, robe them with courage and surround them with hope. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32) Into your hands, O Lord, we commend all for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy; through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Comments to Linda at Linda_Kraft@Ecunet.org.)

Linda Kraft, Pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Trumbull, CT