SJF • Lent 4c 2010 • a sermon by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The son came to himself and said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!”
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the great, memorable passages of the Gospel, familiar even to many who may never crack the pages of a Bible — it was even made into a ballet with music by Prokofiev, first performed in Paris by the Ballet Russe in 1929, and at the New York City Ballet many times since!
But in spite of how familiar it is, this parable still bears our close attention, as our familiarity can cause us to miss details revealed by taking more time with it.
We’ve just heard it, so I won’t repeat the story. But I want to remind you of where it comes in the Gospel of Luke. This will help us to understand who Jesus is speaking to, and what he is getting at, why he told the parable, and what he means by it.
The fifteenth chapter of Luke begins with Jesus teaching and preaching, and tax collectors and sinners are gathering round eagerly to hear him, like people starving and thirsting for a gracious and generous word. The Pharisees and scribes, with their focus on salvation through personal propriety and righteous observance of the law, grumble among themselves and tsk-tsk that “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In response to these clucking tongues, Jesus launches into a series of three parables — all three of them dealing with recovery of something that has been lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. All three accounts end with a celebration — though in the parable of the lost son, the most elaborate and detailed of the three, the celebration comes in the middle.
For though the celebration begins shortly after the prodigal son’s return, and the recovery of “the lost,” that isn’t the end of the story. There is an additional character, mentioned only in passing at the beginning of the tale, but making his full appearance at the end: the angry elder son. He complains about the celebration, and the manner of his complaint suggests he’s stored up quite a few resentments about how he feels he’s been treated by his father. And yet, the father assures him that he loves him as well, and that his inheritance is secure — but that they must celebrate and rejoice at the repentance and return of the younger son, rather than grumbling about it.
Now, given the placement of this parable in the gospel, and those to whom it was told, and why, it is abundantly clear that Jesus intends the younger son to represent the sinners who have turned their lives around and come to hear his preaching, and the older son to represent the scribes and Pharisees themselves, with their grumbling complaint about the “sinners” being paid any mind at all, including Jesus eating with them.
This is perhaps the gentlest rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees in the whole Gospel — certainly unlike the strong condemnations with which Jesus greeted them a few chapters earlier. Here the parable presents even the Pharisees with some Good News, assuring them that they too are “always with the Father,” and that “all that is his is theirs.” Perhaps this is Jesus’ last effort to reach out to them, to get them to see that they do not need to occupy themselves with judgment of those they deem unworthy, they need not be lost in their own self-righteous anger but can break free of it and find their way home, and come to join the celebration, rejoicing in the breadth of salvation, in which all who are lost are ultimately found!
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That is an important lesson in itself. However, I’d like to note one more thing about this parable. We tend to romanticize the younger son — even if we don’t make his story into a ballet! We tend to see him as a figure of heartfelt sorrow and repentance. But look closely at the text and I think you’ll see instead something more like calculation than sorrow, even if it leads him to change his mind and come back home. He’s spent all his money, taken the lowest job you could imagine for a Jew — feeding pigs! — and realizes what a mistake he’s made, comparing himself to the hired hands back home and seeing how miserable he is. He is sorry — but mostly because of the mess he’s in, sorry about his own discomfort more than for the pain he caused his father, more sorry for the consequences of his action than for the act itself.
So he makes an entirely pragmatic and practical decision to go back home — motivated not so much by love for his father, as by hunger in his belly. He makes a quick calculation that he couldn’t be any worse off as a hired hand, so it’s well worth taking the chance of returning home.
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The thought of calculation reminds me of another young man’s story — a real one this time, but with a similar theme. Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French scientist and philosopher, famous among other things for inventing one of the earliest mechanical adding machines before he was twenty years old. He is also known for his having undergone a religious conversion and for his adherence to a strict sect of very pious Roman Catholicism.
Now, as you know, it is not common for scientists to be fervently faithful or embarrassingly pious, so it is no surprise to find that in addition to his fervor and mysticism there is also a more calculating and rationalistic side to Pascal’s faith. He knew as a scientist that he could not prove that God exists, but as one of the originators of probability theory, he had to admit that God might exist. And so, in what came to be called “Pascal’s Wager” he calculated that if God exists, it is wisest to win eternal life by placing your bets on God — for, if God doesn’t exist, you’ve lost nothing, but if God does exist you stand to win everything! It’s a compelling notion, and it has held up well for over 300 years. A modern form of this wager is the comment of a believer to an atheist: “If I am wrong about God and life after death, I will never know; but if you are wrong, you will!”
There is a similar kind of calculation in the younger son in our parable. “Better take a chance on my father welcoming me back, rather than starve to death for certain, here.” But you can also hear the wheels clicking in the mind of the older brother, too — though to a different calculation: not the younger brother’s “it can’t get any worse so what the hey, let me go home”; but the colder calculation of the older brother’s carefully tabulated column of resentments — “Working like a slave for years, never disobedient, never got so much as a goat to have a party with my friends...” I can picture him, red-faced and angry, perhaps about to burst into tears. How long has this good obedient son been holding in this catalogue of resentments and injuries? Storing up all the debt he things the father hasn’t paid him?
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And perhaps that touches something in the father, too. But it is not simply a response to the calculus of resentment, any more than his response to the younger son was based on a calculus of repentance. This isn’t about calculus, or logic, or anything like that. It is about love.
The father doesn’t love the younger son because he repents, or the older son because he remains loyal, but because they are his sons. It is not about calculation: either the calculation of a gamble that you might be forgiven, or the calculation that if you tote up enough obedience and loyalty you will get a rich reward. Like the generous employer who gave the workers in the vineyard the same wage regardless of how long or short their work-shift, the generous father in this parable loves his sons not on the basis of what they’ve done or failed to do, but because they are his children. It is not about calculation, but relationship; not about logic, but love.
This, ultimately, is the message Jesus wanted to get across to those scribes and Pharisees, the message the tax-collectors and sinners had already understood, the message that the God of Love intends for us. God’s love is not based upon what we do or fail to do; God’s love is not something we earn by being good or lose by being bad. God’s love is a gift that came to us, reconciling us and the whole world to God, even while we were yet sinners — not counting our trespasses but forgiving them, wiping the slate clean and cancelling the debt, hitting the delete key on the whole spreadsheet of human sinfulness.
Christ did not save us because we were good, or because we repented, but because we needed saving and he loved us so much that nothing could stop him from saving us, even at the cost of his own life, by which he showed us the greatest love.
This is how the lost are found, how the dead are restored to life; this is how new life begins, how new creation starts, and this is why we celebrate — as we must — and keep the feast, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+