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Lectionary Sermons: Lent

The Prodigal Son: A Sermon for Lent Four, Year C

By David Bennett and Jonathan Bennett

Text(s)
Joshua 4:19-24; 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 Luke 15:11-32

Many of us are very familiar with today's scripture reading. It's about the only time many of us even use the word "prodigal" and even then we probably still don't know what it means.  For the record it means, "recklessly extravagant."  In this parable Jesus tells the incredible story of a younger son, the baby, who growing up in the lap of luxury, probably a spoiled rich kid, asks for his inheritance early.   In his youthful recklessness, he thinks he can do anything without consequences.  At first, he lives the high life, probably going to parties with all the right people, eating the best food, and drinking the best wine.   But then a famine occurs and when it does, he also happens to be out of money.  In his desperation, he finds a job feeding pigs, which is dirty and smelly work, quite different from his previous playboy lifestyle. But, being Jewish, it's an even worse shame because pigs were regarded as unclean and good Jews were not even to be around pigs, let alone cleaning up after them.  Not only does he work with unclean animals, he is so hungry he's even envious of the food the pigs are eating.  What a contrast of this man's two lifestyles!

But then the man comes to his senses.   He is his father's son.   Even his father's hired hands, the lowest rung of the ladder in the whole household, have more than enough to eat.   He has to swallow his pride and admit his wrongdoing, but he hopes the love of a father for his son will be enough.   He goes and says, "Dad, I've sinned against God and you!"  To show his true change of heart, he is even willing to become a hired hand in his father's household.  But his dad won't hear of it and instead calls for a celebration.  His son is back who was lost has now been found.   The father would be justified in treating his son as a hired hand, but that father, not out of anything the son has done, but only out of his love welcomes the son back home. But there's still a little unpleasantness.   The older brother, the good guy, is mad.   He doesn't understand how he's done everything right his whole life and yet "when has he ever even had a party?"  The older son has done all the right actions, but has the wrong spirit.  He doesn't understand the repentance of his brother or his father's love.  The son prefers his brother to stay lost and dead, while the father rightly understands that he must rejoice, in spite of the past, because his younger son has new life, he has been found.

It is a classic story and in theory we all love it. I say "in theory" because most of us like it on paper, but if it happened in real life, in our own situations, we might not really like it after all.   We might be inclined to be more judgmental, more resentful.  Too often the Word of God becomes precious or sentimental instead of life changing.   As long as we can keep the stories set in the past with no connection to the future, the stories are "safe."   Here is a story taken from a story by Philip Yancey and Scott Higgins that we have adapted as well.

Jenny grew up on the west side of Chillicothe, Ohio. In her early teenage years she fell into a pattern of long running battles with her parents. They didn't react too well when she came home with a nose ring. They were furious when she stayed out all night without so much as a phone call to tell them where she was. Her friends weren't exactly her parent's first choice.

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One night Jenny and her folks have a huge fight. "I hate you!" she screams at her father as she slams the door to her bedroom. That night she acts on a plan that's been forming for some time. Once everyone has gone to sleep she gets dressed, packs a bag and goes into the kitchen. Opening the kitchen drawer she rifles through her parent's wallets.  She takes the credit cards, the cash, and their bankbook. She hops on the bus and heads to Columbus. When she gets there she waits on the doorstep of the Bank One building so she can be the first through the door. She forges her mother's signature and withdraws $12500 her parents had in her college account. She figures it's hers anyway.  She grabs a cab to the airport and uses Dad's credit card to buy a ticket to LA - she figures the last place her parents will look for her is on the streets of the Sunset Strip.

She arrives in LA and pretty soon she's enjoying the high life - a new group of friends, plenty of booze, late nights, sleep all day, no school, no parent's hassling her about a nose ring, let alone her experiments with sex and drugs. It doesn't take long till the $12500's gone and the credit cards have been canceled.

Back home her parent's are frantic. Mom had to start packing shelves at night to pay off the credit card debt, and the college fund is wiped out.  The police are notified, the streets are searched. Her parents don't know what's happened. They fear the worst.

Meanwhile down on the streets of Sunset Strip things aren't going too well. Jenny's soon addicted to heroin and the money she stole doesn't go too far. She moves in with a group of other women, and at the suggestion of another girl, becomes a prostitute.

One day she's walking down the street and sees a poster on the telephone pole. It says: "Have you seen this girl?" Below the heading is a photo of her - at least as she used to look. The poster's got her parent's phone number on it, and asks for anyone with information to call. Jenny rips the poster down, folds it up and puts it into her pocket.

The months pass, then the years. Jenny's been careless one time too many. At first she writes off her sickness as just another bout of flu. But the illness persists. She goes to the free clinic to discover she's contracted Hepatitis C and HIV.  Now, her superiors won't even let her be a prostitute anymore.

As she sits lonely, tired and hungry, and homeless, she looks at the poster she'd rescued from that telegraph pole and saved for the last few years. She thinks back to her previous life - as a typical schoolgirl in a rural Ohio family.  "God, why did I leave?" she says to herself. "Even the family cat lives a better life than I do." She's sobbing now, and knows that more than anything she wants to go home.

Three straight phone calls, three connections with the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, "Mom, dad, it's me. I was wondering about maybe coming home.  I'll pay you rent.  It's just until I can't get back on my feet.  I'm catching a bus to Columbus. I'll downtown at the station about midnight tomorrow. If you're not there, well I guess I'll just get another bus to New York."

The next day on the train Jenny thinks about the call, it's been 10 years and they haven't heard a word from her in all that time. How are they going to react when they discover I'm a junkie with AIDS? If they do show up what on earth am I going to say?"

The train pulls into the greyhound station at ten minutes past midnight. She hears the hiss of the brakes as the train comes to a stop. Her heart starts pounding. "This is it. Oh well, get ready for nothing."

Jenny steps out of the train not knowing what to expect. She looks to her right and sees an empty platform, but before she can look back she hears someone call her name. Her head whips around and there's her mom and dad and her aunts and uncles and cousins and grandmother. They're holding a banner that reads "Welcome home," and everyone's wearing goofy party hats and throwing streamers and popping party poppers, and there's her mom and dad running towards her, tears streaming down their face, arms held wide. Jenny can't move. Her parent's grab her with such force it almost knocks her over.

"Dad, I'm sorry. I know..."

"Hush child. Forget the apologies. All we care about is that you're home. I just want to hold you. Come on, everyone's waiting - we've got a big party organized at home."  The only one missing is her older sister, Meg. The one who warned her parents about Jenny, who always told Jenny she was going down the wrong path.  People like Jenny are the reason the world is messed up, Meg would say, if only everyone was more like...well...Meg, the world would be a better place.  And now, her parent's, instead of reacting with anger and resentment, throw a party for Jenny!   Meg hadn't had a party in years and believe me she had asked permission to have one on many occasions.

You see, most of us here are more like the older son in Jesus' story and Meg in the modern update than any other characters. We (for the most part) have our lives together. We are not out partying every night until 3:00 AM or walking the streets of Los Angeles. We are working or are actively looking for work; we devote our time to family responsibilities. And just like the older son and Meg, we want credit for it. We haven't been out squandering our wealth on parties and prostitutes; we haven't been so hungry because of our wastefulness that we wanted to eat what the pigs were eating.  We haven't been like "those people" who are ruining society. So in reward for our good and clean living, we think we deserve a little better treatment, especially in the church and in society.

And as for the younger son and Jenny, our natural reaction is "give them what's coming to them!" We all know those rebellious sons children. We know the type; they could be relatives, friends, neighbors, coworkers, students. When they do something very dumb and reckless, even if we support them publicly and to their face, we secretly hope they get their just desserts. We privately don't want them to repent and be restored, but rather, we like to see them lie in the bed that they made. We too get great joy in seeing others punished for their acts, especially when we are nice, respectable, and good people by most standards.  So, the lesson for most of Jesus' readers would probably not have been about repentance from a reckless lifestyle (although that was a part of it), but rather God's love for those who repent and turn to him and how we, as "older brothers" should react to and act towards those who do repent.

The lesson however is not that reckless acts go unpunished.  Nor is it a justification for someone to get out of the consequences of a sinful, reckless, or dangerous lifestyle.  After all, even in Jesus' story, the younger son didn't get off the hook. He had to reach rock bottom or the process of repentance probably never would've even started.  Meg also had to get AIDS before she realized the sinfulness of her lifestyle.   And she will be dealing with the consequences of her behavior for the rest of her probably much shortened life.  Had either been "bailed out" each would never have sought to make amends.  Both knew they were flat on their back and were willing to throw themselves at the mercy of their fathers, even thought it meant the recognition that they had sinned.  The father and Jenny's parents welcomed the children with open arms. The older siblings, however, the ones who did everything right their whole lives, just weren't able to get what was going on.   They didn't understand "grace," which is unmerited favor.  Grace is something we don't deserve, yet receive anyway.  It's a free gift.

The lesson is that when someone comes to us, individually and as a church, ready to repent and make amends for their wrong, we should be ready to forgive them and restore them. We should do this even when we know we were right along! The reason? God does the same thing for us when we repent to Him. If we come to God ready to repent, He doesn't say, "well I would give you eternal life, but you need to lie in your bed that you made for awhile. Come back to me in a year or two after you get it all together." We should use God as our own example, and since he is so ready to forgive us, we should be willing as well. Thus, as Christians we are called to forgive those who repent, i.e. those who admit that they have done wrong and seek to make amends.

You might be saying, I know what asking forgiveness is about, but what about making amends, is that even in the story? Yes it is, at least the willingness to. The younger son offered to make amends; he was willing to work for his father as a hired hand to prove he was repentant.   Jenny offered to be treated as a boarder.  Both recognized, based on their actions, they had no right whatsoever to be called children of their parents.  But their parents thought otherwise.

The same is true with us and our relationship with God.  As sinners, we have no right to be called God's children.  Considering God's holiness and perfection, we have no right to even be called his boarders or hired hands.  Yet, like the fathers in the story, God, when we repent of our sins welcomes us into his family as his children.  Paul writes that we are adopted children of God, joint heirs through Christ. We don't deserve to be God's children and we can never earn it, even by being good, respectable people.  We can never be children of God except by God's grace.   The prodigal son understood this, Jenny understood this, but the older siblings didn't. That was their error: they saw no need for grace.   They didn't recognize that they too had received the free gift of love from their parents and thus couldn't rejoice when it was given to another.

Too often the church as whole and we as Christians fall into this trap.  We are too much like Meg and the older brother and not like the loving Father.   We too are only where we are now because of God's grace.  We have been shown such love and grace, that even while we were still sinners Christ died for us.   And we still sin and think of all the punishment we deserve from God and yet God is merciful to us!   We should show the same mercy to others and show them the same grace that God shows to us.  That doesn't mean we can't speak of right and wrong or that there are no consequences.  But it does mean we must show others the same measure of love, grace, and forgiveness that our heavenly Father shows us.

This parable is so rich that it is challenging us to quite a lot, and offering just as much hope as it does challenge. So if we take away any concepts from this parable it should be these.   First, God is infinitely merciful. God is the Father in the parable. He is always there to take us back after even the longest periods of recklessness. Second, we must repent and make amends before we can be forgiven and restored to our former honor. Third, we must imitate God and be willing to forgive and forget the past sins of our friends, family, and co-workers, and all that we come across. Yes, forgive AND forget. Because if we forgive someone his sins and yet always lord his wrongdoings over him, we have not restored him to his former position, but are rather keeping him as a slave. Fourth, and I saved this for last because it affects us here the most...we must be willing to rejoice when someone lost is found, even though we feel cheated because nobody has rejoiced for us who have been found all along. But this is the kingdom of God we are talking about, not a human kingdom. In the human kingdom we rejoice when people get their just desserts, but in the kingdom of God, God rejoices when even one lost person is found, and we as Christians rejoice with him. Amen

This sermon was delivered by David Bennett on March 21, 2004. He has since become Catholic.

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