Fourth Sunday in Lent
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
You’ll notice I’ve skipped the first three Sundays in Lent. That’s because the first two Sundays were built around discussions that don’t translate well to a blog post, and when I went to open my sermon for the third Sunday to transfer it to a blog post I found that the file had been corrupted and was unable to be opened. Sorry!
A constant theme during Lent was the idea of the “script” we all follow that dictates how we are to be good human beings, good American citizens, and good American Christians. It’s ingrained in us, a deeply foundational part of us. Lent was all about challenging that script.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Usually when I tell a story involving myself, it’s to make fun of my own mistakes or carelessness. While I don’t always react well when others make fun of me, I’m happy to make fun of myself to prove a point.
But today, I want to tell you a story of a time when I was irresponsible. And it wasn’t a disaster.
In February of 2008, my liberation theology class at Capital University and a group of nursing students took a trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was to be a service learning trip; the nursing students were going down to provide free medical services, and we were going to be helping a village put in a road. As it turned out, the trucks carrying the road supplies never arrived and we had to put together another project on the spot, but that’s neither here nor there.
Though it was a service learning trip, there was a fair bit of sightseeing to be done, too. In our trek through Costa Rica, we stopped at the river that separates Costa Rica and the country of Panama. We took some time to relax, to play in the water, and to enjoy the cool shade of the trees around us.
Some in our group discovered a homemade bamboo raft on the shore, which they hopped on and rode about. It was all in good fun, and I even got a few pictures. As we were getting ready to leave, though, I noticed the raft now floating downriver, a good 50 yards or more from our group. I asked some of our group about it, and they just kinda shrugged their shoulders. So I handed one of them my camera and bag, said, “Hold these,” and still in my bare feet from being in the river, I took off at a sprint down the rocky shore.
It probably took anywhere from 5-10 minutes of sprinting down the river to finally catch up with the raft, and I got back into the water to grab it. Then, with feet hurting from all the rocks, I walked the raft back upriver. It occurred to me as I walked that I hadn’t told any of our professors that I was taking off. I started to get worried that I’d made a terrible mistake and that the group would be gone, leaving me stranded in a foreign country without any identification or way to contact anyone I knew.
Thankfully, when I got back to where our group had rested they were all still there waiting for me. I made sure the raft was back on the shore and secure, got my stuff from the classmate who’d been holding it (and who’d taken a few pictures when I dashed off down the shore), and took a few minutes to catch my breath and drink some water. All in all, I delayed the group about a half hour or so because I took off on my own. To this day, it’s still one of the most irresponsible things I’ve done.
Responsibility is a huge theme in our culture. It’s an essential part of the script we’re given. Everyone is responsible for his or her own actions, choices, and life. Our choices have direct consequences for good or for ill. Everything good in our lives is a result of our good choices. And everything bad in our lives is the result of our bad choices. No one is responsible for us except us.
Which brings me to the story of the prodigal son, one of the most well-known parables spoken by Jesus. It’s a story that most Christians know. But how well do we really know it?
At our synod’s lay school for mission in Minocqua, a colleague of mine has been teaching the students about spiritual practices and prayer. Two of these practices, examen and lexio divina, involve sitting with the text, reading it over and over again, getting deeper and deeper into it until the Spirit moves the reader. I witnessed her doing this with the students, and at the end, more than one of them said that they heard things in the text that they never noticed or heard before. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of always hearing the same thing over and over in a Biblical text.
We do this with the parable of the prodigal son, don’t we? Here is how I usually hear the story explained: it’s the story of an irresponsible son who takes his share of the inheritance of his father before his father is even dead. Then, he goes off and blows it all on partying until he’s in such dire poverty that he decides he’s going to suck it up like a man and go back, apologize to his father, and ask to be allowed to be a menial worker. And the father, so joyous at having his son back, throws a party which the elder, responsible son will have no part of. The lesson, of course, is that God loves us and wants us to choose to come home.
There are a lot of assumptions in that story that fit into our script of responsibility. The son is wholly responsible for what happens to him. He makes the choice to demand his share of his inheritance and leave home. He chooses to blow it all. He chooses to take a job feeding pigs. And he chooses to own up to his mistakes and go back home.
Similarly the elder son, the responsible son, is right in his anger. We want to empathize with him even as we chastise him for his complaints because secretly, we agree with him. He’s made all the right choices and hasn’t gotten any recognition. This isn’t just a participation trophy he wants. Up until now, he doesn’t seem to have cared that he hasn’t received any recognition. But if the irresponsible son is going to be celebrated, surely the responsible one should be celebrated, right?
There are many assumption in this story and the way we approach it. But let me try an experiment, an experiment I’m sure I’ve tried before, but it bears repeating. If you’ve heard me tell this story before, shush, good stories always bear repeating.
I’ll begin with a question: there’s a part in the story where the younger son goes hungry and doesn’t have any food to eat. Why is he hungry?
One of my professors at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Dr. Mark Allan Powell, tells this story. He once asked that very same question to different groups of students from different countries. He was surprised by the answers he got.
The American students answered following the script we all follow: the younger son was hungry and had no food because he squandered his inheritance by partying and blowing all his cash. He was responsible for his choices and he screwed it up.
But when Dr. Powell posed the same question to Russian students, they said that the younger son was hungry because, as the text says, there was a famine in the land: a shortage of food. So with so little food to go around, of course the younger brother was hungry.
When Dr. Powell posed the same question to African students, they concluded that the younger son went hungry because, as the text says, no one gave him anything to eat. So when they saw that he was hungry, they neglected their duty to see that he was fed.
It’s important that every time we encounter a text of any kind, we don’t make any assumption that we know everything about it. We learn stories by rote and rarely challenge the meanings we’ve been given.
That goes for other texts and scripts in life. During this season of Lent, I’ve asked you to look at the “scripts” you’ve been given, by which I mean the ways in which you are expect to think, speak, and act; and the ways in which the world tells you things are supposed to work. Our assumptions about the responsibility of the younger brother fit right into that script, which tells us that he acted irresponsibly and got what was coming to him when he found himself all alone and hungry.
But it’s not his irresponsibility I want to confront this morning. There’s another character who acts completely and totally irresponsibly: the father.
I know, we’re used to seeing the father as the pillar of righteousness in the story, the one to look up to, the one who shows the highest love and forgiveness, just like God would, in the face of what his youngest son has done.
But what kind of responsible father would outright give his son his inheritance before he is gone? What responsible father would be waiting on the road day after day for his deadbeat son to return without any actual knowledge that his son is coming back? What responsible father would not only accept this reject of a son back, but throw him a massive party? What responsible father wouldn’t at least consider that his son was only coming back to rip him off again, to play off his gullibility?
No, far from being a figure to be admired and praised, our script says that this father is acting in the worst ways, enabling his younger son and alienating his good, responsible one. He’s the kind of father we’d want to pull aside and warn: “He’s only going to do this again. You have to set limits and boundaries. You have to be cautious.” He’s foolish and irresponsible. And in that way, he is exactly like God.
More than the irresponsible, prodigal son, this story is about an irresponsible father. It’s about a father who is wholly taken advantage of by his son, and I’m nearly positive the father knows it’s happening. It’s about a father that forsakes all other duties and responsibilities to concentrate on looking for that lowlife son to come home because he can’t stand to be apart from him. It’s about a father who irresponsibly throws a party for his returning son before making sure he’s not going to leave again. It’s about a father who hopes that each and every time the son comes home is the last time the son comes home.
I usually hesitate to take any of Jesus’s parables and try to assign characters metaphorically, but I feel a little irresponsible today. This story is not the story of a prodigal son. It’s a story of a prodigal father, and yes, it’s a story about God.
Because we worship a God that is absolutely irresponsible with the love our God gives us, granting us more than we deserve simply because we are God’s children.
Because we worship a God who watches us walk away with that love, knowing we’re going to abuse it, and yet still waits for us on the road every day so that the moment we come into view, our God can rush toward us, meeting us where we are, to shower us with love again.
Because we worship a God who rejoices every single time we come home as if it’s the last time, knowing that the very next day we’re going to walk away and leave again.
Because we worship a God who acts irresponsibly toward us, and without that callous disregard for the way things should be, we would have nothing.
The script for the way things should be says that God should abandon us to our fate—we choose it, after all, every single day. We deserve whatever comes from those choices. The script says that when we ask God for forgiveness God’s first response should be “no”—that God needs to make sure we’re truly sorry and don’t intend to leave again. The script says that every act of repentance should be met with skepticism and uncertainty, that God needs to protect God’s own interests. That’s what a responsible God would do.
But our God is not responsible. Our God is not skeptical and uncertain. Our God doesn’t follow our script. Instead, our God is grossly irresponsible with God’s love. God doesn’t wait for confirmation or demand repayment; if that were the case, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross would mean nothing more than a bank transaction: a very responsible act, but not a loving one. God knows that we’ll probably just leave the party being thrown for us and walk away, getting back into the same trouble like an addict who can’t get clean.
And yet every single time God sees us on that road, or in that gutter, or out in the world heading in the wrong direction, God races down to meet us, pulls us in while we try to make excuses, lavishes us with love and praise, and welcomes us home. Every single time.
It’s so irresponsible. It’s so unlike the way we know these things should be. And you’re right. It is. But that’s what it means to be a Prodigal God.