Fourth Sunday in Lent: “Walking in the Father’s Care”
2 Corinthians 5:17-20
This is the Fourth Sunday in Lent and we are still in the subject of repentance. The parable today is entitled “The Prodigal Son” in most Bibles, if not all. The more appropriate title for this would be the “Prodigal Father”. Prodigal means excessive; lavish; abundant; recklessly extravagant; wasteful. Prodigal can be in a positive or negative manner. In the story, the son was a prodigal in a negative way but the father’s love is prodigal in that it is excessive, extravagant in positive way. If I may say, “The father’s love “out-prodigals” the son’s flaws. The father’s grace is more extravagant than the son’s weakness. Where the son’s sins abounds, the father’s grace abounds all the more.
The scandalous love is even more misunderstood and even unacceptable to a culture, to a world, which has its own brand of justice. The popular meaning of justice is: you sin, you pay. God’s love is bigger than this. If God’s scandalous love makes sense to us, we probably missed the point because it too good to be true. This is why the Pharisees did not get it. Jesus’ teachings and parables unsettle our coherent, our all-figured out theology, and our certitude. They ruffle our feathers.
Psalm 103:6 said that God performs righteous deeds by not dealing with us according to our sins. In fact, He removes them. 1 John 1:9 says that God is faithful and just by forgiving us. God performs justice by forgiving us. Roman 3:25 NIV translation says that God performs justice demonstrating His righteousness because in the forbearance of God, He passed over the sins previously committed unpunished! We see justice that which is being punished, but Scriptures says that it is righteousness and justice to forgive. It will be problematic to a world or to a mind that justice is: you sin, you pay. God’s justice is: you sin, I forgive; as if you did not sin at all.
In the statement to be just and fair, fairness may mean justice is good like good moral or ethics. If we keep score every time, then there is no room for gracious love or extravagant love. With our God, we cannot return His favor every time. We can’t do tit for tat as far as God is concerned. We can never out-give God. If we don’t out-give God, is that injustice? If we sin and He forgives us, is that injustice? No, this is called the kingdom of God. This is called righteousness and justice which are the foundation of His throne.
As we go through the parable, my prayer is that we assimilate the message of this story because this is our story. Let us own it.
The main character in the parable is the father. The story starts with, “A man has two sons…” The prodigal son is behind the older son as far as focus is concerned. The man is a landowner and he has an estate. He has employees, but the younger son essentially told his father, “I cannot wait for you to die. Give me my share of the inheritance.” The son just blatantly tells this to his father’s face which is grossly offensive and insulting. The truth of the matter is that the first born son in the Old Testament got at least two thirds of the wealth of his father when the father dies. If the father so chooses, he could give everything to him. The younger son had little or no entitlement but the younger son in the story just had the nerve to ask his father about his inheritance before the father died. Presumably, the father gave half of the wealth to this son who could not wait for him to die. The father’s giving half is outrageously generous, which is unbiblical.
This is what we do to God. Many times, we don’t want Him in our lives. Many times, we want His blessings and we want to do our own thing. We want to get as far away as we can from Him because we want to be free. In that culture, the status, respect, authority is directly tied to land/wealth. In giving half of his wealth to a son that wished he was dead, the father significantly downgrades himself in stature, in status, in reputation and in society. Worst, it was his son who caused it. It was heartbreaking. It was not only the father who was affected but also the other son and the whole village who depends on the father for employment.
The son leaves the father and goes far away from him as he could, squanders the grace that he was given with loose and wild living and he probably thought, “I am free at last. I have abundant wealth. I will live my life the way I want to.” It was great for a while – hedonism, which is sex, drugs, rock-n-roll – until the money was gone. He realized then that sex is not it; drugs is not it; rock and roll is not it. God's love is it. God’s mercy is it. God’s grace is it. God running to us undignified is it.
The son’s money was gone and there was famine in the land that he went to. Famine before was not an inconvenience; it was death. In the ancient agricultural setting, if there was no rain, there was no produce; therefore, there is no food resulting to famine and death. This is our sorry condition when we leave our Father and we go far away from Him.
This Jewish son had to live with pigs. Pigs were abominable to the Jews because it was unclean to them, and yet the son was feeding and tending them. The pig pen was ankle-deep mud and manure and because there was a drought, there was no water for him to bathe so the mud and manure was caking on his skin. He was dirty, smelly, hungry, nauseated and worst of all he was humiliated that he longs for pig food which he cannot even afford. This is our sorry condition in sin when we separate ourselves from God. This is what turning from God does to us.
The son came to his senses with the thought that the household in his father’s mansion was eating well, while he had to withstand pig food. The son longed to be one of the hired servants of his father because they ate. A hired servant was lower than a household servant, who was secondary family. A hired servant would wait for people who would hire them for odd jobs by chance. Eating was not just for the stomach; eating was a symbol of belongingness. If the Lord ate with us at the same table, it means that we are His people. This is why the Pharisees were angry with Jesus when He ate with the sinners because He identified with them. He accepted them as one family with Him, but the Pharisees were the elite, the moral, the righteous, and they had nothing to do with sinners.
The prodigal son, wanting to be one of the hired servants of his father, prepares a speech and decided to go home. But when he was still a long way off, his father sees him and the father runs to the son. However we stray from God, He sees us. Even if we have strayed away, God’s love has sought us out and found us. This is the love of God! Can we picture this? There is no distance too far for His love and that His love cannot reach.
The father could have remembered his son’s offense. The father could have been angry, enraged, and could have asked, “Where is my money that I gave you?” But the father did not do this. He doesn’t accuse him but runs to him undignified. The father was screaming with joy and he hugs his son who was stench and then the father kisses his son. See God in us in this situation. In hugging the son, the father overlooked the fact that the son smelled and he smothered him with kisses. The father gets himself dirty in his lips and his clothes but he doesn’t care. That mud and manure are symbols of death of the famine, but the father, who symbolizes God, did not care.
The son prepares his speech and starts saying it. The father cuts him off because he is not interested in his speech. What the father did was call the servants and said, “Quickly, bring the best robe.” The son thought that he could be given the robe after they entered the house. But in the father’s mind, he was thinking that he doesn’t want the son to take another step as a filthy, lost stranger. He wanted him to be a son at that point in time. He asked that he be covered of his filthiness – to cover his sins – for love covers a multitude of sins. He did not care how he smells or how dirty he is. He just wanted the best robe to be worn by his son because he is still his son.
The father also asked a ring be placed on his son symbolizing full sonship. It means, “I belong to somebody.” The ring on the son’s finger means he belongs to his father. The ring was also a family seal where it had purchasing power. The son just wanted a meal with the hired servants, but his father’s extravagant prodigal love restores him as a son. The father asked him to be given sandals on his feet because only slaves were barefoot and the sandals gave direction in his life as his son. He asked to kill a fattened calf because he said, “This son of mine was dead but has come back to life again.”
Our Father causes all things - even in our squandering of our inheritance, even our insulting of him telling Him that we don’t need Him - to work for good. He loves us with an everlasting, incomprehensible and infinite love. We ask, “Since God is a forgiving God, shall I continue in sin?” St. Paul says, “May it never be!” If I am ask, if one should continue in sin, my reply would be, “Why would you want to see it good if you would end up in pig manure and mud, and desire to eat pig food?”
In Luke 15, the reason Jesus gave three parables was because the Pharisees and scribes were murmuring and grumbling because He was eating with sinners. The parables was directed at them – the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the prodigal son. In the latter parable, the older son represented the Pharisees. Looking at physical appearance, it is obvious that the older son who had been obedient and who did not squander the wealth of the father deserves the love of the father. However, the love of the father is for both sons. It seems that the more qualified and seem to be worthy to be the son is more lost than the other. In fact, he ended up outside the celebration in the banquet that the father gave on his choosing. The father did not ban the older son, but because he had his own brand of justice, it made him missed out on the father’s graciousness.
The story is a message for religious leaders and for others who think that they are special because of their credentials. There is nothing wrong being a faithful and obedient son. If we have this kind of thinking that we are special, we don’t understand the love of God. St. Paul said that he considers his credentials rubbish compared to the knowledge of the Son of God and of His Father.
The older son told the father, “I have been serving you all these years.” Another translation says, “I’ve slaved for you for all these years.” He saw his father not as a father, but seeing it as a master/slave relationship but this is not the point. The father asks, “Why do you think you have to earn my graciousness. All I have is yours. I don’t owe anyone; I give freely.” This is our Father. If we think we can earn it more than others, if we think it is a contest on who is more righteous, then, we miss the point. It has its place and if we think lowly of others and think God is on our side against our common enemy, think again for God has no enemies. He reconciled the world to Himself and He doesn’t count men’s sins against them.
Jesus knew Judas would betray Him, but He did not ban him from the Last Supper. Jesus knew that Peter would deny Him three times, but He fed him in the Last Supper. He knew all the rest of His disciples (except for John) would abandon Him, but He fed them at the Last Supper. Jesus broke bread with them; He ate with them saying, “You are My people and I accept you.”
We cannot contain the finiteness of God’s love. The song says, “Beggars, lame and harlots also here; repentant publicans are drawing near; wayward sons come home without a fear because God and man at Table are sat down.” This is all because of God’s graciousness. On Calvary, the disciples and the enemies were present. Jesus dies for them all. It is neither Jew or Greek or sinner or saint; it is only by grace we can enter. It is not a contest or a merit system.
It was the older brother who refused to go in. In fact, the father was beseeching him, asking him, pleading with him to come in because the prodigal son was his brother. The older brother wouldn’t even call him a brother. He said to his father, “Your son.” In effect it is saying, “If you are his father, if he is your son, you are not my father.”
This is what arrogance and elite thinking does to us, so we need to repent. Why would we think that our brother is not worthy? Why would we think that we are better than them? That they are inferior to us? Why do we seek Divine approval for our theologies and our system of justice? We should seek Divine approval of our knowledge of good and evil. We subject God to our knowledge of good and evil. We think we have it all figured out.
God's love is scandalous and if we judge, it keeps us from loving our neighbor. In fact, we need to be careful to judge not only the sinner, but also the Pharisee. We can be an anti-sinner Pharisee and we can also be an anti-sinner Pharisee Pharisee. We need to repent or miss it out. We need to see that the sinner is our brother because in God’s eyes, this is how it is.
We are still on the subject of repentance and we need to get off the wrong path, a high and elite path, the thinking that we are special path and we need to go the pilgrim way of Lent – humble, serving, obedient, accepting and forgiving our brother and loving them. This is God’s heart and this is the way it is in the kingdom of our God.