March 27, 2022, The Parable of the Prodigal Father, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
The very best part of the story of the Prodigal Son is the homecoming, the part where the Father, standing on the front porch longing for the return of his lost son, sees his son coming at long last. There he is, in the distance, the Father would know him anywhere. He had been hoping and watching for so many months – or years – that maybe it would have taken him a moment to believe it was really true. But as soon as he was sure, the Father sets off running down the road toward that weary, dirty, lonely figure in the distance, toward his beloved son, so eager to finally hold him in his arms and to welcome him home.
We’ve been looking at what Repentance is over the last couple of Sundays, because we are in the season of Lent, when the church encourages us to focus on Repentance, beginning with the penitence and humility of Ash Wednesday. Two weeks ago, I began thinking about Repentance by asking a question: what if there were no mercy? What if Jesus had told us the story of the Prodigal Son, and when he got to the part where the son in the story arrives home, the Father had slammed the door in his face? Or what if the Father had listened to the son’s prepared speech and allowed him to stay on, but only as a servant, living in the servant’s quarters, eating downstairs apart from the family, like the servants in Downton Abbey? What if there were no mercy, only a harsh kind of justice? If our Heavenly Father was not a God of mercy, Repentance would be a scary thing, hopeless and joyless. It would be a matter of bargaining for a reduced sentence, not the wild homecoming party of Jesus’ story. Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son assures us that it is the mercy and kindness of God that invites us to repent.
But then last week we talked about how hard it is to repent. Sin isn’t just a take-it-or-leave-it sort of thing. Sin, generally speaking, isn’t something we just dabble in when we’re bored or curious, something we can pick up and lay aside as we please. Sin enslaves us; it bogs us down and holds us fast. We get hopelessly stuck, in our habits and in our addictions and in our attitudes, and by our own efforts we can’t make our way out of the mire. That’s what David was talking about when he wrote in Psalm 40 that God heard his cry for help and rescued him from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set his feet on solid ground. That’s why we prayed last week, “O Lord God you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves!” The first step in Repentance is to take a good honest look at ourselves and recognize our hopelessness and helplessness and need, and to cry out for help. And God will rescue us from our sin.
And by sin we don’t have to mean big capital-S sin like murdering somebody or robbing a bank. We can be enslaved by much tamer things, thank you very much – we sink down into insecurity that leads to resentment that leads to hatred – or we get bogged down in fear that leads to avoiding the truth that leads to a habit of dishonesty. There are so many boggy opportunities in each and every one of our lives that I couldn’t begin to give all the ways we get trapped in sin. Because sin isn’t just breaking rules; sin is leaving the path that leads us home, to the Father, and wandering off on our own way. On our own we end up, sooner or later, up to our necks (or at least our knees) in the muck and mire of our selfishness and foolishness, or our fear and rage. Eventually we realize that we are powerless to get ourselves unstuck and back on the right path, heading the right direction. We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. But we do have power to cry out to the one who can pull us up, out of the miry bog, and set our feet back on the solid ground of the homeward road. So Repentance begins by crying out for help.
And when our feet are back on solid ground, we continue to repent by turning our steps toward home. As long as we are alive, we are always becoming, always growing, always making choices, always either moving toward God – or wandering off on our own, away from him. So the second step of Repentance is to head for home, turning our steps and our eyes and our hearts and our minds back toward the Father who loves us.
In the story of the Prodigal Son, the son turns his steps towards home. But notice that he doesn’t head home for any noble reason: certainly not out of love. It’s his last resort – does that sound familiar to any of us? Basically, he finally comes to the place where he’s ready to crawl home in shame because everything else had failed him. All that wild living that seemed like it was going to be so much fun, all those worldly pleasures, all that freedom, all those friends: everything had let him down and left him alone, until he realized that his life didn’t even measure up to the life of the pigs he was feeding – at least they knew where their next meal was coming from.
Jesus doesn’t tell us that the son’s heart was full of love and longing to see his Father again. If we hear this story with real honesty and humility, the character of the son ought to feel awfully familiar to us. Finally he had screwed up badly enough, his life had become hard enough, he was hungry and desperate enough, that he decided to give up and do the very last thing he wanted to do. So he screwed up his courage and put his dignity in his back pocket and prepared a little speech begging for mercy – and not even that he could be taken back into the family, but just bargaining to be allowed to come back as a servant, unworthy, but at least three square meals and a bed. He didn’t really hope for much.
It is a good thing, it is essential, really, for us to approach Repentance with real honesty. Sometimes, by the grace of God, we turn to him because our hearts are full of love and gratitude and awe. But there are times – there are lots of times – when we turn to God because we have come to a dead end somewhere in our lives, and we are finally willing to admit that the road we have chosen was a complete disaster. And we don’t always come to that realization very quickly. We are sometimes like tiresome drivers that keep toodling along at 60 miles an hour, hoping to find a shortcut, or at least a nice restaurant to stop at, when they’ve left the highway behind ages ago, and there has been nothing but barren fields and abandoned warehouses and junkyards on either side of us for miles and miles and miles. Until FINALLY they have the good sense to admit that they’re lost, and to stop and turn around and head back in the right direction. Repentance doesn’t have to be noble or pretty or profound. It only has to be honest.
And that’s why it is sometimes good for us to let another person in on our Repentance: because we are very good at pretending, to ourselves, that everything is just fine, that we’re not really lost. There are times when the only way we can be truly honest is if we admit our lostness to another human being. That’s the purpose of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In Reconciliation you have the opportunity, in a setting of complete confidentiality, to say before God and your brother or sister that you have been on the wrong road – maybe for a long while – and that you are ready to turn around and head home. There are two beautiful services in the Book of Common Prayer for Reconciliation, but at its heart what the sacrament is, is a safe space to stop, and get yourself turned back around, in the company of a fellow sinner.
But the other thing to know is, that the story of the Prodigal Son isn’t really about the son, not primarily. The theologian Tim Keller has said that a better name for the story would be the Prodigal God. Because Prodigal means being recklessly extravagant; it means spending everything you have. And no one in the story, even the foolish son, is more recklessly extravagant than that loving Father, who runs down the road with pure joy to welcome his messed-up kid, who gets up a huge party for this disrespectful and disgraceful son of his, covering him with his own robe, calling in all the neighbors to rejoice with him heedless of gossip or scandal. Grace – that quality of our God that is the most foreign to the world – God’s grace is love of the most recklessly extravagant kind.
How recklessly extravagant is a God who gives his only-begotten Son to save a world of ungrateful and rebellious children? How recklessly extravagant is a God who empties himself of his divinity and comes to live among rough peasants, who comes not be served by them, but to serve them – out of the sheer abundance of his love? How recklessly extravagant is a Father who calls us to repentance when we are at our very worst, and then comes running to meet us when we are still far off?
Repentance calls us to take a sober look at ourselves, to call out for the help we need when we have gotten ourselves into a hopeless mess – as we are so prone to do. Repentance requires us to be brutally honest about ourselves. But the most important thing about Repentance is that it begins and ends with the Prodigal God – the God of mercy, who is always ready to forgive us, the God of love who pours out his very life for us: the Father, who, in the reckless extravagance of his grace, comes running to meet us, his arms not folded in stern disapproval, but outstretched to embrace us, to welcome us home with rejoicing. As we pray in the Great Vigil of Easter, this is our cry of astonishment, “How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.”