[This sermon is based on the the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32. The audio can be found here.]
For Advent this year, as you’ve been hearing, our theme is to ask, “What gift can you bring?” We all have many gifts and blessings that God has given us, that can be used and offered back to God and to the world in an act of gratitude for what we’ve been given.
And so part of what this theme and question should provoke is a kind of self-reflection and inventory where we look at our lives and ask: what do I have, what am I holding on to, that God may be asking me to hand over or to submit, to surrender for his purposes.
But the other thing that can happen when we ask the question, “What can I bring?” is that we get a little bit anxious or insecure. We might take the question the wrong way, maybe by excessively judging and doubting ourselves — or just comparing and competing with others based on what they have, and what they can bring that we can’t.
Speaking of bringing gifts probably makes us think of the wise men — the magi — who seek out the Messiah and come with frankincense and myrrh for Jesus during the season that we call Epiphany. But what if we don’t have anything to bring? What if we’re like the drummer boy, you know? But we can’t even play the drum?
And that’s where we’ve decided to go this morning, in fact, in planning this sermon series. What if the only thing we have to bring before God, before Christ, is just us — just ourselves? And not our dressed up selves, but are stripped down selves. In many ways, that’s what the parable of the prodigal son illustrates.
This past weekend I was in San Antonio, TX, for an academic conference, and I stayed with a friend of mine from seminary who’s a pastor there now. It was my first time to see his apartment, and he was showing me around, so at one point he showed me his room, and sitting at the foot of his bed almost was this poster. And the poster is of a naked man’s backside with his hands raised up, facing out over a cliff.
And if you’re thinking that sounds weird, so was I. But he explained it to me. The poster was for a movie about the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and the man in the poster was the man who played the character of St. Francis.
Now, obviously, the nakedness or physical poverty is symbolic of something deeper. Of surrendering the hiding or covering up that we’re all accustomed to — not merely before God, but before everyone else. We do this, we hide and cover up, through our appearance and how we look, but we also do this in many other areas of our lives as well.
And the reason my friend had that poster up was to remind himself every day, that no matter what kinds of pressures he has in life, who he’s trying to impress, what his worries might be about success, failures, achievements, conflicts, etc. The only thing that ultimately mattered was his willingness to stand before God, naked and unashamed. And St. Francis was one powerful example this, as one who embraced voluntary poverty. Because when we come before God bearing all of who we are, God takes our shame away.
So it’s this image that I invite you to keep in mind — of yourself, before God, not hiding or being ashamed of anything. Fully known, fully accepted. As if that’s really possible.
A favorite philosopher of mine who some of you have heard me quote before is Soren Kierkegaard. And one of his most famous ideas was about how there are three different kinds of religiosity or stage of faith in life, and everyone falls more or less into one of them at different times. And I mention this because I think it applies very well to the prodigal son parable.
The first type of life is illustrated by the younger brother — someone for whom the purpose of life is really just about pleasure, independence and enjoyment. Not that pleasure is necessarily a bad thing, of course. There are lots of good things to be enjoyed in this life, so you can be a seeker of good pleasure — a good hedonist, so to speak — but the seeker of pleasure does above all live for him or herself. And people who above all seek pleasure are usually doing so to try to deal with boredom or unresolved pain, in many cases.
But the younger brother is not seeking healthy kinds of pleasure, I don’t think. He doesn’t care about duty/loyalty, tradition, his father or brother’s wishes. No, he wants to live for himself — for individual freedom and indulgences of all kinds — some of which I imagine are likely a little less than admirable. And of course we all know, even when our cravings do not know, that living for these kind of fleeting gratifications is ultimately unsatisfying.
The second kind of religion is the more familiar one, it’s represented by the older brother. It is the moralistic kind, and the one that believes in rules, laws, and doing the right thing. Obedience, loyalty, dependability — probably even honest hard work or caring about the welfare of society.
And they’re actually both a form of idolatry: loving not the father but what the father can give them. Younger brother idolatry shows itself in immorality. Older brother idolatry shows itself in self-righteousness and anger at unfairness.
And then yes there’s a third kind of faith that I’ll mention in a moment. But I want to go to the parable first: The longest and arguably richest of Jesus’s parables, and the only one Jesus tells that depicts a father interacting with his children:
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
So the first thing we have to recognize is that, this would have been extremely disrespectful, shaming and humiliating for the father that the younger brother would make this request. In effect, he’s disowning his father and his whole family, treating his father as if he’s already dead. And he heads off the land of the Gentiles to live in debauchery, basically — that’s what implied, anyway.
He breaks up of his family’s communion, in other words, ruptures it, assaults and tears it apart in such a way that can only be restored by suffering love, as the parable ultimately shows.
The other shocking thing is that the father agrees and allows him to take his inheritance, which would have been about 1/3 of the estate (the older brother was entitled to the other two-thirds). But this is important to remember — that the father lets him go, I mean — insofar as this father is meant to tell us something about God.
But the younger brother finally realizes his situation and poor decisions have truly is truly hopeless. It says he “came to his senses.” Other translations read that he “come to himself,” which may be a better way of putting it. He got honest, in other words, about who he really had become and what he had done. He started seeing himself as he truly was. It took the shame of pigs (bad for Jews), but still!
And he decides to go back to his father’s estate, even if that means only as a servant (one of the things I find interesting at this point, and the fact that even though I’m sure the younger brother thinks of his father as a relatively generous and gracious man, he clearly has no idea just how generous and gracious). It says:
20 So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
So as planned, he expresses his change of heart. Listen to this quote Joachim Jeremias and what he says about repentance:
“Repentance means learning to say Abba again, putting one’s total trust in the heavenly father, returning to the fathers house and the father’s arms.” – Joachim Jeremias
Again, because when we come before God bearing all of who we are, God takes our shame away. And what is the father’s response?
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
Something important to remember here, with regard to the father in this parable: Jesus calls God Abba, which is a new and more intimate way to refer to God — the word father really doesn’t get it at it, because that’s a fairly formal title in our culture. Though of course we’ve largely settled for the word father in our prayers despite the shortcomings of the way I gets heard.
A parable is a story that challenges our expectations. So the crucial question is, What sort of expectations does this particular parable intend to challenge? And that question, it seems, is fairly basic: “what sort of father is God like?” Is he the kind of father that either the older or younger brother expects him to be?
The answer in both cases is no! It’s likely the disciples heard it as an answer to the question, who is this Abba that Jesus prays to? How does he see us?
In ancient Palestine it was regarded as unbecoming a loss of dignity for a grown man to run. Yet the father set aside all concerned for propriety and ran. But this is what the God of Jesus Christ is like. He pursues us! He runs to meet us!
And here’s another question worth thinking about: When does the father forgive, exactly? When we come to our senses? when we apologize and beg for mercy? Actually, no. Right? He’s forgiving long before then. His forgiveness was always already there! The theologian Horace Bushnell said there was a cross in the heart of God long before the hill of Calvary. See, Jesus doesn’t die on the cross in order that God might forgive. Jesus dies on the cross because God is already forgiving.
But what does it take to forgive? What does it cost? It takes everything. It costs everything. Grace is not cheap! It actually literally requires death to yourself. See because when someone you love very much who has hurt you very deeply, the pain is so great that, the temptation to retaliate is huge because that’s the only thing you can do to ease pain. Turn it into anger and retaliation. But that’s not what the father does in the parable, or what God does to us. God’s anger has already been turned in on itself and transformed by God’s love. That’s what the father in the parable does when he waits and waits, for years, after giving away his son’s inheritance — agonizing, suffering — because that’s what it costs, to see if there will be a resurrection in our lives. For the lost to be found.
And yet some of us still imagine a God of retaliation and record-keeping. And the danger here is that if that’s who your God is, it’s likely to eventually affect everything else in your life: your marriage, parenting, politics, business… Based on getting even or just getting your way, hiding your own weaknesses and sins. Not being vulnerable, trying to appear better, stronger than the other person. This is what the older brother does, in fact.
But how does the father goes after older brother — who is really upset about all of this. And it’s hard to blame him! By invitation, not anger, even though the older brother is threatening to tear apart the family as well on the best day of the father’s life and disrespecting his father in his own other way! Different from the younger brother, but idolatrous and self-interested all the same. The father says in reply, though:
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
See, the ironic thing is that the younger brother, the much more immoral of the two, is closer to a place of being able to move to what Kierkegaard calls the third kind of religion. It’s the religion of faith — and specifically faith in something practically unbelievable. Kierkegaard even calls it absurd, the heavenly father would love unconditionally, give so sacrificially, and suffer so patiently to the point of our return and willingness to give all of ourselves, however little that is or however ashamed or inadequate we might feel.
There are many takeaways from this parable, but again, the one for us today is maybe best expressed by that image of St. Francis, and the assurance we have that if we come before God to offer all of ourselves exactly as we are, nothing hidden, because he has already pursued us with his grace, everything the father has, everything God, can be ours to enjoy and participate in. When we do this — when we come bearing all of who we are and nothing else — God takes our shame away and invites us back into communion.
If you have younger brother idolatry in your life, it probably looks like a secret sin that you’re hiding or holding on to. Saint Augustine used to pray for God to please deliver him from his struggle with sexual temptation, but not yet…
If you have older brother idolatry, it probably means there’s someone in your life who just kind of resent and blame for stuff. Liberals, conservatives, Muslims, rich people, poor people, another racial group… your spouse, someone you work with, your parents!
The point is, you can’t separate honesty and humility before God from honestly and humility before other people. Though many of us try to. The older brother thought he was right with God — he had done everything he was supposed to — but the truth was, he was full of pride and self-righteousness.
What we’re going to do now as we prepare for communion, is simply leave a minute for silent reflection about this. And I invite you to just pray that God search you and reveal any older or younger sibling idolatry in your heart.
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, I entrust myself to you. Acknowledge me, I humbly pray, as a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock and a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive me, Lord, into the fullness of your grace and mercy. Remind us that no one is above reproach, and no one is beyond redemption. Help us to look into the eyes of people we find hard to like, and see your image.
Also published on Medium.