The Surprise of the Father (Sermon)

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached today, the Fourth Sunday in Lent. The gospel reading was Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, the so-called “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” When I recited the gospel right before the sermon, I made an attempt to tell the story slightly differently, emphasizing the younger son’s words in a different way. As you’ll see, that conncets to the sermon…

Did you notice something different about that story? I don’t know how good my acting skills are, but I was trying to get something across, a different way of interpreting part of this story. I was trying to surprise you. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

This is a story we all know so well, don’t we? We wouldn’t think there’d be any surprises left in the story of the Prodigal Son, would we?

Actually, this story is full of surprises. A few years ago, I told you about one of those surprises, how people around the world view one question about this story differently. The question is: “Why was the younger son hungry?” A professor of New Testament noticed that American students tended to think that the younger son was hungry because of his own mistake – he had only himself to blame. Whereas students in St. Petersburg, Russia thought that the reason he was hungry was because there was a famine – and St. Petersburg had experienced a tremendous and horrible famine during World War II. And students in Africa, where the idea of being a community is absolutely crucial, thought that the reason he was hungry was because, as it says here, “nobody gave him anything.” That was so alien to their understanding of community that it jumped off the page to them. Americans tend to gloss over the famine and the “nobody gave him anything,” because personal responsibility is so important here. But in Russia and Africa, people glossed over the self-blame, and saw other things that reflected their own experience.

So that’s one surprise, but not the surprise I was trying to show you today, though.

And I’ve also already told you about another surprise, the surprise that this story really shouldn’t be called “The Prodigal Son,” but rather, “The Prodigal Father.” Prodigal means wasteful, and yes, the younger son certainly did waste his money and wealth. But which is more wasteful, throwing your money away on things that weren’t worth it, or throwing your love away on people that aren’t worth it? I mean, this father really has some lousy kids. The younger one essentially stole his inheritance early, and then blew it all on extravagant living. And the older son is frankly, a jealous and self-righteous grouch. But the father didn’t scold either of them, instead he showed unconditional love to each of them, running out of his house after each of them to tell and show how much he loved them. This story doesn’t teach very good morals, does it? It’s like, whatever you do, however you act, whatever your attitude, your father will still love you. What kind of message is that?

A surprising one. And today’s new surprise makes that message even stronger. Here’s the new surprise I was trying to act out: it’s possible that the younger son was never really sorry. We tend to think that of course he was sorry – he hits rock-bottom, realizes the error of his ways, takes the long walk home with his tail between his legs, and apologizes sincerely to his father. His father hears his apology and forgives him. But the way Luke wrote this, it is equally possible that the young man was actually conniving and manipulative. “I know what I’ll do. I know where I can get a better job than feeding these pigs. I could go to Dad, act all apologetic, and he’ll hire me out of pity. Yeah, that’ll work.”

Maybe this isn’t a story about how God welcomes those who are penitent and sorry. Maybe this is a story about how God welcomes everyone, even those of us who are faking it.

After all, the father didn’t even wait for the son to really apologize. The son barely got a few words out before the father – surprise! – already had his entire household of servants busy with robes and rings and sandals and fatted calves and music. The father – surprise! – didn’t care whether the son apologized or not, whether he was faking it or not. The father – surprise! – cared about one thing, and one thing only: his son was there. And he was going to celebrate this.

What if that’s the way God is with us? What if God’s forgiveness isn’t something we have to ask for, but it’s free, and just there? What if God’s love for us isn’t based on our attitude? On our repentance? What if it’s just free, and just there? What if God’s love for other people isn’t based on their actions, their jobs, their politics, their sexuality, their religion? What if it’s just free, and just there? What if God’s grace really is grace?

What if God’s grace really pours down on us all like rain? Like gently falling snow, covering everything it touches? What if God’s grace, in the end, isn’t really about us at all, but about God? What if God’s grace is the most important thing, the only important thing, to God. What if the faith we are called to is faith in that grace alone? What if everything else, the rules, the commandments, and so forth, are actually gifts – surprise! – not tests to build up our worthiness so we deserve God’s love, but rather guidelines that help us to see that love better? What if our various callings in the world are gifts – surprise! – enabling us to spread the news of God’s grace in new places and with new people and in new ways? Enabling us to tell people – surprise! – God loves you, exactly who you are, exactly as you are. Wouldn’t that come as a surprise to many people?

What if this is what God is all about?

The younger son is the one who focused on repentance, whether it was honest or not.

The older son is the one who focused on fairness and hard work.

The father is the one who loved.

God loves you. Exactly who you are. Exactly where you are. Exactly as you are. Can God make you better? Absolutely. Absolutely. Is God’s love waiting for that to happen? No. God loves you. Surprise! Your heavenly father is running, right now, to hug you, to kiss you, to put his best robe on you, and to throw you a feast. You were dead, but now you are alive. You were lost, but now you are found. God loves you. Surprise!


Featured image: “Blue Prodigal” by Charlie Mackesy.

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