Prodigal Son or Forgiving Father?
By Rev. Dr. Karen Schuder
Message on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 31, 2019
This story Jesus tells about a son taking his inheritance before his father has died, squandering it and returns home out of desperation to a father who runs out to bring him back home is a powerful example of what grace looks like. The theme song for this story surely could be: Amazing grace how sweet the sound…. You know the song. Amazing grace is a beloved and powerful hymn that touches hearts on many levels. When I sing or hear Amazing Grace I am reminded of many things, including a sermon I gave many years ago.
My first call as a pastor was to two small congregations in rural Minnesota. On the first Sunday I led worship, the message was about grace and I concluded the sermon by having someone sing “Amazing Grace.” At one of the churches I gave the message, proclaiming God’s loving forgiveness, and the musician sang Amazing Grace. I concluded the sermon with raising my hands and saying, “Thanks be to God.” At the very second I finished saying this, there was a loud crack in the small country church. It sounded like God had thrown a bolt of lightning to emphasize my point. We all were stunned. We did not know what happened, but then I noticed all of the people sitting on the back pew were about eight inches lower than they had been a minute before. Mystery solved: the back pew broke.
Thank goodness no one was injured and the pew was fixed for those who could not bring themselves to sit a row closer to the front. I can tell you one thing, people remembered that sermon for a long time. The pew breaking was not planned and a simple reminder of how unexpected brokenness can jolt our lives. It is because of the brokenness in our lives that we need God’s amazing grace. Amazing grace how sweet the sound…
But wait before we belt out this beloved hymn, today’s Scripture story has much to teach us. In Luke’s Gospel before Jesus tells this story, he has healed twice on the Sabbath and socialized with tax collectors and sinners. In other words, he spent time doing things and being with people religious authorities considered undesirable. Jesus had challenged what was considered acceptable for their faith community and how they saw God working in the world. Then Jesus told this story of a less than perfect, broken family. Isn’t it comforting to see examples of dysfunctional families in the Bible? We all carry brokenness in our lives and in our families, so these Biblical families help us see we are not alone in our struggles with imperfection.
A powerful piece of this story is Jesus gives the perspective of all three characters involved and we can, at some level, relate to each of them. Let’s start by looking at the younger son. He breached custom by asking for his inheritance long before his father died. In essence, his actions said “I wish you were dead.” His father responded by giving his son what he asked for, who then left everything: his family, home, culture and religion. He spent his money on what he thought would make him happy and ended up impoverished and destitute. He was caring for pigs, something considered taboo in the Jewish tradition, and realized the pigs were eating better than he was.
In this state of poverty the younger son “came to himself.” He remembered who and whose he was realizing that perhaps his father would take him back as a slave so he would not have to live in such poverty. He returned home with an apology in mind. We don’t know if he is truly repentant of what he had done wrong or if he was just desperate, but we do know that he went back. As the son approached home his father ran out to him offering welcome and grace before he finished his apology. The father embraced his son and ordered a celebration, calling everyone to accept the son’s return as a good thing. Remember this son not only squandered the wealth his father gave him, but also his family’s love. What was this father thinking?
Despite the past hurts and betrayals, the father offered an extravagant forgiveness. A radical, unearned love. While we often have thought of the prodigal son as being the central figure in this story, it is actually the forgiving father who is. What part of this story will we focus on after today, the prodigal son or forgiving father? In our society based on extreme individualism and meritocracy, we may wonder if the father was thinking rationally and if the son fully grasped what was happening. Could we embrace such a gracious, communally oriented gesture? Could we offer such selfless, unconditional love that provides new life to an old story?
The remarkable father in this story illustrates the dramatic gesture of grace profoundly shown by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. God’s forgiving love given simply out of love. Not something we can earn, but something we can accept and offer to others. A love that went to and beyond the cross to show unexpected possibilities and new hopes. A new story that goes beyond expectations, hopes and even nature. The forgiving father illustrates grace, joyfully giving out of abundance and opened his family’s story to new possibilities, but the older son didn’t see it this way.
In the context of this story it would have been typical for the oldest son to receive a larger portion of inheritance and this son had lived comfortably in his father’s wealth. It is not hard to see why this hard working, faithful older son was angry at the lavish forgiveness the father was offering his difficult brother. After all, he was the one who was always there for his father and deserved to be rewarded for such. There it is again – that thinking of we get what we earn. Immersed in this thinking, the older brother was caught in comparison and failed to see the abundance he enjoyed.
His perception became so stuck that he complained saying, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you…” He went on to complain that he never received a goat so that he could have a party with his friends, leaving us to wonder why this son did stay home and work hard. Did he do so out of love or because he could get more? Just as the father ran out to his younger son, he went out to the older son after heaing about his refusal to join the celebration.
The forgiving father reached out to his older son and offered the new story. He said, “Son you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” The father reminded his son of the abundance he lived with and called him to embrace new possibilities of hope, healing and life. This story Jesus told leaves us with an array of questions and possibilities. How do the father and two sons choose to live after this point? Do they go back to old hurtful patterns of behavior or do they embrace forgiveness and live the new story? This brings us full circle to lessons about the brokenness in our own lives and need for God’s forgiving love, that amazing grace. Like the broken bench, we all need healing, and it often comes in the form of forgiveness.
Forgiveness can be one of the greatest challenges in our lives. Both forgiving and being forgiven. Living with forgiveness is often counterintuitive and stretches us to act outside of our norm to live in unexpected ways. Forgiving does not mean accepting hurtful behavior or forgetting what happened, and it most often does not happen instantaneously. Forgiving requires patience and repeated efforts. In his book The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How (1996) Lewis Smedes defined 3 stages of forgiveness (p.5-6):
- We rediscover the humanity of the person who hurt us.
- We surrender our right to get even.
- We change our feelings towards the person we forgive.
In each of these stages there is an intentional choosing of a new way to see and live. There is no denying we are affected and changed by people and circumstances breaking into our lives in destructive ways, but we do a say in how we are influenced. Forgiveness does not just happen but involves actively doing. The more we recognize that we can relate to the sons who need forgiveness as well as the father who forgives in Jesus’ parable, the more we are able to embrace and share God’s grace.
This grace, God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, offers to us new possibilities in our life story. Choosing this new story, however, challenges us to venture into difficult, unknown territory. Desmond Tutu in The Book of Forgiving (2014) explained “The path of forgiveness is not an easy one. On this path, we must walk through the muddy shoals of hatred and anger and make our way through grief and loss to find the acceptance that is the hallmark of forgiveness. While it would be much easier to make this journey if the route were marked clearly, it is not. The boundary line between those who have caused harm and those who have been harmed is not clear either” (p. 4). Peace and healing are among the blessings of taking the difficult path of forgiveness. Tutu also noted that “Forgiveness opens the door to peace between people and opens space for peace within” (p.25).
This space gives birth to the new story that is part of our journey as individuals and a congregation. The brokenness that shatters the perfect veneer we hope to experience and portray shapes who we are, but forgiveness allows us to have a say in how it influences. The forgiving father in today’s story knew this and presented the option to his family. As Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu so beautifully articulated (D. Tutu & M. Tutu (2014) p.225):
Here is my book of forgiving
The pages are well worn
Here are places I struggled
Here are placed I passed through with ease
Here is my book of forgiving
Some of its pages are tear-stained and torn
Some are decorated with joy and laughter
Some of its pages are written with hope
Some are etched with despair
This is my book of forgiving
This book is full of stories and secrets
It tells how I finally broke free from being defined by injury
And chose to become a creator again
Accepting that I am forgiven
Creating a world of peace
May we as individuals and a congregation model forgiveness that grows peace within and between. Amidst broken pews and lives there is a new story for us to choose. I pray that, unlike the challenging religious leaders who inspired Jesus to tell the parable of the forgiving father, we are open to new ways of seeing, experiencing and celebrating how God works. May we sing with knowing and gratitude about God’s amazing grace as we carry it into the world!
All sing: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Thanks be to God! Amen.