March 6, 2016

Sinners and tax collectors

Lent 4, Year C, RCL

Each Monday before I preach, I dig in to the Scriptures of the day. I prefer to do that from a Bible because I think it's important to know what happens on either side of the Scripture reading we hear read in worship. As I'm reading it, I have a bit of an internal dialogue as I ponder the Scripture and this important question: What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion? So here's a little of what my internal dialogue was like earlier this week:
Joshua -- Good stuff about God keeping promises. I like this scene... Maybe it will be good for the Children's Homily...
The Psalm -- I don't usually preach on the Psalm, but I wonder... No, this piece about "Do not be a horse or a mule..." that won't fly.
Second Corinthians -- Great spring-time reading, "If anyone is Christ, there is a new creation."
Ok... I wonder what the Gospel reading is... 

At this point, my internal dialogue became an external, um, groan, when I bellowed "THE PRODIGAL SON!?!? AGAIN!?! REALLY?!?!
Cortney comes in my office ask if everything is Ok, and I say, "I feel like I draw this passage every year!"

My amazing assistant reminded me that this passage only comes up once every three years in our lectionary, always on this, the 4th Sunday of Lent. I did a quick "trust but verify" research to find out she's right. (But I still feel like I get this passage every year!)

I'd be lying if I said I didn't ponder every possible angle with all of the other Scripture lessons, but nothing struck home the way the lesson from Luke did.The Prodigal Son is one of those passages that we only hear once every 156 Sundays or so, and yet the story is such a part of our culture, eve extending beyond the sacred and into the secular. So when the lectionary serves up a well-known story such as this, like a low-hanging curve ball over home plate, you have to take a swing at it. 

This story has been hashed out and cut up and dissected in more ways than one could possibly imagine. I would venture to guess that the story of the Prodigal Son has been looked at in more ways than any of Jesus' feeding miracles. I know hat I have heard it preached (and maybe you have too!) from the perspective of the father, the un-mentioned mother, either or both of the brothers' perspectives, from the perspective of the servants, Jesus' hearers at the time, and even one desperate attempt to preach from the perspective of the fatted calf. And if yo u want to hear more about those angles (except may the calf one...) I'm glad to sit down and talk with you about any or all of them. 

But as I wrestled and tussled with this passage this week, I kept coming back to those first two verses, where Luke tells us why Jesus told this parable to begin with:
"All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
The Prodigal Son story is the longest of three stories that follow the introduction. Before he gets there, he tells the story of the lost sheep and the shepherd who leaves the 99 other sheep to go after the one. And the story of the woman who turns over her whole house to find the one lost silver coin of the 10 she had. "Truly I tell you," Jesus says, "There will be more rejoicing in heaven on that day when one sinner repents than for those who do not need to repent."

Then Jesus moves into this famous story, this scandalous story of a younger son demanding his inheritance and then squandering it to such a degree that he realizes his father's servants have it better than he does. So he goes back home, and Jesus adds to the scandal by having the father not only accept his son, but to restore him to his place in the family and in the community and throw him a party. And of course, the older sibling throws a fit because... well, we all know the younger sibling gets away with everything. 

In telling these three parables, Jesus does some pretty amazing things. In the first two, the ones about the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus uses lost and found as key words. In this story, at the end, TWICE the father uses the words dead and alive. The first two were about items that while they have value, are not nearly as valuable as the person, the sinner, the tax collector, the dealer, the con artist, who turns their life back to God. 

Jesus tells this story, not because everyone around him was righteous and upright, but because the sinners and tax collectors heard in Jesus' message something that fed their souls, that made them might actually believe they were worthy of whatever this Kingdom of God that had come near may be. For the sinners and tax collectors of our day, whether their deceit happens on the streets or a board room or in their own home, the message of this story of the Prodigal  Son is one each of us sinners and tax collectors need to hear: That the grace of God in Jesus makes a way for us all to be new creations, to be reconciled to God, as the Apostle Paul wrote. The sinners and tax collectors in Jesus' audience most likely heard a reflection of the grace and reconciliation they had already found in Jesus' preaching. 

I wonder if we can do the same. Or have we lifted ourselves up to the point that we feel like the eldest son, who has worked and worked yet had those us a party?  It would be perfectly natural to find yourself feeling both at various points in your life. But whether we have put ourselves up on a pedestal or are walling in pig slop, we are never, as Jesus teaches us today, beyond the reconciling grace of God.

My favorite part of the Prodigal Son story is probably the most scandalous. When the younger son comes to his senses, he practices this speech, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." On the road home, he probably practiced it a thousand or more times. Yet as he gets the first part of the statement out of his mouth, the father says, "Bring out the robe -- the best one! -- and put the ring on his finger so everyone will know he is a member of this family! And prepare a party like we haven't had in years!" 

When we turn our hearts back towards God, God does the same thing for us. 


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