Mercy’s Embrace

Preacher: Marilyn Stahl

  • Psalm 32
  • 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
  • Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead
and has come to life again;  he was lost and has been found.”

Prayer

Merciful God,
even when we are still far off
You run to meet us and welcome us home.
No matter what the circumstances of our lives,
help us feel the warmth of your loving embrace
here, today, as we gather with our
sisters and brothers in Christ.
Thank you for the joy of your presence,
with us and for us.  Amen.

Opening Story

It is sometimes said that every Lent has a little Advent hidden in it.  In fact, last Sunday, Melanie as worship leader made a momentary slip and referred to Lent as Advent instead.  It’s a slip of the tongue that reveals truth.  We set out on our Lenten journey a few weeks ago with a real sense of expectation.  What does God have for us to hear, to learn – even to change?  We want to listen to God.  The gestures we have been practicing for our theme of  “Holding On and Letting Go” put us in a posture of expectation and waiting.  We release our clenched fist and extend an open hand.

Today’s parable of the prodigal son is all about expectation and waiting. God is the loving parent out on the road longing for us to return home. We rehearse speeches of repentance, never believing that we are worthy of being restored to our inheritance as children of God.To our utter amazement, God runs to meet us with a loving embrace. God’s mercy simply overwhelms us. Perhaps that is why this is one of the best-loved stories in the entire Bible. It even has been called “the gospel within the gospel.”

As I reflected on this parable this week, I found myself wondering about two things: Why did the prodigal son leave? And what made him want to return home?

I thought that maybe hearing a modern-day prodigal son story might give us some new perspectives on the original parable. The story comes from a French film, Un conte de Noël (“A Christmas Tale”), that came out a couple of years ago. In the film, the mother has just been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Her only hope is to find a compatible donor for a bone marrow transplant. The search for a donor is the catalyst that brings her three adult children and their families back home for Christmas.

We soon learn that this sophisticated, cultured, and well-educated family is also deeply dysfunctional. The oldest child, a daughter, is a successful writer, married and has a teenage son. But the film opens with her asking, “Why am I always sad?”

The middle child plays the role of the prodigal. His mother never really liked him. He has squandered all of his money on a variety of failed theatre ventures. He drinks too much and cannot hold a decent job. His bad credit and the legal claims that have mounted up against him threaten to ruin the entire family’s reputation.

The older sister is furious with her brother for putting the family in this predicament. Acting out of anger and resentment, she decides to take control.She offers to pay all of her brother’s bills – but on one condition: She demands that, from now on, her brother must be completely banished from the family. He is no longer to be welcome at family gatherings in the parents’ home. Although others in the family do not feel the same anger at this son’s weaknesses, everyone acquiesces in her cruel demand.

The division and brokenness fester for many years until the crisis of the mother’s illness brings them all back together.  To everyone’s surprise, when the prodigal son returns for Christmas, he brings a stranger with him – his Jewish girlfriend.  Needless to say, her perspectives on the family dynamics are very enlightening.  She gives the prodigal new courage to claim his place at the family table.

Enduring many awkward moments and conflict, they all await the compatibility test results.  Will any of the siblings have, in the very marrow of their bones, the ability to give life back to the mother?

Sure enough.  When the results are in, the prodigal is the only one of the three children who is compatible.  The mother hesitates.  Does she really want this wayward child’s bone marrow inside of her?

As the mother ponders this question, she studies the medical literature about the treatment.  It is printed in English.  Struggling with a foreign language, she reads that one of the risks of the treatment is that her skin may become “inflamed.”  In her limited grasp of English, she understands this to mean that she may actually have to ignite or burn up in order to be saved.  “No way,” she declares to her husband,  “I cannot do this!”

I am not going to tell you how the story ends. A beautiful, snowy Christmas Eve service is a turning point.But the reality is that only if the mother is able to rekindle, in her heart, a passionate love for her wayward child, and allow him to give the gift of life back to her, will the family be able to experience the joy of resurrection.

Reflection on the Gospel

In the gospel, all of this discussion of new life and finding the lost comes in the context of with whom do you eat. Closely related to the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14, the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is Jesus’ clearest statement of how we are reconciled to God. And the central symbol in both parables is table fellowship.

The Gospel of Luke can be divided into three main sections. The first contains the infancy stories and Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The last section records the events of the passion and resurrection. The middle section, comprised of 10 chapters known as the travel narrative, begins with the phrase Jesus “set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem.”  As we know, Jerusalem is where Jesus will be crucified.  There are about 20 parables in this section, most of which have no parallel in Mark.The gospel writer placed the parable of the prodigal son right in middle of the middle section.

Who was Jesus addressing when he told this parable?  Jesus told this parable in response to criticism and complaints from the Pharisees and scribes.  They were grumbling because all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. The Pharisees thought Jesus was very wrong to welcome sinners and eat with them.In their view, faithfulness to God meant observing religious practices that separated themselves from the common people or “sinners” who did not obey the purity rules. For unlike some religious groups that lived in total isolation from others, the Pharisees lived in the larger society.  By observing strict purity rules, the Pharisees sought to distinguish themselves as people who kept the law.   Further, the Pharisees regarded the tax collectors as collaborators with the hated Roman military occupation.

Jesus countered the Pharisees’ criticism of his eating with tax collectors and sinners by telling a parable. Commentators such as K. Bailey in Finding the Lost have noted that Jesus used parables to subvert the Pharisees’ intellectual arguments and worldview. Parables have many different levels of meaning. Like a diamond, they can shed light in many different directions. On the surface, parables present an interesting story that even children can follow. But at a deeper level, they make assertions about how to live and what to believe on central matters of faith. At the deepest level, when Jesus tells a parable, he is revealing something about his own identity. Parables transform listeners through personal identification with the human story being told. Often, by paying attention to how people in the parable are feeling, new insights emerge. In a way, parables relocate the center of gravity from the head to the heart.

It probably did not escape anyone’s notice that the father in the parable does exactly what the Pharisees accused Jesus of doing. The father welcomes the prodigal and eats with him. The older brother’s attitude is like the Pharisees who are offended at Jesus’ mercy to sinners. Although the older brother has never been disobedient, he is totally blind to the new creation unfolding right in front of him.

The father pleads with the older brother to join the celebration. The entire inheritance is his. His faithfulness will not be slighted. There is no reason for him to be angry. Yet the older brother has a very hard time accepting that his father’s love and mercy extend to his wayward younger bother. The older brother does not yet realize that how we relate to our sisters and brothers on the horizontal plane, affects our relationship with God on the vertical plane. In fact, by making up unfounded allegations that his brother slept with prostitutes, the older brother is attempting to banish his brother forever from the life of the community, as no family in that culture would have allowed their daughter to marry such a person. But finding the lost and restoring them to the life of the community is exactly what Jesus’ ministry is all about.

This parable is actually the third in a series.  In the first, the community rejoices when a lost sheep is brought back on the shoulders of the good shepherd.  In the second, the community rejoices with a woman who finds a lost coin.  By the third parable, how can the older brother not rejoice at the sound of music and dancing when a wayward child returns home?  Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized is the joy of the presence of God in the world.

Here, repentance means returning to God.  The prodigal begins to “come to his senses” as he is tending the pigs, regarded as the most unclean of animals.&n He has hit bottom. He notices that he is dying of hunger. And, anyone who has lived downwind from a pig farm knows that the prodigal’s sense of smell probably also played a role in helping him turn his life around. His pathetic strategy is to position himself as one of his father’s hired workers. But upon his return home, his father’s merciful embrace totally overwhelms him. He is restored to his inheritance as a beloved child of God. Through the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus is asserting his own identity as sent by God to reconcile the world to God.

We can see something of ourselves in each of the three characters in the parable.The reading from Corinthians reminds us that, as a faith community, our ultimate calling is to be like the parent, and participate in God’s ministry of reconciliation. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

At the same time, we recognize that, all too often, we hold onto the attitudes of the older brother, filled with self-righteousness, anger, and resentment.  We are ready to claim God’s inheritance for ourselves, but we struggle with the fact that it belongs to our brothers and sisters, too.  The parable asks us to honestly face these negative attitudes.  We can ask Christ to help us let go of any resentment toward others with whom we share our Christian inheritance.  How might this parable be calling us to extend a hand of reconciliation?

Finally, for many of us, the character that we most identify with – that we are somehow drawn to – is the prodigal son. We know what it feels like to wander away from God. The good news is that God welcomes sinners, and God will welcome us.Who knows what new creation is waiting to come alive in us . . .

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