Evidently the father in Jesus’ story never read Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. God’s grumpy gatekeepers – the clergy – Pharisees and scribes – would agree. Prodigals, strays and outcasts unless they repent and crawl home are out. Those are the rules. Keep that in mind as we continue this sermon. Jesus says, You Can Go Home Again. He tells a story about it. In fact, his Father not only welcomes all – but will go find one who strays too far. Parable after parable – lost sheep, lost coin, and now a lost son – Jesus’ points to not leaving anyone – anything lost. Religious leaders don’t always see it this way.
Meet a dysfunctional farm family – a dad, two sons, and an unmentioned mom somewhere. The younger son has had his fill of farm life, and demands his inheritance, which would be about a third of the farm. What he’s saying is: “Dad, you’re as good as dead to me. I don’t care what happens to any of you. I’m done.” Shockingly, dad violates social norms and does it, putting the rest of the family at risk. The boy hops the first bus for distant country counting his cash. Soon he’s attracted to some “dissolute living,” which sounds pretty bad, and of course the money gets spent. He needs a job – especially since a famine has settled in. He lands one, a waiter of sorts – feeding pigs. Remember Jews don’t eat or raise pork. And because his Gentile boss pays scum wages, pig slop starts to look tasty. That’s when he comes to himself, “This is not me. I’m no longer my father’s son. I burned my bridges. But maybe the guy will cut me some slack if I play the unworthy card, take pity and hire me.” So off he goes – back home to family he’s counted as dead. Some say the boy repents. He sounds more pragmatic and desperate, and maybe that, too, is part of repentance – come to ourselves, suck it up, go home and seek a little pity.
He never gets to make his speech. His father spots a dead man walking up his road – looks familiar. It’s his boy. Then the father goes all goofy – runs for him, hugs and kisses him – makes a darn fool of himself. What will the neighbors think? In a patriarchal society, men just don’t get emotional and gushy. And then he goes really goofy: “Go in the house, get the finest robe, and a ring and sandals. Dress him up. Prepare a feast – we’re throwing a ‘Welcome Home’ party. Son, you were dead, now you’re alive – lost, now found. Let’s party.”
Remember I said, “Keep the grumps in mind?” Older brother hears party music, inquires, and learns his brother has come home, and dad’s throwing a party. The older boy knows hypocrisy when he smells it. His brother nearly wrecked his inheritance. He’s had to slave to keep the farm going. This isn’t right. But here comes Dad, busting out the backdoor, embraces him and says, “Son, here’s a party hat. Come in. Join the fun.” That’s the last place elder brother is going. “All these years, I work non-stop for you, obey you; I see no parties for the good son. This jerk of a son – the bad one comes back – and you throw a party? He’s playing you, and I’m having no part in it.”
Doesn’t the kid have a point? Where’s some accountability here? How does the father know he’s not being played again? Where’s a hint the boy is sincere – he won’t run off again? He needs to repay damages, earn his way back – make amends for the heartache he’s caused. Dad doesn’t even play the guilt card, “Boy, you about killed your momma.” Dad calmly and firmly reminds his elder boy: “Son, what’s mine is yours already. You are always with me. When the lost are found – that calls for a party.”
What sort of family man, business man is this father? Where is justice in this story? Isn’t he enabling an irresponsible son? Few would do such in this world, and we’d rightly say to them, “You’ve been had.” Has he? Jesus doesn’t say. Jesus hands us the story to finish.
Some prodigals go off, get lost, blow their lives and are as good as dead. Other prodigals stay home, go to church, are good citizens, look good, yet aren’t really there – thinking about something else, anything else than God. We find ourselves somewhere on this spectrum, if we are honest. Haven’t we have pushed the limits somewhere in our lives – strayed a bit? And do we remember times when we have acted a bit self-righteous, put on a mask for others, a mask that keeps us from really coming to ourselves, as Jesus says. But the story’s point is not about us – or what we need to do to fix things. The father points us toward God. God’s the point of the story. It’s about God’s wondrous love forgiving and welcoming all us prodigals home. Divine love is not abstract, an ideal, an ethical principle, feeling or emotion. Divine love undergirds the universe. God’s judgment is love; God gives us grace, not rules. And when we come to know our Father’s love and grace – enough that it changes us, then we become alive again – we are home, and everything else will find its place. The power and reality of such love is the power that holds us regardless of where we are on the prodigal spectrum. And some in this world won’t like such scandalous, reckless love and grace. You have to earn it. And because Jesus says you don’t – it’s yours – it gets him killed.
We have an inheritance in another kingdom. How do we know? God plants a cross in the middle of history – a sign of his love, our forgiveness; his passion, our grace. God is so reckless as to let us do as we please with what’s given us. We may run off to a distant place, and lose sight of His love. Or we may stay home, and not realize the power of God’s love and grace in front of us. We don’t have to pretend, fear, explain ourselves, make excuses or grovel. We can admit we’re not as good as we want others to think we are, not to get back into God’s good grace, but because we are already in God’s grace, that’s our inheritance, God’s gift of wondrous love.
God waits to welcome us home, “Come in and be found, alive. Here put on a hat.” Hell is to refuse the party, stay outside clutching a miserable existence when you could be celebrating. How do you think these boys turned out? Do you think they ever got it? Do we? Let the one who has ears, hear.