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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
The Prodigal Son

Lent 4     Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

The pearl of the parables. Many people feel that the parable of the prodigal son is the priceless pearl of Jesus’ parables. It is his finest parable. It is the most valuable story he ever created. Charles Dickens, the great English author, has called it “the greatest story ever told.” Some say it is the finest short story in literature. Another poet, Robert Bridges, has judged it as a “flawless piece of art.” Small wonder that through the centuries, this story has inspired the pen of Rembrandt, the music of DeBussey, and the poetry of John Masefield. George Buttrick, one of the greatest preachers of recent past, has said that the story of the prodigal son captures “the essence of the Christian faith.”  This story sums the central message of the whole New Testament. It is the gospel in a nutshell. If you truly understand this story…of the father, the prodigal, and the older brother, you will begin to grasp the central thrust of Jesus and the main emphasis of the New Testament.

As we begin this sermon for today, it is important for us to understand the context or setting because the context or setting unlocks the meaning of the parable. It isn’t very often that the key is in the context, but the key that unlocks this parable is its setting. The parable begins like this: “Jesus was eating with a group of publicans and sinners. When the Pharisees saw it, they were very upset and said, ‘Jesus, why are you eating with this kind of people? They aren’t religious enough for you.’”

Now, to unlock the meaning of this setting, it is important that we put this parable into a contemporary situation. I would like you to imagine Jesus down in Des Moines, at the stoplight at the bottom of the hill, and Jesus was in the Yard Arm Tavern. The Yard Arm is a watering hole for working class people at the bottom of the hill. This tavern has several pool tables, dart-boards and pinball machines that keep the patrons busy. Jesus is there in that tavern on Friday night, having a beer with the boys, eating his pizza, shooting pool, throwing darts, playing the pinball machine. Jesus is having a good time with the people there on Friday night. Well, about that time, some very pious people come by. Now, I can’t think of anybody from our congregation who is pious enough, so I want you to think of somebody from a nearby congregation, one of these charismatic, highly fundamentalist congregations. You take the most pious person out of that congregation. This stiff Christian fundamentalist and his friends pass by the Yard Arm Tavern, and sees Jesus’ donkey parked outside the Tavern. This person and his religious friends are shocked by seeing Jesus’ donkey near outside a popular tavern, and so they  boldly walk right into the tavern and hold their breath. They don’t like the sights, sounds and smells of the tavern. They try to look just at Jesus because they don’t want to look at all that sinful stuff on the walls. They finally speak, “Jesus, what are you doing here, spending time with people like this? The smell is awful and so are those pictures on the walls.” Jesus, knowing their hearts, said, “I’d like to tell you a story.  Sit down here in my booth, relax, and I will tell you a story. Order them a coke. Once upon a time, there was a shepherd who had a hundred sheep.  One sheep ran away and the shepherd left the ninety-nine and went and found the one. And there is more joy in heaven over one person who truly comes to his senses, than over ninety-nine good people who don’t see their own sinfulness. Do you understand?”  Nope. These righteous fundamentalist people didn’t understand his story at all. These modern Pharisees didn’t get it. Jesus said, “I’ll tell you another story. “One time there was a woman who had ten very valuable coins. She lost one coin and she swept the house inside and out until she found that one lost coin.  And she was so happy when you found that one precious coin. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who come to his senses and then is found by God than over nine self righteous people who don’t think they have been lost. Do you get it?” They still didn’t get it. They settled into the booth with their cokes.  Jesus said, “I will tell you another story. One time there was a man who had two sons. The younger son said, ‘Dad, I want my inheritance. I want it now. I want to leave town so I can be free to do what I want to do.’ Well, this son took his inheritance and went down to San Francisco and he had a wee of a time. He had so many friends. Of course, he pretended that this money was his own hard earned money and not an inheritance from his father. He had a great time, but finally the money ran out. The friends ran out. The good times ran out, and he ended up in the gutters of San Francisco. One day, he came to himself and said, ‘It would be far better if I were back home with my father and in my father’s house.’ He came to his senses and he came back home. As he approached his home, his father had been watching for him every night on the fence, looking down the country road. From a distance, the father saw his son’s walk, his son’s gait, there far in the distance. The father ran to him and threw his arms around him and put a ring on his finger and a coat on his back and shoes on his feet and killed the fatted calf and had a big party for him. The father was so happy that his son who had been lost finally came home. Meanwhile, outside, was the older brother, and when he came home and heard all this noise, he said to a servant, ‘What is all the noise? What’s the party about?’ The servant said, ‘Well, your brother has come back home. We thought that he was dead but he is alive.’ The older brother said, ‘I’m not coming into the house to see that good for nothing.’ The older brother stood out there on the porch, pouting away with a stiff upper lip. The father came out to the porch and said, ‘Son, I love you. Everything I have is yours. Come in and see your brother for your brother who is dead is now alive. He was lost but is now found.’ Jesus added, ‘There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who comes to his senses and returns to God and God’s ways, than over self righteous people whose heart have become hardened to people they doesn’t like.’ … Did you get it? Did you get the parable? The riddle?” Well, those pious people there in the Yard Arm Tavern, they didn’t get it at all. They’d had enough. They couldn’t stand the pictures on the wall. They couldn’t stand the smell of beer and smoke. They couldn’t stand the people who were in that tavern in the first place. They had to get out of this evil atmosphere and so they went outside, got on their donkeys and road away.”  And thus ends what many people feel is the priceless pearl, the finest of Jesus’ parables.

This parable is simple and complex at the same time.

What does this old classic parable of Jesus have to do with us? Obviously, there are three characters. The prodigal son, the older brother, and the father. I would like to take a few moments and focus on each of the three characters.

First, the youngest son, the prodigal himself. Here in this story we see the story of a human being like you and me, a common and ordinary person who wanted his independence. Who wanted his freedom. Who wanted to do what he wanted to do and not to have to listen to his father and older brother tell him what is right and wrong anymore. He didn’t want to live in the father’s house; he didn’t want to live in the father’s love. He wanted to go out and make it on his own, using his father’s inheritance.

Now, this story is not primarily about losing your life to alcohol or drugs. That is not the purpose of the story. That is a narrow interpretation. The broader interpretation is this: we as human beings, we take the inheritance that God has given to us. We take the money, the brains, the personality, the health, the resources; we take the inheritance that God has been given to us. We say, “God, I don’t want to have anything to do with you anymore. I am going to go and live my life as if you never existed.” And so we take our God-given inheritance and we go and live as if God didn’t exist or remotely exists. That’s what this story is all about. Then, we finally come to our senses and we come home to God.

Don’t make the mistake of limiting this story to alcohol or drug addictions or people who end up in prison.  Don’t make the mistake of limiting this story to someone else who destroys their life by stupid choices. The meaning of the story is broader than that. This is a story about us, about you and me, when we take our God-given inheritance and run away from God, living as if God does not exist. This story applies to all of us.

Let me tell you a story that illustrates this. It is a story by William Clovis Chappel. It is a story entitled, “The Village Idiot.” Once upon a time, a long time ago, about a hundred years ago, there was a country Christmas. It was Christmas Eve in a small village, and everyone had gathered in this village into the town hall. There was a giant Christmas tree in that town hall, and everyone was festive and merry and singing around the tree. There were presents for everybody under the tree. An old-fashioned Santa Claus was there, passing out the presents. Each person had a present with their name on it. Each person was so happy on this grand Christmas Eve. … And there was this village idiot. The village idiot was waiting, waiting, waiting for his gift, and finally there was one present left but there was no name on it. The present must be for him. This present was the most beautifully wrapped package and Santa Claus gave it to him. The village idiot looked at that golden paper, and the golden ribbon and the golden bells on the package. The village idiot saw the beauty of the wrappings and he gradually opened the present, with his heart beating wildly in excitement. He slipped off the bells, the ribbon, the paper, and looked inside, and…and…and… it was empty. The box was empty. What a cruel joke. Somebody had played a cruel trick, and the village idiot was crushed at the emptiness of the box and being made a fool of again. 

Sometimes, we play the role of the village idiot. Sometimes, we think that we find happiness in this beautifully wrapped package with the golden bells and golden ribbon and golden paper. We think we are going to find happiness…in a nice new home, in a nice new car, in a nice trip here and a nice trip there, in a nice job here and a nice new job for the spouse there. We are like a village idiot, looking for happiness, and we are so entranced by the beauty of the package, that when we get inside, the box is empty. Happiness is not there. Happiness is not found in a house. Happiness is not found in an apartment. It is not found in a stereo, camcorder, new computer, not in one more wonderful vacation somewhere. Those boxes are empty, and many of you still don’t believe it.

Finally, we human beings come to our senses. We finally wake up and realize that we need to return home to our heavenly father and our heavenly family. To return home to God and his love. To return home to loving relationships with a loving God. To return home to loving people and loving friends. That is what this story is all about. It is about when we take our God given inheritance and use it in such a way that we live without God. That’s what this story is all about. This story is not to be narrowly interpreted so that the prodigal son becomes addicted to alcohol or drugs and ends up in jail. The meaning of this story is much broader than that. It is about taking our God given inheritance and leaving God and forgetting God, and then we finally come to our senses and return to our heavenly father.

In the story, the Bible says that the prodigal “came to” his senses. I would like to focus on that phrase for a moment. I would like you to imagine that someone has fainted. The person has fainted and is slowly waking up groggy. In the Greek language, this is a medical term and describes a person who has fainted, is out of it, and then gradually wakes up. That is what happens to us. Sometimes, we have lost our senses, are feeling faint, and then we come to our senses and we finally start to realize that happiness is not found in the material things that are part of our lives: the job, the home, the vacations, the cars. We finally wake up and come to our senses and realize that it is time to come home to God. Yes, we all take turns in our lives playing the role of the prodigal son and the village idiot.

Then, there is the older brother. What shall we say about the older brother? The older brother represents those kinds of people who feel that my faults are better than your faults. My sins are better than your sins. My dirt is cleaner than your dirt. Therefore, God must be a little bit more pleased with me than he is with you, you who don’t love God so much. … This brother represents the “unattractive goodness” of so many people who have a good church going, worshipping, Bible studying, praying Christianity. They go to church, love Jesus, read the Bible, and feel that they are a little less sinful than people who live outside the church. They feel that those of us who are here today are a little more righteous and well behaved and well mannered than those who are outside the church. Our dirt is a little bit cleaner than “their” dirt. This story of the older brother represents the unattractive goodness of so many self-righteous Christians who are blind to their own faults. … I like that phrase, “Lord, make the bad people good, and the good people a little more likeable and pleasant.” … It reminds me of a poem, “We are the choice selected few and all the rest are damned. There is room enough in hell for you, we can’t have heaven crammed.”  There is room enough in hell for you, we can’t have heaven crammed. The poem reveals an attitude of smug religious self righteousness, that you will be judged by God and I won’t be.

I sometimes wonder which of the two brothers was more bitter inside. The younger brother in the gutter of the far country or the older brother who had stayed home and his heart became hard. Hard towards other people. Fault-finding of other people. Who had a sour heart and an acid tongue. His heart judged other people and he was loveless inside. O yes, he may have loved his wife, children, grandchildren and friends, but anyone outside of his circle, he secretly disdained. You wonder which of the two was more miserable. The one in the far country in the gutter or the one who had stayed home and whose heart had become sour and loveless to people outside his circle.

I often wonder, what would have happened if that younger brother would have been coming home, coming closer to the father’s house. What would have happened if he would not met the father first but the older brother? What do you think would have happened to the younger if he had been first met by his older brother? Do you think he would have made it into the father’s house? I don’t think so.

It could be that some of our brothers and sisters in life are kept from Christian congregations by the very fear of encountering so-called good church people. Such people may not return to the church because they fear they will encounter judgmental hearts and faultfinding attitudes. The disease of “faultfindingitis” was found in the elder brother and I am suspicious that it is often found in the church today. Finding faults may keep unchurched people away. When those who have been away from the church for a while come back, you hope that these unchurched people may meet Christians whose hearts are filled with grace. How unfortunate if they ran into someone with a judging heart.

So, basically, we have two brothers. We have one brother who is the prodigal of the flesh and the other is a prodigal of the spirit. Both are loved. Both are loved deeply by God, the father.

And then we come to the third character in this classic story of Jesus. Of course, it is the father. The father had been waiting lovingly for his son to come home. When his wayward son finally came home, he put a ring on his finger, a coat on his back, shoes on his feet, and he threw a party. This same father deeply loved the son who had stayed home, and this loving father went out onto the porch to find his older son, and said, “Son, I love you. Son, my inheritance is yours. Son, why don’t you come inside and see your brother.”  And so we find that the father loved both prodigal sons.

Now, for a moment, let us talk about the father. My favorite story about the waiting father is the old classic sermon illustration. I would like to share this old favorite story with you. The young son had gone to San Francisco. He was out of money, out of friends, out of options. He had hit the bottom and was at wits ends. This lost son wrote a letter home to his parents living in the Seattle area. He wrote, “Dear Mom and Dad, I have sinned deeply against you. I have sinned against you and I have sinned against God and I am not worthy to be called your son. There is no reason for you to love me or welcome me back home. I am at the bottom of the barrel and I need to come back home. I hope that you would welcome me. I have been given a ticket for a train, a ticket to get me back to Seattle.  The train comes past our farm south of Seattle. The train comes around the bend and right past our farmhouse. If you want me to come home, please put a white towel on the clothesline, out in the back yard near the tracks. I will then know that you want me to come back home. If there is no towel there, I understand. I will understand that it is not right for me to come back home.” The young man sent the letter, got on the train, and started heading north. As he came closer and closer to home, he became more nervous inside and was pacing up and down the center aisle of the train. As the train came closer and closer to his farmhouse, he couldn’t bear it anymore. He was momentarily  sitting next to a man, and he said to him, “Sir, around this next corner, this next bend, there is going to be a farm house of the left. A white house. An old red barn behind it. A dilapidated fence. There will be a clothesline in the back yard. Would you do me a favor and look and see if there is a white towel hanging on the clothesline? I know it sounds peculiar, but I can’t bear to look.”  Well, the train came closer and closer to the bend and started to go around the bend, and the young man’s heart was racing as fast as it could. The man said, “Look, look, look. Open your eyes.” The whole clothesline was covered with white towels. The oak trees were covered with white sheets. The barn roof was covered with sheets. The old dilapidated fence was covered with white sheets. There were sheets everywhere. The father and mother so deeply wanted their son to come back home.

And so it is with God and you and me. When we have wandered away from God and we do. When we take our God given inheritance and get wrapped up in the things of this world so that we forget God, we live and feel as if God does not exist. Sometimes, we come to our senses. Sometimes, we come to our senses and we come back home to an intimate loving relationship with God and his family. And God is so happy when we do.

And sometimes, when we stayed home in the church, and our hearts have become calloused and hard, not to our children, grandchildren and friends, but when our hearts have become calloused and hard to those outside the church…sometimes when we start to feel that our sins are better than their sins…sometimes our hearts have become sour and loveless and acidic to people who are very different than we are…sometimes, we wake up and come to our senses and we come back home to God.  And we come back to a loving God who wants so deeply for us to come back and live as loving children within his house.

Some people have said that the story of prodigal son is the priceless pearl of Jesus’ parables. I am one who agrees. Amen.

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