The Parable of the Prodigal and His BrotherLuke 15:11-32 (NRSV)
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with[c] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “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.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘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.’”
Jesus often used stories or parables when teaching the crowds. In each story, he used everyday situations and objects to meet the crowds where they were. He used simple stories with deeper moral lessons to help them better understand important concepts like loss, redemption, forgiveness, unconditional love, and the Kingdom of Heaven.
Today’s story of the prodigal son had many characters in it all who played an important role, but also represented different feelings and emotions. Sometimes when we hear a parable, we connect with one person or another. In today’s parable you may feel connected with the younger son that returned home because maybe you have struggled with choices that you have made in the past or judgments that weigh heavy on you. Perhaps you feel lost, or you have at one time, or you worry about what other people think of you. Maybe you connect with the older son that stayed home to help his father. You know that you do all the work, that you are the responsible one, and it is frustrating because everyone else gets the credit.
Well, whichever person you connect with in the story, by listening to the situations and experiences of others we learn compassion. We see, listen, and recognize what other people are feeling, and that helps us to feel their joy or their hurt right along with them. But in the end, compassion helps us to see how every human being is important and loved by God.
In today’s story, the younger son has returned home, and he has asked his father to forgive him. His father reaches out and hugs him and then pulls out all the stops putting on a great feast to celebrate his return. He is not worried about what the son has done; he simply rejoices to have his son back. He says, “He was once lost and now he is found.”
Now the older more responsible son looks not at the importance of his brother’s return but at all the hard work that he has done while his brother was off being irresponsible. It’s easy to think that way sometimes, isn’t it? When we work hard, we want to take the credit. When we work hard, we deserve a reward. But unfortunately, when we think that we know who is deserving or worthy, that is the problem because God’s ways are vastly different from our human understanding.
I always find it interesting that the story of the prodigal son ends with a feast, a great meal. The parable of the prodigal son is about God’s love and forgiveness, but if that had been the only message Jesus was teaching, wouldn’t it have made more sense to conclude the story with the father kissing and hugging his younger son? But we then hear about the older brother’s anger and disappointment, which teaches us about grace. You see, God’s grace is something that we can never earn or deserve. All we can do is receive it–a concept that is difficult for many people to understand. But this grace is what the prodigal son is all about. It is about God’s love for us no matter what we have done. It is about not needing to be considered worthy or to fit in a certain box or to strive for perfection. but it is simply being who God created you to be and knowing that God loves you just the way you are.
Friends, when we celebrate communion, we celebrate that same sense of unconditional love and grace. It is not something that we can earn or deserve, all we can do is receive it. Many people think of communion as a formal ceremony where only the righteous and worthy are welcome. But really, that is the farthest from the truth. Because when Jesus gathered in the upper room with his friends the disciples, he knew that the disciples had no idea what He was talking about, but he fed them anyway. He knew that the disciples did not understand what was going on, but Jesus continued to teach them and to feed them and to lead them, just as he does us.
We also know that as Jesus looked around the table that night, he saw one that had betrayed him, another who would deny him, and he knew the rest of them would abandon him, but Jesus fed them anyway because the table is not about who is worthy. It’s not about perfection and excellence. It’s about healing the broken, feeding the hungry and giving the gift of grace, which we can never deserve–we can only receive.
Friends, at that table of ragtag disciples that night, Jesus taught us all about the importance of communion. He taught us to share a simple meal and remember Jesus as we do. But one of the things that we often forget is that there are no barriers or fences or boundaries to Jesus’ table. There are no membership cards needed, and you do not need to know someone to get a seat because the table is all about grace–a gift that we are given but that we can never earn or deserve. And that night, not only did Jesus offer an abundant gift of grace, but Jesus also made the ordinary extraordinary. He did not set the table with fancy dishes or fine silver. There were no fresh-pressed tablecloths or elaborately folded napkins. There were no golden chalices and fancy catered foods. Jesus simply took what was right in front of him–a piece of bread, something simple, every day, and ordinary. But friends, to tell you the truth, it could have been a cracker or a cookie or some other bit of food that was on the table in front of him because what it was was not as important as what it stood for. Scripture tells us that he blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to them, saying “This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise, after supper, he took a cup, a cup that was on the table in front of him–again, something simple, something every day, and something ordinary. He gave thanks and then shared it with them, saying “This is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink of it, in remembrance of me.” Now Scripture says it was wine, but friends, to tell you the truth, it could have been a cup of coffee, or a glass of water, because again what it was was not as important as what it stood for.
((Sharing of communion))
Friends, when we celebrate communion, we are reminded of the unconditional love and grace that God so graciously shares with us, just like the father in today’s parable shared with his younger son who was lost. But we need to remember that God’s unconditional love is not only for us but for each and every person that God has created: for the son that returned and the son that was there all along, for those of us who have betrayed God and denied God and even abandoned God, and for those who have stayed faithful to the end. Because the truth is, God’s love and God’s grace have nothing to do with us and the things that we do. God’s love and God’s grace are all about God and what God does.
So please, if you have ever been told in the past that you are not welcome or not worthy or not good enough, or you have broken too many rules or you haven’t lived the right way or you simply don’t fit in, by your church or by your family, by your friends or by your colleagues, by your community or by what seems like the whole world, remember that those are human judgments. Those are society’s attempts to control and manipulate. Those are the ideas and responses of men and women, not of God. Because no matter who you are or where you have been, no matter what you wear or who you love, no matter what you look like or what you do or don’t do for work, no matter what political party you support or how you spend your money, no matter where you worship or if you worship at all, no matter where you live or where you come from, God loves you unconditionally and wants your life to be filled with abundant gifts of grace. And that is something you cannot earn or deserve. All you can do is receive it.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into the week ahead, know that you are loved beyond measure. Know that you are filled with amazing gifts to share, and if you ever feel lost or afraid or alone, turn to God who is always there with arms reaching out to welcome you home.
My friends may it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.