Year C; Lent 4; 3.31.2019
I remember attending one of the Saturday services of Eucharist at St. John’s House in
Durham, North Carolina. The brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist had a guest
house in Durham near where John and I lived. The brothers greeted neighbors like me and a
good number of Methodist seminarians from Duke in their home. The Superior of the order at
the time was Brother Martin Smith whose books on spirituality and reconciliation I had
devoured. Every Saturday they opened their home for Eucharist and breakfast afterward. The
chapel was located in what had been the formal dining room of this house. This particular
Saturday, Martin Smith was the preacher.
The lesson was familiar to me. I had known it as the parable of The Prodigal Son from
Luke’s Gospel. Being the “responsible” daughter in my family, I had always sat in judgement of
that squandering son….and I think I still do to this day. So, “prodigal” was a word that I
embraced: a reckless, wanton, and squandering human being. I’ve never really trusted the
younger brother’s motives, even though I’m sure Jesus told the story to demonstrate to sinners
that God is always ready to forgive them.
I seem to identify with the harsh judgment and resentment of the older brother. That
Saturday, as Brother Martin Smith preached on this parable, I was surprised when he renamed
the parable to “the foolish father.” He said that everything the father did was considered foolish.
He foolishly lavished on the son his inheritance when he asked for it. And he foolishly and
joyfully embraced the squandering son’s return.
I was shocked to hear this because I had just learned that Jesus had intended for this story
to convey the character of God. Was he saying that God was “foolish?” Great, now, not only had
I questioned the sincerity of son’s repentance, I had to question the father’s competence and my
tidy view of a parent-God who didn’t seem to know the good boundaries of saying “no” to a
Well, we read this story at our Thursday Vestry meeting last week. Phil Studwell read it
to us out loud. Then we paired up and had a conversation about it. We were to listen deeply to
our partner and then share what they had to say with the group. Some of us saw a compassionate
father. Some of us expressed relief to know that when we are “under water” we can return to the
joyful mercy of God. Some of us who live and work with children thought a child might hear this
story and think that the father was rewarding bad behavior. And some of us questioned the
sincerity of the squandering son who returned and asked forgiveness.
I was among the last group. I truly wondered whether someone like that wouldn’t try to
manipulate his father into giving him more after he returned. Maybe that’s how he always got
ahead in life, and with his father. He is in a tight spot now; in a foreign land having spent his
entire inheritance, and now, during a famine he was surviving by living with and feeding pigs –
the lowest and most unclean and humiliating thing for a Jewish person. And so, he says, “Oh
yes! I have come to myself. Let me have a share of what my father’s servants have; shelter and
food. Forget these swine. I’m going home. I’ll even rehearse what I’ll say to my father when I
So he returns home. And, even before they are face-to-face, the foolish father runs to
him and pulls him into his arms. The son gives his confession and asks for forgiveness, though
the father had not waited to hear these words before he ran to him. He had already forgiven him.
Not so with the older brother. The older brother harbored resentment and anger. I’ve
always thought it would have been important for the younger brother to say how sorry he was to
the older brother. Before they all went in to the party, couldn’t the younger brother have found
him and said, “I’m sorry I left you with all the daily tasks to look after.” Maybe then the older
brother might have had less resentment and joined the party.
But that didn’t happen. The prodigal son received a banquet and robes and a signet ring
the symbol of inheritance reinstatement. Was this the wrong reinforcement of bad behavior?
What if it doesn’t matter? What if the actual “return” is what God wants from those of us
who have become lost? What if the parable is about the “return” only? In the bidding to receive
the ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, we are called “…to the observance of a holy
Lent…to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, ….kneel
before the Lord, our maker and our redeemer.”
What if “to make a right beginning” is what God really wants, over and over again?
GOD WANTS THAT. In Matthew’s Gospel when a troubled Peter came to Jesus to ask how
many times he must forgive someone, didn’t Jesus say that he is to forgive “seventy-times
seven,” as an example of the infinite amount of forgiveness God gives US?
What if Jesus wants all the hearers to listen to how the father loves and forgives so
foolishly? What if the squandering son is beside the point? After all, the story begins with Jesus
hearing the grumbling of the people like me – the people in the culture who are in charge of the
ethical behavior and cultural norms of the time; people like good, ethical people were
They were grumbling it says because Jesus was eating with sinners. Known outcasts and
notorious sinners were actually following him and listening to him. He was seen associating with
women of questionable social standing and all kinds of sinners, no doubt many who had
squandered their lives over and over again. They needed to know of the father’s endless love for
them. They longed for it.
The “sinners” came to Jesus. They sought him out and listened to what he had to say.
They saw in his behavior someone accepting of them. He befriended them with a joyful spirit.
He didn’t grumble. He welcomed them and broke bread with them. He just accepted and
embraced them. He healed them. He loved them.
As they were breaking bread together, perhaps Jesus learned the story of one of the
notorious sinners. Maybe his was the story for the younger son – the prodigal. Maybe Jesus knew
his story and told this parable in front of him to let him know that it is always a good thing to “go
back home to God.”
And the hearers of the story would wonder what kind of love is this? What kind of
forgiveness is this? Is there a god who will greet me like that, even after a lifetime of greed, theft,
promiscuity, cheating, extorting from widows and even prideful resentment and distrust?
This story really is not about whether or not the younger son is sincere in his repentance.
The story is about God and God’s whole-hearted joy every time we return. What was lost is now
found. Our father is quite foolish in the distribution of his love.