You can stay home and still be lost. You don’t have to squander love on wild living to create distance between those who love you. You don’t have to get locked up to live your life behind bars. Jealousy can do it. Pride can do it. Anger can do it. Fear can do it. Bitter self-righteousness is as nasty as sleeping in the mud with pigs. Dining on resentment is no better than dining on pig slop.
Last week we looked at the youngest brother. The one who squandered his father’s love and then wanted to return it broken. What we discovered last week is that God’s capacity for finding us is greater than our talent for getting lost. If you haven’t listened to the message, I want to encourage you to go to gfumc.com and listen.
Have you ever had to welcome a loser back home? Have you ever had to go to a promotion party for someone who you weren’t sure deserved it? Have you ever had to say welcome home when what you really wanted to say was get the heck out of here?
No one asked the older brother what he thought about having his pig-loving, family betraying sibling back home. No one asked what it felt like wearing the second best robe because the best one had been given to the younger brother. No one asked what it was like to pick up the slack while the younger brother was wasting his life at binge parties. No one asked him how it felt to watch his father have sleepless nights staring through the blinds hoping for his son to come home. And now, you want him to sit down at the same table with this self-centered, reckless-living, careless brother and have a feast? You want him to join a homecoming party?
Preacher and scholar, Fred Craddock told a story about the time he was teaching Sunday School at a small rural church. On this particular occasion he discovered that the weekly lesson was based on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. In his lesson he invited the class to imagine that the story ended differently. In Craddock’s version, the prodigal son “comes to himself” and decides to go home and throw himself on his father’s mercy. As he gets close to the house, he hears the sound of music and dancing. He asks the servants what is going on and the servant says, “Your father has killed the fatted calf and is holding a great feast for your older brother, because he has served him faithfully for so many years!”
Craddock let the ending sit silent in the room. Suddenly there was a loud thud in the back of the room where a woman had smashed her fist on the table. After an awkward moment of silence, the woman looked around and said, “And that’s the way it should have happened!”
Most of us love with a calculated love. We consider the sacrifice. We weigh our options. We love by putting our heart on a scale and calculate the benefits. If the benefits outweigh the risks, then we will share our love. But if the risks are greater than the benefits then we give out measures of love.
The father in our story refused to love this way. He risked public shaming. He chanced getting mocked. He opened himself up to getting hurt. The father taught that sometimes it is more important to be reconciled than it is to be right. Sometimes you have to hike up your skirt and run through town as an embarrassment to embrace a son who just wants to come home. Sometimes you have to put down the ego and give out vulnerable love. Sometimes you throw caution to the wind and love courageously.
The older son counts. You can hear it in his voice, “All these years I have been working like a slave…….you never given me even a young goat……..when this son of yours came back.” I have brought you home nothing but straight “A’s.” I have top performed in my class, in my sport, in my career. I have done everything to earn your love. The father says you can’t love this way. Unconditional love does not exist on the scales of calculated devotion.
In 1668, toward the end of his life, Rembrandt painted “Return of the Prodigal Son.” It now hangs in a hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. In the painting as you move down from the father’s face, you notice the dirty and ragged rags of the returning son’s clothes. The bottom of his feet are visible with one sandal lying on the floor. The son’s bald head is being embraced in his father’s lap. It is as though the son has just walked in and falling at his father’s feet. The son has come home, let him be embraced.
But just off to the side you will notice the older son. He is draped in a red robe and standing with his arms crossed. The light shines on the older son’s face and the look of condescension is written all over it. The son has come home, let him be kicked out.
The power of Rembrandt’s painting is found in the distance between the father who is embracing the wayward son and the older son who stands off to the side. It’s hard to enjoy a reunion party when your heart is full of resentment. Gratitude and resentment cannot occupy the same heart. It doesn’t take running away from home and living a reckless life to find yourself far away from home. It only takes letting resentment take root in the heart. Love cannot be found at home when resentment lives in the heart.
Forgiveness can be hard to swallow. Unconditional love can be hard to wrapped our minds around. Grace can seem so careless. That is until we realize whether we stayed home or not, we are all sinners. We are all in need of being loved.
Dr. Tom Long, one of my professors at seminary, tells a story of the time one of his students went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood. As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary, and the father, an inner city pastor, related experiences of his own. At the halfway point in their jog, they decided to phone ahead for a home delivered pizza. As they headed for the phone booth – before the days of cell phones – a homeless man approached them, asking for spare change. The father reached into his pockets of his coat and pulled out two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said to the homeless man. “Take what you need.” The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “I’ll take it all,” scooped the coins into his own hands, and went his way.
It only took a second for the father to realize that he now had no change for the phone. “Pardon me,” he beckoned to the homeless man. “I need to make a phone call. Can you spare some change?” The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said. “Take what you need.”
If the prodigal son story teaches us anything, it demonstrates to us that somedays we have opportunity to show grace and others we are begging for grace ourselves. And no matter where we find ourselves coming home depends on grace.
If any story deserves a happy ending, it is the tale of two brothers. The father does for the older brother what he does for the younger brother. He goes out to meet him. This is where the story drops off. How does it end? Shall we put aside our resentment and go to the party? Will we keep denying grace even when it keeps us from coming home? Will we sacrifice our own wholeness to simply prove a point? You tell me, how does the story end? Amen.
(Luke 15: 11-32 Preached at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, Georgia)