Fourth Sunday in Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The Gospel lesson that we have been assigned to read this morning is perhaps one of the most fundamental—or at least one of the most famous—stories of our Christian tradition: the Parable of the Prodigal Son. My sense is that this is a text that we have heard too many times to count, and we’ve debated about its meaning and whether we actually like the story or not. Nevertheless, we likely have an impression of it.

Our reading drops us into a scene where tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to what Jesus was saying. The text tells us that there were Pharisees and scribes who saw this and began to grumble, saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

The lectionary text then skips two whole parables and leads us to the story of the prodigal son, but I want to briefly look at the two stories that we passed over. The first of these is the parable of the lost sheep. A shepherd somehow loses one sheep out of one-hundred, and the story goes that the shepherd will leave the ninety-nine to seek the one lost. And when he finds it, “he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” Just so, Jesus says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” [1]

The next parable is a similar one, in which a women has ten silver coins and loses one of them. She scours her house until she finds it, and upon finding it, calls together her friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, Jesus says, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” [2]

And so it seems as though we have a common theme to set us up to hear this new story: repentance. With this in mind, we can see how this is a text for this season of Lent. After all, Lent is all about repentance and the inner work of journey with Jesus to the cross. This finally brings us to our parable at hand today:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger of his sons demands his share of the inheritance, which at the time would have been tied up in the property that the family owned. So the father grants this request, and the son sells off the land, liquidating his assets, and moves to a foreign land, where it is said that he squanders the money in “dissolute living.”

And when he had spent everything, the story tells us, a great famine took hold of the land, and he was in great need. He finds work to one of the citizens of that country, and he finds himself feeding pigs. It got so bad in the pigsty that he would have eaten the pods that were given to the pigs. And then this son came to himself and 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 got 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. [3]

I don’t know if you noticed it or not, but there’s never quite the language of repentance in this. Indeed, those who would have been listening in the first century likely would have heard a conniving son rather than a contrite one. [4] Instead of repenting, he seems to come back to his spoiled self. The biblically-literate of the audience would have heard echoes from the book of Exodus, in the middle of the plagues that were sent against Egypt. As the locusts were swarming the country, Exodus tells us that “Pharaoh hurriedly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘I have sinned against he Lord your God, and against you.’” [5] What we see here isn’t repentance; instead, it’s trickery. The hope is that if he can say the right words and sound contrite, Moses and Aaron will feel sorry for him, forgive him, and end the plagues. And in our story today, it’s not that the youngest son is truly sorry; he just wants to have some food in his stomach, and he thinks that he can take advantage of his father yet another time.

So this son makes the journey home, likely practicing this speech so that he can sound as convincing as possible. And as he’s still far off, his father sees him in the distance. I like to think that his father had been staring off into the distance, waiting for the day when his son would return. And when that day finally came, his heart was filled with compassion.

There are other instances within the Gospel of Luke in which we can read about someone’s heart being filled with compassion. One is in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. As the traveler is laying in the ditch, on the verge of death, the first two people see him and travel on by. But third, a Samaritan, sees him and is filled with compassion for him. So he takes him, puts him up in a hotel, and begins mending him. [6] The other instance is when Jesus himself is walking in the town of Nain and sees a funeral procession; a widow’s only son has died. Jesus sees the widow and is moved by compassion, comforts the mothers, and walks over to the coffin, saying, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” [7] The compassion is not a surprising reaction, nor is it an empty one; it signifies a recognition that one who has long been considered death can still become alive; that resurrection is possible. [8]

And so the younger son is met by his father, who begins hugging and kissing him. The son begins to start in his fake apology, but he never quite reaches the “treat me like a hired servant part,” because the father interrupts him and tells his servants to begin arrangements for the party. It’s likely the father would have recognized the opening line in the same way that the earliest listeners would have; it’s possible that he knew that the apology and repentance was all for show and not out of sincerity. But here’s the thing: I don’t think he cares. More than anything, he’s just happy that his son is back. In the face of what was certainly death, there was a moment of resurrection; the son that was dead has come back to life. [9]

We as Christians have gotten so used to a certain formula—in which we sin, we apologize, and then we receive grace—that it’s hard to make sense of his reaction. We can’t make sense of a father treating his son—the son who swore him off and severed all ties to the family—like the beloved son that he originally was.

Because, I think, this is the point. Rather than what we often like to believe, forgiveness doesn’t necessarily come after repentance. Instead, forgiveness is bestowed before we even have the chance to say we’re sorry; before we even recognize that we have done something wrong.

David Lose, a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota, puts it this way:

Of course God hopes we repent and learn and love each other better over time. But whether we do or not isn’t, finally, the issue. The issues is that God loves us so much God doesn’t wait for our confessions to forgive us. God doesn’t wait for us to come to our senses to love us. God doesn’t wait for sincerity to redeem us. God just comes after us, running toward us pell-mell like that desperate, crazy-in-live, just-glad-we’re- home father….Because in the end this story isn’t nearly as much about a reckless, even wasteful and extravagant son as it is about a reckless, and even wasteful and extravagant God who has so much forgiveness to grant that God dishes it out with abandon, so much grace to offer that God pours it upon us whether we deserve it or not, so much love to share that God simply can’t hold back but lavishes it upon us so recklessly that it’s just plain hard to believe. [10]

And it’s likely that this would have been understood in a similar way to the original audience. There’s a Jewish midrash from around 845 CE that says this:

A king had a son who had gone astray from his father on a journey fo a hundred days. His friends said to him, “Return to your father.” He said, “I cannot.” Then his father sent word, “Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you.” So God says, “Return to me, and I will return to you.” [11]

“Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you.”

What beautiful news to hear in this season of Lent. For it seems far too often that we think of Lent as a time in which we do the inner work in an attempt to get closer to God in hopes that it’s enough to be in God’s good graces. We take on a practice or give something up, often with a hope that we can do enough for God to have mercy on us and forgive us. But what we hear this morning is that, while we are still far off, God is already running to us. While we may have just started the journey back to God, God is already on the journey to us. No matter how recklessly or wastefully we may live, God is still filled with compassion at the sight of us; God still sees the possibility of resurrection within us.

And so, my friends, here is the good news within this season of Lent. Sometimes we come to God with false pretenses, hoping to lie our way into forgiveness. Sometimes we come to God like the older brother, full of resentment. Sometimes we can’t go very far on the way to God, and sometimes we can’t even take a step. But regardless of where we are, God is running to us, meeting us on the road back home. For God has come to us within our flesh and bones. God has come to us in the wilderness. God has come to us even in death.

Repentance is still part of it all. God knows that we still have some confession to do, for things that we’ve said and done; for the things we should have said and done but didn’t. But we do so knowing that we have already been forgiven. We do so knowing that grace and mercy and love have long already been granted to us. We do so knowing that we have been found.

1 Luke 15:7
2 Luke 15:10
3 Luke 15:17-18
4 Amy-Jill Levine. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. HarperOne: 2014.
5 Exodus 10:16
6 Luke 10:25-37
7 Luke 7:11-17
8 Levine, Short Stories by Jesus
9 David Lose, “Deliberate Ambiguity,” deliberate-ambiguity
10 Lose, “Deliberate Ambiguity”
11 Pesikta Rabbati, 184-85