I grew up attending church with my family most every Sunday. And church meant going to Sunday school. There we heard many, many Bible stories, just as you heard the stories wherever it was you went to worship and just as our children hear the stories at St. Mary’s. The stories have not changed, because the Bible is timeless. The teachings, however, expand as we grow, become clearer as we mature. Some Bible stories of my childhood were lovely and their teachings were self-evident. Miriam watched over her baby brother, Moses, in the bulrushes and kept him safe until he could be discovered by a trustworthy grown up, the pharaoh’s daughter. Watching over baby brothers is what big sisters do. Other stories were harder to hear but the teaching was clear, like the story of the traveler who was beaten and robbed and thrown into a ditch, but then discovered and taken care of by the Good Samaritan. That’s what a good person does for a stranger in need. But then the stories got harder to understand and it became more difficult to grasp how “bad” behavior was rewarded and “good” behavior was scorned. We girls grappled with the hard-working Martha and the devoted Mary. Why was Martha berated and Mary praised? That is a story for another day.
Today’s Gospel story is familiar to all of us who attended Sunday school, and it, too, causes us to grapple with two siblings and their behavior towards each other and towards their father. So, we children in Sunday school class would talk about the children in this story. We recognized that the younger brother had misbehaved, and we could understand that his father was glad to see him come home. The homecoming was worthy of a party. But then again, the older brother had stayed home and worked hard. He should have had a party, too. We all in the classroom had birthday celebrations, we all had our special day that we shared with others. So, we kids wrapped up the story the way we could understand. The older brother was happy to hear the kind words about him from his father, and he went into the party, and had as much fun as everyone else. Oh, it’s good to be nine or ten years old. You can look at a story through those young eyes and add to it, “and they lived happily ever after.”
It wasn’t until I attended the School for the Diaconate and we studied the parables, that I focused on the third person in this story.
In my nuclear family of two parents and four children with our age span of only seven years, there was many a time when my sisters and brother and I were in some sort of trouble. We usually did something that caused more work for our mother, or added havoc to her household routine, or drove her crazy with our screaming and fighting. Our misdeeds were all rather minor, I think, but with four pitted against one, her response often times was to yell at us. It was our father who stepped in with a quiet but firm voice to mediate the situations. But then there was a time when I was a great disappointment to both my parents. I knew I was breaking their hearts, and our future together was in jeopardy. I would not have been surprised had they turned their backs on me. I felt lost in my anguish and the anguish I was causing them. My father sat next to me but would not speak to me nor touch me. It was my mother who said to him, “Put your arms around your daughter.” He did, and there was compassion and there was grace from them both. I had found my way back to them.
I tell you this so that as you envision today’s story, you can see the father at the door of the house. But look inside the house, and there you can see the mother. They are one in the compassion and love of their children.
We first encounter the father when his younger son tells him to give him his share of the property. Asking a parent for one’s inheritance is like saying, “I want now what should come to me upon your death. I want you to be dead and your last will and testament to be put into effect now.” And the father says nothing and divides the property between the brothers. The father next appears in the thoughts of the younger son who has self-destructed and fallen on hard times. In the son’s imagination the father is not seen as forgiving, but seen as an opportunity for the son to have a better boss, one who will work him, yes, but also feed him, unlike the pig farmer.
“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.”
Why did it take me decades to see the parent in this story? Why did I concentrate so much on the behavior of the two brothers? The father has a starring role in this story. The father has allowed himself to be dead to his son, and has allowed his son to leave home, knowing his son may be lost to him forever. And the parent stands at the door and waits and watches. Every day. All day and all night. There. Waiting. Ready. Ready to welcome his son home and to give a party. He runs to his son and greets him with love, even before he hears his son’s confession and remorse. His son was lost, lost to self-centeredness and waywardness, and now is found. And they begin to celebrate.
But not everyone was celebrating. When the father saw that his other son did not come to the party, the father went in search of him and pleaded with him. He listened to his elder son complain. The elder son, who had inherited at the beginning of our story the property and everything on it, does not acknowledge that he even has a brother. He has no heartfelt concern for anyone but himself. This elder brother also was lost - lost to resentment, judgment, and self-righteousness.
Some become lost by running away; others stay home, but still are lost in bitter resentment. Some turn from Jesus and run away; others come to church and worship but with a resentful heart. And our God, our loving parent, wants to seek us out and find us; God is a parent who bids us to join in the great celebration because there is joy when one was lost and is found, no matter how far or near from home we are.
And so, my Sunday school chums. We can’t say or wish that the older son came into the party and they all lived happily ever after. This is the fourth Sunday in Lent, after all, and we know that there is still much forgiveness and reconciliation to be had before we get beyond the cross. All we can know now is that a party is in the works, and we are invited. We are invited through the Grace and love of God. Paul writes to the people of Corinth that they are ambassadors for Christ, and so are we, ambassadors for Christ at the party. Be welcoming to others who come to the party. Go into the streets and find those that are lost and invite them to the party, so that we all may share in the Good News of reconciliation, the Good News of forgiveness before we can even ask, and the Good News of love from God and for God and for all God’s children.