Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
April 7, 2019
Text: Luke 15:20, Old Testament: Isaiah 43:16-21,
New Testament: Luke 15:11-32
Several years ago, I was called to visit a man whose wife had died. He was living alone in a senior care facility north of Pittsburgh. He was alone, except for the residents and staff around him. I talked with his care givers and they said he had no family who visited.
He wasn’t the first church member I visited in a senior care facility who had no one visiting them. There were others. However, his story haunted me.
The man had been a successful businessman during his earlier years. His wife and he had lived in a very posh neighborhood. The church office staff knew them well. They had been large contributors to the church.
They were a kind, gentle couple who carried a tremendous burden.
They had a daughter. They had sent their daughter to a great university where she had succeeded academically. When the girl was younger, she had gone to church with her parents every Sunday and seemed to be a happy person.
Something happened in college. She stopped talking to her parents, stopped coming home during the summers. Stopped communicating in any way with her parents.
Her father and mother learned through her sister that their daughter married a young man. But the wedding was conducted without her parents. The sister wouldn’t tell them where she was living. Eventually the sister who had been communicating with them, stopped talking with them as well.
They never heard from their daughters again.
The man and his wife were devasted. By the time I had become his pastor, the father was suffering from dementia. When he died, like his wife, he was buried without his daughters present.
I never learned why they couldn’t have tracked their daughters’ location through their Social Security numbers. Or if they did but were prohibited from knowing their whereabouts.
What I did know is this kind couple went to church every Sunday until they were too feeble to live on their own. They prayed for their daughters until they were unable to pray anymore.
Both girls were baptized as infants. Their parents who sworn before God to raise them to love and know Jesus Christ. Both girls were confirmed in the church they were baptized and were taught the meaning of their baptism.
They had been taught to honor their mother and father – the Fifth Commandment. They had learned about God’s covenant and their responsibility in it as children who were born into God’s covenant through Jesus Christ.
These two children of God never came back to their mother and father.
They put in context Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son.
My hunch is Jesus was telling the story that some father had told him about his son. Jesus had thought about how to interpret the story. Jesus had considered the possibility that the father should reject the son who had rejected the family.
Jesus had contemplated whether the son should have been accepted back into the household after rejecting the terms of God’s covenant that binds children to honor their mother and father. After all the son had violated God’s covenant.
The son had chosen to squander the blessings God had given his parents for their faithfulness. Not only had he squandered these blessings, he chose to leave the entire Jewish nation for a foreign land. He had totally forsaken his responsibility as a son of God’s chosen people.
The prodigal son had used his free will to reject God’s covenant with Israel. He had thrown away the inheritance of God’s covenant for living a life that God’s covenant forbid. Once he had lost everything he had, he began taking care of pigs – the very animals that represented uncleanness before God.
So why would Jesus interpret the choices this young man made as worthy of receiving his father’s forgiveness?
These choices he made were not why the young man was worthy of his father’s forgiveness. Not one of these choices was worthy of forgiveness. Each was made by a young man who had disowned his parents.
He had consciously elected to leave behind everything his parents represented – which meant leaving behind Israel’s covenant with God for which they stood.
They had been honorable before God. The gave their son his inheritance even though they knew he was leaving. They taught him that what he was doing had consequences. By rejecting this father and mother, he was rejecting the family’s covenant with God that was handed down from generation to generation as their inheritance.
He had rejected the stipulations of God’s law that prohibited him from doing what dishonored his mother and father. When he left the bounds of Israel’s nation to make a life among foreign people who worshipped foreign gods, he had rejected God’s law and had dishonored his parents.
By working with unclean pigs who were prohibited in Israel by God’s command, he had rejected God’s cleanliness laws that preserved Israel’s covenant purity before God.
By leaving Israel, the son had dishonored his father and mother among the people of Israel. His departure wasn’t a private event, un-noticed by God’s chosen people. The son’s abandonment of his mother and father was evident in the community.
The prodigal son wasn’t simply content to leave Israel. He squandered his inheritance on a lifestyle God prohibited. This was the final insult. He was not simply content to leave his father and mother and Israel behind. The prodigal had chosen to live the that God forbid.
He had chosen freedom from God rather than freedom to glorify God.
The prodigal son was not worthy of the father’s forgiveness or God’s forgiveness.
Yet Jesus says the father embraced his “dis-graceful” son and welcomed him.
Here is one of the challenging problems grace creates. It appears the father is conceding to his son that God’s laws are empty. They’re void of merit. Disobeying the law merits punishment, rejection. Ignoring the law merits judgment, disdain.
The other son is justifiably upset. He followed God’s instructions and honored his parents. He worked with integrity and valued the blessings of his father’s love. He was righteous and was a role-model in the community of righteousness.
The son who stayed objected to his father making God’s law irrelevant.
Grace is not the proper reaction to rejecting God’s instruction. Grace is not the proper response of a father to a son who not only violates God’s covenant, but mocks God’s covenant, and disowns God Himself.
It wasn’t so much that the righteous son was jealous as he was offended by his father’s forgiveness. Everything his father taught him and lived by, was being ignored when his father offered forgiveness to total disobedience.
The key to understanding Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is the righteous son was unaware of what the father knew about the dis-graceful Son. The Prodigal Son admitted that he had not only violated his relationship with his parents, but he had violated his relationship with God.
The Prodigal Son accepted responsibility for the choices he made. He admitted to rejecting God’s instruction. He showed that he knew that he had mocked God’s righteousness with his freedom.
The father sees the Prodigal Son was never totally free from what he was taught about God. He recognizes the tremendous risk the Prodigal Son was taking by coming back to his father. The Prodigal risked his father’s rejection. The Prodigal risked the community’s rejection. The Prodigal risked the humiliation and the threat to his life for violating God’s command.
The Prodigal had shown humiliation and acknowledgement that he had miss-used his freedom to reject God.
His admission of guilt was not compelled by his father’s threats. Nor was his admission of responsibility imposed on him by his community. He had total freedom to avoid both by remaining where he was with all the destitution he was experiencing in his shame and impoverishment.
For a Jew to be willing to eat from the trough of unclean pigs was a condition of social dis-grace that was hard to surpass.
He knew what his father stood for and he was willing to trust his father’s response regardless of what it might mean. He had prepared himself for rejection and was willing to accept it. But he had to come back home because it was right for his parents, and it was right before God.
The father responded with compassionate extravagance because he recognized his son’s contrition as atonement for his sin. Certainly, God would do as much.
This is what a wise father does who seeks God’s guidance in his relationship with his children.
This is the wisdom of parenting – when and on what conditions do we extend grace. When, and on what conditions is forgiveness the only Godly response to a child’s rejection of God.
The Prodigal Son had revealed that his lesson was learned in word and in deed. The father reacted the only way a father would who is faithful to God’s covenant. He received his repentant child with gratitude.
As for the two daughters about whom I first spoke, we pray for them. May the Parable of the Prodigal Son open their eyes. Amen.