Fourth Sunday in Lent

by Bear Wade

Luke 15:1-3,11-32
(Fourth Sunday in Lent)
analysis by Mike Hoy

1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 11″There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ 20So 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. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him black safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”

DIAGNOSIS: “Old”-Style Prodigals

Step 1–Initial Diagnosis: Reckless Squanderers
This parable is for people, then (in the divisions between Jew and Gentile, Pharisee and religio-social outcast) as well as today (in our own versions of socio-economic-theological divisions), who come from a household of abundant riches, with robe and ring and fatted calf, all from the one Father who supplies us all. On the other hand, prodigals, then as today, have a penchant for being on their own. Taking their share of the inheritance from the abundant riches, these prodigals strike out on independent journeys, leaving behind house and home, if not physically, then mentally. In that leaving behind, the prodigals live the truth of how reckless they (but why not make it first person? we) have become. For as prodigals who are “out there” doing our own thing, unmindful of our interconnectedness with others and all of creation, we are in fact squandering the riches which have been given by our fatherly Creator.

Step 2–Advanced Diagnosis: Distant
That squandering displays itself also in our very spiritual attitude about life: how, for example, we may believe that we can do whatever we want with our life, our time, our talents, our resources. Ironically, what we find in that false belief, or unbelief, is that our time seems too restricted, our talents are underappreciated, our resources are diminished or threatened, and even the people we think we can “buy” are ready to leave us in an instant. The deeper malady is that we have become spiritually distant from others and from God, no matter how physically proximate we may be.

Step 3–Final Diagnosis: Lost
Which gets us to the heart of who and what we are before our fatherly Creator: lost. Truth to tell, we may prefer the lostness over being found. For if the Father, in his wrath, should “find” us and find out what we have done with his gifts–as if he didn’t already know–we couldn’t bear to face him. Better to avoid contact than to face the truth of his appraisal. Even our anger at seeing those who didn’t deserve the breaks they seem to be getting is only a further sign of how lost we are. We do not (cannot) recognize that in our crying out for “fairness” that if God were to “find” us with the fairness that we deserve for being such squanderers with his gifts, none of us could stand. The death of our relationship with our Creator and Giver of all good gifts is at the heart of how lost we really are!

PROGNOSIS: “New”-Style Prodigals

Step 4–Initial Prognosis: Found
But what if the more promising truth is that Jesus is the welcoming representative that the Father sends to find us? What if, as Jesus sits with known outcasts, much to the dismay of the sociological and religious elite, that the Father’s very proximity of love is being demonstrated, and we are in fact being found? Truth is, the Father is willing and able to overcome our lostness by having us embraced and welcomed home. So eager is the Father to convey that message that he does not wait for us to find our way home. He runs out to bring us home, even while we are “still far off.” That is what Jesus was doing at table with the outcasts.

Step 5–Advanced Prognosis: Near (and Dear)
The younger son dared to trust that the Father could be so gracious. That trust, which comes in the form of confessing the truth of how much he has really squandered, might have given him enough courage to do something different with his life. But the real confession, apart from the dry run, comes only after he has seen the fuller truth of what kind of loving and gracious Father he really has. “Does the Father love me still, when the truth of my squandering existence is made known by my own lips?” Ah, but here is the reason for the slaying of the Fatted Calf. The Father, in his own “new”-type of prodigality, is mercifully generous in squandering the “Fatted Calf” (Jesus), his most Prized Possession, to answer that confession with a resounding absolution. So complete is the welcome that nothing will be spared to have the wandering prodigal home and in the Father’s arms. Confessing the truth of our sin is also an act of confessing the faith in the Father’s abundant love; and in such trusting-confession, we are close to the Father–near and dear. That is, indeed, something to celebrate, as we do in the feast of the Fatted Calf.

Step 6–Final Prognosis: Generous
Ultimately, we become free to live as those who are no longer on our own–as if we ever were–but as those who are found in the Father’s mercy, no longer dead but alive. We are reconnected to home and family, and now get to assist in the Father’s work of repeating the promising connection. We become those who may, like our generously merciful Father, becomes those who are also generously merciful. Such “new”-type prodigal living entails getting crucified in the midst of the socio-economic-religious divisions when others are unwilling to hear. Nevertheless, the promise that we bear is the Father’s Last Word–and the celebration of the Fatted Calf is open to one and all.


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