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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sermon: The Relationship Matters

by Interim Pastor Hollie Holt-Woehl
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The parable before us today is well known. In fact it is probably the best known of Jesus’ parables even to the non-Christian world. It is a parable known by different names, “the prodigal son,” “the waiting father,” “the lost son,” “the forgiving father,” etc. It is so well known to us many are able to recite it from memory with quite a bit of detail. It is a parable which touches us as a deeply human tale. The events described in the parable touch the deepest of human emotions; self absorption, a coming to oneself, acceptance/welcoming, anger, and pleading. The characters described in the parable are ones to whom we can relate; the younger son, the father, and the older son. At some point in our lives we may have walked away from our families, maybe we have returned, maybe not. At another point in our lives we may have had a child walk away or stay present but willfully disregard us. Some of our children have come back, for others we are still waiting, some have come to their senses, others are still angry. At yet another point in our lives we may have been the faithful, under-appreciated one, angry at the unfaithful ones who come back. It is a parable that touches us in different ways at different times throughout our lives.

Today I would like to focus on the relationships in this parable. In fact the parable is all about relationships.

Remember the reason Jesus tells this parable is because “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2).

So Jesus tells them three parables of something lost, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons. Now let us look at the last parable. Jesus says, “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11). Right away relationships are established, we have a father, two sons, and two brothers. Relationships are basic to life and they are the way in which we understand ourselves. Relationships are also the way we talk about the Triune God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’” (Luke 15:12) This is usually not done until the father dies. But here the younger son asks his father to die. The son wants to end the relationship with his father. The audacity of this request is not expected to be lost, the younger son wants to cut off completely from this relationship of father and son, even brother and extended family.

What is the father’s response to the impudence of this request, “he divided his property between them.” (Luke 15:12) The father dies to fill his son’s request. This is not an easy request of getting money out of a savings account or cashing out stocks or bonds. The wealth of the family is in the house, buildings, animals, and land. The oldest son would get two-thirds of the estate and the youngest a third. So this sacrifice of the father affects the rest of the family also, the whole family looses one-third of its assets. The severing of this relationship is costly for the father and for the rest of the family.

What about the younger son? “A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country” (Luke 15:13). Was it costly for him? It was, but he may not have realized it right away. In cutting off his relationship with his father and family, he has cut himself off from his insurance, social security, assurance of marriage, and physical and emotional well being, for we have to remember that in Jesus’ day all these things were wrapped up in family relationships. When the younger son left he took everything with him and cut off completely from all previous relationships and travels far away to begin a new life on his own.

This new life doesn’t work out well for him. We read: “There he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything (Luke 15:13-16). He squanders his money, how we don’t know, although his brother thinks he spent his money on prostitutes. So he runs out of money and there is a famine in the land, notice how things outside our control can be much worse when we don’t do well with that which is in our control? Now he has no money because of his own choices and there happens to be a great recession going on and he needs to look for a job in a tight job market. He takes what he can get, which isn’t great. It is the lowest of the low jobs in a Jewish culture, feeding pigs. Jews are not to handle pigs or eat pork. However, he is desperate and takes the job. He has now officially hit bottom.

Yet is it precisely at the bottom when he comes to himself and remembers who he is. He remembers the relationships from which he had severed himself. “But 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! I will get up and go 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”’ (Luke 15:17-19). Things have changed he is now ready to be brought back into relationship, but it will be a new relationship. He does not expect to be welcomed as a son, he will receive a new identity, a hired hand, however he will still address his father as “father.” Now by remembering his father, he gives his father back life and restores his part of the relationship. So the son’s father who was dead is now alive.

“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. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate (Luke15:20-24). Listen to all the relationship language, the word father is used four times and son used three times. The father doesn’t even listen to his son’s prepared speech, he is too busy restoring his son to son-ship. It is only the father who can restore the relationship of the son as the son. The son restored the relationship of the father and was willing to be hired hand, but the father was waiting to welcome his son back. We do not know how long he had been waiting, I think it was many years. I think he waited well beyond the time one should wait for children who walk away. But the father has been waiting for this since he “died” in his son’s eyes. The father rejoices for the son was lost but now is found, was dead but now is alive.

Even though this would be a good stopping point, the story is not over yet. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him” (Luke 15:25-28). The elder son refuses to go in, he cuts himself off from the family. This is a different cut off than his younger brother, he stays in place and cuts himself off. The father doesn’t wait for him, the father comes out to him. The father comes out and pleads with him, the father is offering the same relationship with this son, who doesn’t want anything to do with it.

Listen to his resentment and to the way he cuts himself off from the relationship. “But 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’” (Luke 15:29-30). No longer does he have a relationship with his father, he calls him “you,” nor does he have a brother, “this son of yours.” He cuts off the relationship, but just like with his younger son the father will not allow the cutting off of the relationship. The father again restores the relationship.

“Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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.’” (Luke 15:31-32) He welcomes him as a son and reconnects him to his brother. The father states that the relationship matters more than the rules of fairness. The father at all costs works to keep the relationship with both his sons, through life and death and death and life.

This parable leaves us hanging, we do not know what happens to the elder son, does he join the party or does he walk away? It doesn’t matter. What matters is the relationship of the father to his children.

The relationship matters. That is why God sent Jesus, to show to what lengths God will go to restore our relationship with him. In our baptism in Christ Jesus we are children of God. We are brought into relationship with a loving, caring, forgiving, and giving God, who goes to great lengths to keep us in relationship. God in Christ Jesus opens his arms wide in mercy for all people.

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