Preached on 31 March 2019 at Church of the Ascension in Seattle, Washington
The fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C
How did I wind up with the pigs? Envying pigs?
Looking from the outside, and with hindsight, we can see a number of factors that might have landed him in that situation.
- There is a famine in the land. This one is completely out of his hands. There are, most likely, lots of people who are hungry and suffering.
- No one helps him. Well, that’s not entirely true, the pig farmer gives him a job – but it’s not enough of a job for him to feed himself.
- He is a stranger in another country. These are not his people; He doesn’t have any connections in this place. He is separated from his family, his friends, his community. And
- He spent all his money. He has nothing left. “It’s his own fault.”
Any one of these can be disastrous, Add them all up, though, and here he is, envying pigs.
But then, then he comes to his senses; he comes back to himself. He remembers who he is. He is still his father’s son. So, he works out a plan to get himself out of this situation with the pigs. He knows just what he will say to his father. Is he sincerely repentant? Or is he planning how to manipulate his father? At least he’ll eat. He won’t be hungry and he can leave the pigs behind.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
His father is probably still grieving the loss of a son, but is living in that limbo of not knowing.
The father wonders, How is he? Is he ok? Is he happy? Is he dead? Has he married; are there grandchildren? Will I ever see him again?
There is no mention of his wife, their mother. Is he widowed? Does he worry that he has failed her? That he has failed his sons? Does he beat himself up with “if only’s?” And all along, he exists in the darkness of not knowing, of waiting, hoping.
Back at the ranch, there’s also the brother. I wonder, does he miss his brother who left? The brother he grew up with, played with fought with, maybe stuck up for and took care of after their mother was gone; the brother who knows his secrets and how to push his buttons; the brother who shared his life with all its joys and sorrows, troubles and celebrations. The brother who knows him better than any other human being is gone. Or were they already estranged before he left?
Does he resent him from the moment he walked away? He’s had to do not only his own work but at least some of the brother’s work as well.
Does he wish he could have gone with him?
Or that he had thought of it first?
I wonder if the father and son comfort one another and help each other through? Or do their grief or anger or resentment or any of the other complicated emotions create a wall between father and son?
How long have they already been waiting when the son finally shows up? He’s all prepared with his speech. He’s been planning the whole scene out in his mind. But what he isn’t prepared for is his father’s welcome. He’s overwhelmed. His father doesn’t even let him get out his well-practiced plea. If he isn’t sincerely repentant when he arrives, he may be after this welcome.
Of course the father wants to celebrate! He rejoices that the son he lost is okay, he’s back. Who wouldn’t?
But why didn’t he send word to his other son so that he could see his brother; so that he could join the celebration? By the time he gets home from work, the party is well underway. No wonder he feels resentful! The parable tells us his father pleads with hm to go into the party, to join the celebration. But it doesn’t tell us whether or not he does.
Is this a parable about repentance? It never uses the word, although the previous two parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin do. Is it about grace? Forgiveness? Is it about estrangement and reconciliation? Or is it about the character of God?
Jesus tells this series of parables to Pharisees and Scribes who are grumbling about who Jesus hangs out with and eats with: tax collectors and Sinners; the “wrong sort” of people. Jesus is driving at a point; a point that makes them uncomfortable at best.
What does this parable say to you, especially on this fourth Sunday in Lent; Rose Sunday? How does it touch your life? Does it move your heart?
What does it call you or inspire you to? Gratitude? Generosity? Repentance? Forgiveness? Reconciliation? To reach out to others?
Familiar stories can lull us. We’ve heard them so many times and we’ve heard so many sermons on them, what more can be said? They could be a comforting bedtime story. That’s what we want from Jesus, isn’t it? Comfort and reassurance.
But parables are intended to shock the listener, even offend – especially those of us who may think we are good: we go to church and do what is right; follow the teachings of Jesus, well, within reason. We may even use them to judge who’s in and who’s out. And then along comes a parable that upends what we think we know, if we’re paying attention.
I mean, we would never end up envying pigs!