Ars Praedicandi: The Two Prodigal Sons and Forgiveness

Luke 15:11-32
A Sermon prepared for Sunday of the Prodigal Son, February 24, 2019

Forgiveness is something we discuss within the life of the Church. We have a system for forgiveness and we designate numerous cognates for it: remission of sins, washing, cleansing, and often enough, we dive into the language of atonement, of the payment of a debt that cleans the proverbial slate for us. We explain Baptism as the forgiveness of sins, we point to the reception of Holy Communion as renewing us each time we receive, and we prepare ourselves and our children to engage the Church’s system of forgiveness through the mystery of Confession.

The images produced by our explanations are profound, especially the picture we behold of God as the one who removes our sin and withholds punishment.

But ultimately, we probably do not know how to receive forgiveness and how to honor it when it is given by God.

Today’s Gospel lesson is given to us in preparation for us to become recipients of God’s forgiveness.

To be sure, the proclamation of this Lukan Gospel within the liturgical setting illuminates numerous aspects of how forgiveness works.

First of all, we have already been told that we must become accusers of ourselves – and not others – in last week’s Lukan lesson on the parable of the publican and the Pharisee.

Presumably, we are aware of our sin – a habit of sin that distances us from God. Again, let’s be clear about this: when we sin, we increase the gap between us and God because sin is selfish, oriented towards fulfilling imaginary needs that can never satisfy us, however we perceive or experience those needs (hunger, thirst, passion, desire, anger, and so on).

This week’s lesson tells us both about how satisfying these impulsive passions makes us miss the mark that God has set for us, and how the distance between us and God increases. In the story, the prodigal son’s orientation to his own impulses, his own passions, drives him far away from home. He seeks fulfillment in carousel – eating, drinking, being merry, partying – when he should be saving his inheritance for the future (and for us, this means living in such a way that is an investment in the kingdom of God). It’s on this day that we begin singing Psalm 137 at Vigil, “By the Waters of Babylon” – when we sing this psalm, we are lamenting our self-imposed exile from God. The song reminds us that we are far from home – we’re supposed to want to return home.

The story then unfolds in such a way as to instruct us on how we should act by reminding us that it is not too late – we can come home because we are assured – promised! – that God will greet us with great joy, the kind of joy evidenced by an old man running from the steps of his home to greet the one who has been lost.

The outcome, then, is a happy one – right? It’s happy because the prodigal is not shamed, but restored without question. His decision to go home is decisive – he realizes that receiving forgiveness means to move on from past sins and develop new habits of living – habits that revolve around investing in the kingdom of God that is our destiny.

The holy editors and compilers of the biblical texts are geniuses in their understanding of the human condition. They compiled and ordered these narratives in such a way so that we find ourselves written into the stories (and this should not be surprising, because the Bible just tells us about ordinary humankind).

We learn today that receiving forgiveness is complex because we’re not only the prodigal son – we are also his older brother who is consumed by envy and anger when he had invested properly and received no tangible reward.

How often does this classical parable play out in life? God removes the label of “sinner” from someone who seeks restoration, and we pick it up off the ground and try to pin it back on. We want validation and vindication for our accomplishments, but when it comes to those whom we deem as unworthy or uncanonical, not only will we refuse to show up for the feast in their honor, but we will wait until the host of the banquet withdraws so we can return all of the prodigals and unrepentant to Hades, push them into the depths of Sheol as far as possible, and then lock the door behind them.

Today’s Gospel is not only about the prodigal son. We can find ourselves to be like the older brother who is so choked by bitterness and envy that he cannot himself enjoy the hospitality and charity of his father’s house. In other words, there are two prodigal sons in this parable. One has alienated himself from his father by trying to satisfy his passions. The other distanced himself from his father and his brother by indulging in anger and envy.

The Gospel tells us that the younger brother returned to receive forgiveness; we do not know the fate of the older brother. We know that at any given time in our lives, we could be either brother – tempted by the false promises of vices, or alienated from the love of God by our disdain for our family, friends, and neighbors.

What God promises us in this Gospel is a warm welcome and complete restoration to God’s household, if we simply approach and come home. This is forgiveness: to be restored. And God’s forgiveness is always there; we are the ones who cut ourselves off when we choose envy and bitterness. As we prepare for Lent, brothers and sisters, we have the opportunity to put the bad decisions and brokenness of the past behind us. Every day, our society invites us to find a reason to demonize our neighbor and declare them to be our enemy. We confront these demonic temptations in our Church, too, when we are asked to join the bandwagon of demonizing those we deem as unworthy of God’s forgiveness. The world needs the witness of Christians who confess their sin and have the courage to return to God, of those who join the heavenly father at rejoicing upon the repentance of sinners. Let us continue our offering today with thanksgiving for the lifegiving word of God and a prayer that God would grant us the courage to come home and receive the forgiveness he freely gives to all who approach.

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