Fourth Sunday in Lent
Rev. Ryan Slifka
We have a father. And we have two sons. One older, one younger. And obviously Dad’s got a lot of money. Because when his younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, he’s able to just give it then and there. It’s not all tied up in real estate or stocks. It’s kind of insulting, really. He’s not even dead in the ground and his younger son wants his cut. But Dad just gives it away. Against better judgment. No questions asked.
And what happens next is totally predictable. The son takes his money, heads out of town, I like to imagine it as a cheap flight to Vegas. He touches down and in a matter of sentences the money’s all gone. It doesn’t say this quite yet, but later on in the story, we find out that the son blew every last cent on prostitutes. Feeding his primal appetites. This is the Bible uncensored.
The money’s all gone. Things get worse: a famine hits. Deep recession, so jobs are few and far between. So he ends in livestock, service swine. Feeding pigs. For a young Jewish man he might as well have gone in to prostitution himself, because this is just as bad. He’s got nothing left to lose. His father gave him this incredible inheritance. No questions asked. He got everything he wanted. But then, as fast as he got it, he blew every last cent.
Now, my guess is that few of us have demanded our inheritance and went off to the city to blow it all on elicit entertainment. Some might have. But like the son in this parable, there have no doubt been times where each of us have wasted the good things we’ve been given.
And for us, it’s usually not money. In fact, it’s rarely money. Because losing money is easier to bounce back from than other, more precious things. Our inheritance is usually intangible.
There’s wasted potential and opportunity. Wasted by chance, or by choice. My grandma always used to talk about how my dad could have gone to university. But he chose motorcycles and beer over school. Life could have gone one way, but we went another.
Then there are squandered relationships. We’ve got spouses, or kids, everything we’ve always wanted. But we’re either too selfish, or stubborn, immature, or caught up in our own crap to realize just how good things are until they slip from our fingers. We take things, we take people for granted—parents, spouses, children and friends. And one morning we wake up, and all we’ve got left is regret.
And it’s not just an individual thing, either. It’s a human thing. United Church minister Bruce Sanguin described us as “the Prodigal species,” pointing toward our modern plundering of the earth’s resources and its ecological destruction. “In the past hundred years,” he writes, “we’ve grabbed the 13.7 billion years of sacred inheritance, embodied as Earth, and like the prodigal son, we are in the process of squandering it.”[i]It’s a human thing. A universal thing.
Like the younger son, we, too, waste the good gifts we’re given. Precious ones. Large ones and small ones. Until we squander it all and can’t get it back. As Joni Mitchell says in that classic hippie anthem, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
We’re prodigal people. Always leaning towards blowing the things and burning through the people who matter most.
And yet… losing what we once had doesn’t have to spell the end for us. It can. But it doesn’t have to.
The prodigal son wasted it all. And at one point something shifts. There’s this moment of clarity. “He came to himself,” it says. “He came to himself.” He snaps out of it. He pines over his poverty. His growling stomach conjures up memories of his father’s home. And a table always set with plenty of bread. So resolves to crawl back home on his hands and knees. Giving up on ever being received back as a son. He blew it, after all. He’s willing to work as a hired hand. If only it means he gets to go home. Just to keep him alive.
So he takes that long journey home. Likely filled with fear, anxiety. And shame. But when he turns the corner to that long driveway, he sees his father waiting on the porch. Dad runs out in his slippers, grabs him by the neck, gives him a big kiss on the cheek saying “welcome home.”
Dad has his servants fetch a find robe and toss it over his son’s shoulders. And a ring to put on his fingers. A symbol of belonging. The royal house. And then Dad sends the servants to prepare their finest veal. “Because,” he says “because this son of mine was once dead, and is now alive. He was lost, now he’s found.” Tap the keg. It’s time to party.
Now, the son blew it. It’s all true. But when he returned to his father, he found arms wide open. He thought it was the end. At best, just getting by. He took what he was given, wasted it, it’s true. But he found that his father still had more to give. The son’s not the only prodigal. Prodigal really means, extravagant, wasteful. His father is prodigal, too. Because no matter how his son screwed up. No matter how much he wasted. The father always has more to give.
And, of course, the obvious interpretation of this parable is that we are prodigal sons and daughters. And God is our prodigal parent.
Our lives are a gift. Everything we have, everything we are, our talents, our resources, our relationships, our love, our blessed earth. Our lives are a gift, nothing we created. Nor could create. But an inheritance given freely and in love by our Creator. Like the son, we waste these beautiful, precious things we’re given. And, like the son, we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone. Until it’s too late.
But, when we come to ourselves and return to God, we’ll find that it’s never too late. Because God always has more to give.
It’s never too late. No matter how badly we’ve failed. Or what we’ve wasted. No matter how others have failed or wasted either. God always has more to waste on us. The message of the cross, in fact, is that same message. In Christ, God has given up herself. Wasted everything on us for our sake. So we can come to ourselves. So we can reclaim our birthright, so we can become the people God created us to be. So we as God’s creatures can return home to a robe and ring of resurrection that can never be severed. Or broken.
A couple of months ago, I saw a fantastic movie on Netflix. Dark but deep. A movie called “Calvary.” It’s about a middle aged Catholic priest named Father James in an Irish town. It’s a beautiful movie, and I recommend that everyone see it if you want to learn something about the beauty of Christianity in the face of the world’s ugliness.
But there’s this scene where this priest’s daughter (his wife died before he became a priest), is reminding him of when she was a teen. Life for her wasn’t worth living at the time. She thought about suicide. And she attempted suicide.
In the Roman Catholic Church, suicide is considered a mortal sin, an action that can cause you to lose your eternal salvation. And end up in hell for eternity.[ii] But at the exact right moment she was saved from herself.
And basically, she asks if she’d really gone through with it, would it have been the end? Hell, no going back?
And, with arms open, this prodigal Father reaches out, and he holds her tight. Planting a gentle kiss on the top of her head, he says simply, “God is great.” “God is great,” he says and “God is great… the limits of his mercy have not been set.”
Even in the case of suicide. The gift of life taken and wasted, for which there is no return, only death. At the heart of the universe is a God whose love and mercy has not been set. A God who always has more to give to you, to me. Even when we’ve thrown away life itself.
The limits of God’s mercy have not been set.
This is the good news of Jesus Christ. Even when we waste the good we’re given. Even when we hit rock bottom and can’t see a way to go on. “My son was lost,” he says. “But now he’s found. He was dead and now alive.” It doesn’t mean we’ll get back what we’ve lost, who we’ve lost, or the life we’ve squandered. But it does mean, with God, there’s always the possibility of a new start. New opportunities, new gifts. New opportunities and new horizons. New relationships, and the healing of old ones.
For those of you looking for a new start… know that the arms of Christ are open wide for you in this place. May you find yourself loved. And draped in a robe of resurrection.
And for those of us who have found our way home… our job is to be those open arms. We’re a community working on it, not perfect. But Christ has pulled us into himself to be his body. Not to judge, or say “I told you so.” But to receive fellow prodigals the way we’ve been received. To give the gift we ourselves have been given.
Because our prodigal God, like the prodigal father, always has more life, more love, more goodness to give us.
We waste and waste and waste. But God always has more to give.
Each of us. No matter what we’ve squandered. God’s waiting for us. With new gifts. New opportunities. New relationships. New life in the community of Christ. Because the limits of God’s grace have not been set. God’s treasury has not been exhausted. We were created for more. And God’s always got more to give.
And for this, thanks be to God.
[i] Bruce Sanguin, “The Return of the Prodigal Species,” in The Advance of Love: Reading the Bible with an Evolutionary Heart,” 121. The thread of this sermon is a solid one. However, Sanguin sees our “return,” not in terms of alienation from God, but alienation from the Earth and its creatures. Which, while an interesting and has much validity, fails to follow the parable. For the parable, our alienation from creation and each other has its source in our alienation from God.
[ii] I realize that there’s more nuance to the Catholic Church’s doctrine than this. However, this is how the film presents it, and then Father James himself shows that the boundaries are not fixed.