"In Praise of Prodigality"

4 Lent.C.22
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

There is a story from Spain of a father and son who had become estranged. The son ran away, and the father set off to find him. He searched for months; all to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find his child, the father placed an ad in a newspaper in Madrid. Not wanting to draw attention to their unhappy predicament by mentioning either the circumstances or the family surname, the father crafted a simply worded ad that read: “Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father.” On Saturday, 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers. (“Bits & Pieces” October 15, 1992)

Today’s sermon is written in praise of prodigals. There are two definitions of the word “prodigal”. The first refers to spending money or resources freely and recklessly—being wastefully extravagant. The second meaning is this: “having or giving something on a lavish scale.”

To begin, let’s look at the people to whom Jesus is telling this parable. They are the scribes and Pharisees. They’re critics of Jesus, saying “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And Jesus replies with the parable known to us as “The Prodigal Son”, but which I would like for you to consider renaming “The Prodigal Father”.

At little more than a glance, it’s clear that the younger son mentioned in Jesus’ parable does indeed meet the definition of prodigal. Not only is he wasteful, he’s impetuous, careless, demanding—and so selfish—so selfish that he takes our breath away. Imagine, a young man so callous that he essentially tells his father he wishes his parent were dead so he could get his hands on his inheritance. I don’t know how you might respond in such a situation; but I have absolutely no doubt as to how the vast majority of people would reply. And yet…the father gives his son his inheritance—all of it, and lets him go.

Later, when that same son finds himself in a situation which most of us would refer to as “receiving his just desserts”, eating the food left to pigs, and decides the time has come to return home, what does that father do? He runs to his child and embraces him—dresses him in the finest robe and kills the fatted calf and rejoices.

That is prodigality as well. In Middle Eastern Culture, a father would never run to an adult child. Ever. The father would stand or sit, waiting to be approached. To run to a child (particularly a son such as this) would be unthinkable.

So, take a moment and look at this parable from the perspective of the Scribes and Pharisees who prompted its telling. They would have been as appalled as we with the behavior of the son. But they would have been equally horrified by the actions of the father. The father in this parable extends forgiveness and compassion on an astoundingly lavish scale.

The actions of the father are worth a second, third and even fourth look. It seems to me that most of us look at this parable from the perspective of the older son—the one who has been responsible, faithful and respectful. And so, for those of us who identify thusly, the actions of the father are almost incomprehensible. Let’s face it, on the surface this parable is a picture of what most of us might refer to as cheap grace. The son wastes everything he has, spending himself into poverty. The father, in return, lavishes love, forgiveness, and yes—even more money on his returned son by throwing an extravagant party. And, not surprisingly, the older son is not just surprised. He’s livid. He verily seethes with indignation—and wouldn’t many of us, as well.

This is a parable about prodigal grace; a grace not bound by the laws of supply and demand—but unlimited, boundless, and available to all. This is a parable about the nature of God’s merciful, graceful, compassionate love, a love which allows Jesus to eat with scribes and pharisees, as well as sinners of all stripes. It is a reminder to us that there is no limit to the love of God.

This parable flies in the face of a sense of legalism which is prevalent in human nature. Many people (most likely a good many of ourselves as well) want people to earn what they receive. We want them to merit what they get. And, if someone (anyone) is to get a gift—by golly, we want them to deserve it. And if they don’t deserve it—well, it would please us just as much if the undeserving wretch were to come home, tail tucked, head bowed and spirit broken.

Jesus, however, tells us this isn’t the nature of God. God extends grace with the lavish hand of a true prodigal. God’s grace is proliferate and abundant. It’s not parceled out to the worthy so much as it is showered upon everyone—the deserving and undeserving alike.

And let me tell you, that is good news for us. Because another aspect of this parable is this—odds are good that at different times in our lives we’ve been both of these sons. Sometimes grace has found us when we’ve been at our lowest point, completely undeserving, and in those moments we’ve reached out to receive it with surprise and delight. And surely there have also been times when we have worked hard for something and tried our best and all of our efforts have been either ignored or even regarded as worthless. A long look at our hearts, an inventory of the spirit, might just reveal that neither of these sons are terribly far from who we know ourselves to be.

Which is what brings us back to the advertisement posted in the newspaper in Madrid. We don’t know the end of the story. We don’t know if the Paco this particular father in Spain was looking for turned up, or not. All we know is that those seeking forgiveness and love were legion. In my mind, I write an ending to the story where this father, on behalf of fathers everywhere, forgave them all. I’m hopeful that man returned home, not only with one son, but with many—and that his story of lavish, unmerited forgiveness changed lives, opened hearts and showed those who witnessed it something, on a small, human scale, of the grandness of God’s love and compassion for us all. In Jesus’ name. Amen.