Preacher: The Rev Doyt Conn
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So Jesus told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and 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. 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.”‘ 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.
“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. 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!’ 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.'”
The Prodigal son was exhausted. He was bone tired. To get from the pigsty to his father’s house was a long walk, a real long walk. It was days and days of walking. His feet hurt and his back hurt. He was hungry, with a hunger bigger than a growling stomach. He had that kind of hunger that ate into his bones and his muscles. There was weakness and stumbling and lurching in his gate like a man missing his inner ear, like a man out of balance, which he was, a man out of balance.
The Prodigal son is who Paul is talking to in his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians.
The word to focus on is “reconciled,” or “reconciliation.” Paul uses it a number of times, and it gives insight into what is going on with the Prodigal son, or what is not going on with the Prodigal son, as the case may be. The word in Greek for reconciled is katallagē which might be better translated as “balanced,” as in a balanced diet, or a balanced check book, or in this case, as in a balanced relationship with God.
The Prodigal son was out of balance, and his outer life reflected this inner reality.
The story of the Prodigal son is one we are all familiar with, even if we have never read the bible. It is a story told over and over again in songs and movies and books. My favorite comes from the rock band Kansas’ famous anthem, “Carry on my Wayward Son.” I can identify.
The Prodigal son is a story about balance and the deep desire to have balance in one’s life. I know what that feels like. Sometimes things seem a little out of balance. I don’t sleep enough, or eat right, or play enough with the dog. All of which may be true, but none of which Paul is talking about when he talks about reconciliation with God.
The kind of balanced life Paul is talking about might be better seen in how the European Christians in the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries lived. That was the age of the Bubonic plague which by 600AD had cut the population of Europe in half. And yet, even as people were fleeing cities engulfed by the Black Death, Christians were pouring into them.
That might not sound like a balanced act, but it is exactly what Paul in talking about when he talks about a life reconciled with God. When those Christians arrived they worked hard. Some buried the dead. Some bathed the sick. Some cared for children. Some raised the crops.
And some died of the plague. Some died of starvation. Some died of exhaustion. But what they experienced in that very tough life was infinitely and always better than what the Prodigal son experienced on his best days.
These Christians knew who they were, and they knew what they were doing, and they knew why they were doing it, and they knew from whence their strength came. And those who saw these mighty Christians walking into the lion’s den of despair were inspired. We might even say they were awakened as if to remember something about themselves that they had long forgotten. And many of them, maybe even millions of them, turned around and followed those Christians right back into the cities they fled. It was a time like no other in the history of Christianity. When things were the darkest, Christianity shined brightest, and the church grew and grew.
What empowered these men and women to do such daring things are the same points of empowerment that have allowed Christianity to transform the world over and over again. There are two core, fundamental principles that endow Christianity with a supernatural transforming power, that also bring balance to an individual life, two core, fundamental principles. They are ideas bigger than doctrine and more powerful than dogma, two sacred ideas held as fundamental truths.
1) The first core, fundamental principle is that every one, everywhere – no matter their competency, or the color of their skin, or the height of their IQ, or the strength of their arm – all are equally beloved by God. No one, nowhere is outside of the love of God. That is what these Christians knew who marched into the horrors of the Medieval cities.
They knew they were beloved, and they knew they would see belovedness in the eyes of those they met. That is the first, supernatural principle of Christianity.
2) And the second is an unwavering acceptance that death holds no dominion over God’s beloved children. We are not bound by a temporal moment in time; we are made for/and live in anticipation of a greater purpose, which is our eternal purpose.
We are beloved and we are eternal, and so is everyone else.
CS Lewis puts it this way in his book The Weight of Glory: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal,” which was Paul’s point when he said, “In Christ we are a new creation.”
This is the point the Prodigal son missed as he slowly forgot his belovedness and his eternity.
The analogy of how this happens is like being trapped by a secret agent from a foreign land. You know the plot line.
The agent makes friends with us, and over time asks us to do small things here and small things there. Soon he entices us to step over the line, just a little bit. Then a bit more, and soon, we are unwitting agents, trapped in a pool of pig slop with nowhere to turn. We lose our way, as we lose our selves. Little by little, over time we forget who we are and the only “good” we can see is the “good” of keeping our secret a secret. And this is exhausting. And this keeps us off balance.
It seems the Prodigal son had no idea how out of kilter things were until, as the scripture says, “he came to himself.” I don’t know what jogged his memory.
There must have been a moment of clarity ignited…maybe as he walked by a church, or in his case a synagogue, he remembered his father, and his home, and who he had been, and who he was meant to be.
CS Lewis always contended that he went to church to remember who he was, not to learn who he was. That is a major role of the church to be a place that helps us maintain our balance by reminding us of our belovedness and our eternity.
I heard a joke that makes this point: There was a man who lost his bike outside his church one Sunday, and he went to the priest to ask for his advice on what to do. “We are in Lent now,” the priest reminded him, “So, next week come to services, and sit in the front row,” the priest told the man, “and when we recite the Ten Commandments, turn around and look at the people behind you. When we get to ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ see who can’t look you in the eyes. That’s your guy.” After the next service, the priest was curious to learn whether his advice panned out. “So, did it work?” he asked the man. “Like a charm,” the man said. “The moment we got to ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ I remembered where I left my bike.”
Scientists at UCLA back up this notion that remembering keeps us, and more broadly our society, from slipping out of balance.
Here is the study. They took a group of 450 participants, split them into two groups and set them loose on some test that measured cheating. After a baseline was established they then asked half of the participants to recall the Ten Commandments and the other half to recall 10 books they read in high school. They reapplied the test. Among the group who recalled the 10 books, they saw the typical widespread but moderate cheating.
But in the group that was asked to recall the Ten Commandments, they saw no cheating whatsoever. This pattern repeated itself in all subsequent tests.
It seems that science can be useful in reminding us of something we have always known about life in the kingdom of God.
The Prodigal Son was reminded by something, and he “came to himself,” the text says. He remembered his Father and this Father’s house. He remembered what it was like to be seen as beloved and to be treated as eternal, and he headed home, exhausted, listing, lurching, stumbling home where his father met him in a way that confirmed what he had always known.
Regaining our balance begins by remembering, as it did for the Prodigal son, and this may lead to reordering our lives, as it did for the Prodigal son. And while this change may be tiring, while it may even be exhausting, as it was for the Medieval Christians ministering in the time of plague, I assure you this exhaustion will be eclipsed by the balance achieved when we witness belovedness in the eyes of the immortals you meet along the way.