A sermon preached March 6, 2016, based on Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32
In 1961, a scout from the mighty Manchester United soccer team was in Belfast, Northern Ireland and discovered a fifteen year old boy who had learned to play by dribbling a tennis ball with his feet all around town. The scout immediately called his boss and said: “I think I’ve found a genius.” Two years later, that genius was playing for United at the highest level of professional soccer, Two years after that, he helped United win their first championship for eight years - and it was followed by another the next year. The genius was named George Best and at age 21, he helped United become the first English team to win the European Cup. He looked like a rock star and partied like one too, and at age 26, Best retired from soccer so that the game would stop interfering with the rest of his life. He walked away just as he was entering his prime and today is remembered as the most talented, and most disappointing, athletes in British history. Not that he seemed to mind - when describing his life to a reporter, Best explained “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds, and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
Squandering, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder.
esus warns us against squandering our words and our witness – “Don’t give holy things to dogs, and don’t throw your pearls in front of pigs. They will stomp on the pearls, then turn around and attack you” (Matthew 7:6). It bears mentioning, however, that Jesus had trouble living up to his own advice. Right here, at the beginning of our story we read “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him.” The folks in the Pharisee movement thought Jesus was squandering his influence – why waste time on folks who had every chance to change themselves and had never bothered? On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if Jesus was really squandering his words every time he preached to the Pharisees. It can’t have been very satisfying work. You never get a story in the gospels about how Jesus won an argument with a bunch of Pharisees and then they became his disciples. Nope. They usually just walk away, speechless as they grind their teeth As far as we know, Jesus only ever got to two of them – a guy named Nicodemus, and another one named Saul. But here he is, still trying. Here in Luke 57, Jesus tries three different stories to try and help them understand. We skipped two of the stories, but they’re good. First, he says, imagine a shepherd who will leave 99 sheep in the field to rescue one that is lost. Then he says imagine a woman who has 9 silver coins but will not rest until every sofa cushion has been pulled out and the 10th coin has been found. Finally, Jesus says, imagine a man with two sons – and off we go into the most famous parable Jesus ever preached.
Every sermon I have ever heard on this parable has made the point that this story is not really, or at least not mostly, about the son who ran away. Every preacher I’ve ever heard has tried to rename this story – they call it the "parable of the two sons", or the "parable of the good father." The pastor Timothy Keller made the New York Times bestseller list by arguing powerfully that this ought to be called the "parable of the Prodigal God." And yet. All those efforts are just more pearls before us, the swine, because let’s be honest we’re always gonna call this the story of the Prodigal Son.
We don’t have to think very hard to figure out why the story of this younger son, the runaway and the goof up, resonates so powerfully with us. When Jesus tells the story of the younger son, Jesus is telling us that our worst mistakes will not have the last word. When you’ve spent each night of the last 7 trying to drink yourself into oblivion, you can’t help but wonder if God feels used by all your cries for help – but then you hear of a good and loving Father who is running toward you. When you’ve lost your temper in front of God and everyone – when you let slip all the things you thought you’d tucked safely away where they couldn’t hurt anyone- you can’t help but think they’ll never look at you the same way. But then here comes a God who would kill the fattened calf and throw a party just for the joy of being with you again. When the bills are piling up and all you can think about is what you could have done, should have done to keep this from happening – when the only thing you know for sure is that this is all your fault, here comes a story that ends with the sound of music and dancing. With sin being what it is, and with us being who we are – we know the mistakes will come. Once, I was going to see a therapist and the intake form said “what is your greatest fear” and the answer came into my mind, completely unbidden “Dying in a car wreck that I cause.” And as soon as I’d written it, I thought “Really? That’s your biggest fear? No wonder you're here." As I thought about it, I realized I was terrified over what the last word in my story might be. If someone else causes the wreck then the story at my funeral is about what a tragedy everything is. But if I am the cause of my own demise then the story goes “Well, if only he hadn’t been so dumb.” I can’t have that be the last word. Since those days, I've acquired responsibility than my own life, but the fear is the same - that my mistakes will have the last word. We need the story of the prodigal son because we have within us the kinds of sins that want to have the last word, and we know how easily we could make them. And today Jesus tells us that even when we have made those mistakes, they do not have to have the last word. Jesus tells us a story that ends with the words – “We had to celebrate.” It’s no wonder that we want this to be the story of the Prodigal Son.
But of course, there is another son in this story, Jesus was not preaching this story for the prodigals alone – he was preaching to the Pharisees, and so this story is also the story of the older son, the one who is perfectly willing to demand the last word, even after the feasting and dancing have begun. “Where’s my party? Where’s my goat? What have you done for me?” he shouts. And it becomes clear that most of his accomplishments in life are pretty much the same as his brother’s mistakes.
When the younger brother asked for his inheritance, it was an insult to the father. He was saying, in effect, “I’d be better off if you were dead.” And when the older brother complains to the father, the insult is the same. He doesn’t say “I wish we could party together like that.” He says “You’ve never even given me a goat so that I could go off with my friends.” The older brother is playing the same game as the younger one did – he’s just playing it more slowly. The older brother is biding his time, waiting till he is in charge of the father’s estate and able to do what he wants; the younger brother is only different because he won't wait. The older son looks at his father, and the party, and all the son can see is waste. All he sees is his own inheritance being spent. He thinks it’s being squandered because he cannot see the value in the joy on his father’s face.
We have a word for what happens when we give up on having the last word in our own lives. We call it repentance. It’s an old word that simply means to turn around. To repent means to turn away from what you had been focused on and turn toward something new. We believe so powerfully in giving God the last word that we don’t just repent of the bad things we’ve done; we repent of the good things that we did for the wrong reasons.
We love the story of the younger son more than that of the older one, but the truth is we need them both. And the answer to the problem for each is the same. When we insist upon the last word in our lives we squander the presence of God. Butif our last words are “I repent” we will hear the God who answers “I know. I love you. We must party together..”