The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C, St. Paul’s Church, Franklin

“There was a man who had two sons” (Lk. 15:11).

Full disclosure: the preacher of this sermon is one of two brothers himself. As they say in the movies, “The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred.”

Yet we can’t quite say the same thing about Jesus’ story, the parable of the prodigal son, can we? It’s a story about two brothers, but we’re supposed to hear an echo of other stories, here in the parable. We’re supposed to make an identification with other persons who are not fictional, folk who are not just a product of Jesus’ imagination and his powerful storytelling abilities.

In some ways the whole story of the Bible is a story of two brothers. Think about the story of Cain and Abel, right at the beginning: Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a keeper of sheep. As the story in Genesis goes, God looks with favor on the offering of one brother and not on the other. “So Cain was very angry” (Gen. 4:5), it says; one brother turns against the other and the first murder ensues. Cain is driven away by God, and Genesis tells us that he ended up building the first city. So fratricidal murder stands, not only at the beginning of the Holy Scriptures, but at the beginning of civilization. At least, that’s how the story’s told.

There are some other troubled brothers in Genesis. Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of a common father and two different mothers, for instance. Abraham their father wants a blessing for both sons, but his wife Sarah cannot abide the presence of Ishmael and his mother Hagar, and they are driven away to the wilderness. Then there’s Jacob and Esau, Isaac’s own children, contending even in the womb for the preeminence. Esau, born first and therefore the heir to the property and the promise of God; Jacob born second, holding on to his brother’s foot, trying to supplant his brother. When he does trick his brother out of his birthright and his blessing, Esau goes looking for him and Jacob has to flee the country to save his life.

You get the picture. Fratricidal strife is bound up with the biblical narrative. It’s part and parcel of the story. When Jesus tells a tale about two brothers all of this and more lies in the background. The parable contains a divided inheritance; it includes a self-imposed exile; in a significant addendum involving the older son it reflects as well on the jealousy one son felt for the other.

It offers us, also, the figure of the repentant son, who comes to himself (Lk. 15:17) while he’s living in exile, in the midst of slopping the hogs. The expression is the same in Greek, signifying that he returns to who he really is, to his own right mind. Most significantly, the parable also includes the figure of the welcoming father, who runs out to meet the exiled son while he’s still on the way, before he’s even arrived and had a chance to humble himself.

What a great story, found only in Luke’s Gospel; a story that resonates with all the earlier stories that God’s People told, about murder and division and bitter strife between brothers. Jesus tells this story in the face of criticism directed against him for welcoming tax collectors and sinners and eating with them, so there’s an immediate application. Yet with the resonance of these other stories, Jesus’ parable goes beyond disputes about hospitality among the People of God and speaks more widely.

The parable tells us that through his own ministry, Jesus is announcing the end of this long, murderous story. In him, God’s welcome is established. In him, new life is on offer. In him there is no divided inheritance, no exile from the kingdom. We have only to come to ourselves, to return to our right minds, in order to travel home. While we journey, the Father will be there before we arrive, standing wherever we are on the road.

A final note to the parable: notice the loose end of the older brother. This is Lent, so there’s got to be a loose end, an unresolved question to drive us on. The older brother is jealous, remember? The story does not end with the two brothers embracing, only with the father’s welcome of the prodigal son and his remonstration with the elder. That’s not because the lectionary has left part of the story out. That’s just how the story ends.

That’s the unresolved question for us this Lent: are we ready to extend welcome and new life? Are we ready to receive it ourselves? Or are we standing on the sideline, looking on while grace and mercy are celebrated by others?  Are we standing apart, clutching our judgment to ourselves? That’s the tug, the good question for each of us to take away for the final part of our journey. We can’t issue a disclaimer, can we, in this parable of the prodigal, because this story is about us.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee