Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

” ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ” (Luke 15:11-32 )

This parable might be one of the best known in the Bible—certainly one of the most dramatic. Which is why painters throughout the centuries have love it—and writers—Latvia’s great poet Rainis has a play based on themes from this story which, in Latvian, is called “The Lost Son”—not prodigal, but lost. Which actually might be closer to what Jesus is trying to say. About both brothers. Because, there are two brothers in the story. This is, as Jesus says in the beginning, a story of a man with two sons.

We tend to forget the other brother—the older son. His story hasn’t caught the interest of writers and painters to the same degree as that of his younger brother. But—he is very much the key to the whole parable—which Jesus tells to some Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling (such a descriptive word, don’t you think? Grumbling.) that Jesus welcomed sinners—and ate with them.

In those days—eating meals with someone meant that you accepted them—as equals—accepted them, as they were. Sinners—as the Pharisees and scribes saw it anyway—were people that Jesus should have shunned—kept away from. But not only did he not shun them—he actually ate with them.

The Pharisees just couldn’t understand Jesus. But—at least some of them try. The gospel of Luke presents us with several instances, where Pharisees invite Jesus to dinner—which is more than a bit ironical in the context of our story today. And Jesus—went.

What I’m trying to say, is that the Pharisees don’t entirely deserve the bad reputation that they have gained over the years. They were, in fact, the good religious people of the first century. It’s just that—as a group—they had rather strong—you could say, rigid views about who was right with God—and who was not. Jesus somehow just wouldn’t fit into any of their religious categories—so they were confused.

And they grumbled. So, Jesus said to them—let me tell you a story.

Now—in an oral culture—stories have to be vivid, so you can get the point right away—so Jesus—paints the younger son with broad stokes of the brush—in bright primary colors. He doesn’t fall into temptation—he makes a decision to go out and find it. “Just give me my money, Dad—and I’m out of here.” And then he goes as far away as he possibly can—and squanders it—every bit on things that you don’t even want to ask about. So—there he is—in a far country—with nothing. So, down and out, he gets a job herding pigs.

You can imagine—how shocking that sounded to the Pharisees—pigs. Jesus wants his audience to know that this son has not only hit bottom—he has somehow managed to sink even below that. Down in the mud with the pigs.

But there, in the mud—Jesus tells us—the son “came to himself.” It’s an interesting phrase. He cam e to himself and decided to go back to his father’s house—or—you might say—to change the direction of his life. So—he begins the long, hard journey home. Remember—he has gone as far as he possibly could from the Father—and so, it’s a long way back.

And, you know what happens next—the father (who apparently had been going out to look every day) catches sight of the son way down the road—is filled with compassion—and runs to meet him.

Now—you know, and I know, and the Pharisees knew—as Jesus meant for us to know—that the father in the story—is meant to be God. I once heard a Japanese theologian preach this parable—at a meeting of the World Council of Churches—and he started out by saying—we have a God who runs! Can you imagine—We have a God who runs.

That was over ten years ago—but I’ll never forget—the wonder in his voice. We have a God who runs!

But—to get back to our story—the Father orders a grand feast—a celebration. Meanwhile—the older son—the faithful one who stayed home—comes in from working the fields and is rather surprised to hear music coming from the house. Surprised—and when he finds out the reason—furious. And when the Father comes out to him—because he refused to set foot in the house—he gives free rein to his hurt and anger.

It’s not hard to understand his feelings—and—I think that the point of the story is that the Father—God—does understand. And, just as he is filled with compassion for his younger son (the sinner)—he is filled with compassion for his older son (the good, religious person). And—in his compassion, the Father goes out, reaches out—to meet both of them—where they are. God who runs.

We don’t know how the story ends—as we leave the older, faithful son—he is still out in the cold, turning his back on the Father. Ironically—the son, who had turned his back on his Father—the sinner, who was lost—is found. And the good, faithful son—is now the one who turns away—lost in his hurt and anger.
But the faithful/lost son does not have the final word in Jesus story—it is the Father—the Father who is ever faithful to both sons. Ever loving. Who opens his arms—as far as he possibly can—in love and invitation.

I am told that Quakers have a saying—God meets your condition—which is what the Father does in the story. He doesn’t wait for his children—he comes to them—where they are. With compassion—he sees us—as we are. But—in his wisdom, God also sees us as we can be—what we are capable of being—God sees possibilities.
Which is why I find the words that Jesus used—about the younger son—so interesting—do you remember—Jesus said, he came to himself. It’s and interesting phrase because it implies that there is more to “the self” than is apparent in the moment—it implies possibilities.

We don’t know if the older son—came to himself or not—the story leaves it open. God offers us possibilities—how we respond is up to us! Will he come in to the party—or stay out in the cold, looking in?

Jesus story doesn’t tell us what will happen—but what it does tell us is—never, never underestimate God’s compassion—for others—for yourself—and God’s boundless love and grace. We have a God who runs! Amen.

One Comment to “SERMON: We Have A God Who Runs (3/14/2010)”

  1. Deborah Petzal says:

    I can’t help wonder as to the older son’s motives. Did he remain faithful to his father (ergo God) only for material self interest/gain rather than spiritual devotion? Thus the anger towards the celebration with a ‘What about me?’ attitude. Or was he angry because it took pigs (vilest of all creatures) to bring the younger to his ‘Hi Dad, I’m home.’ approach. While we focus on making the here and now a better place to live, God’s focus is on making our inner ‘condition’ better for that place to live eternally. I have Faith the older son also ‘came to himself’, eventually. It’s just God’s way. I’m glad He runs. 🙂