Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 4th Sunday of Lent
Elizabeth M. Deibert 6 March 2016
Three parables in a row about being lost and found, about the shepherd who lost a sheep, the woman who lost a coin, and the father who lost a son, or was it two sons that he lost? When one go found the other got lost. In this wonderfully rich fifteen chapter of Luke we have a trinity of characters who show us how much the lost are sought after, desired, and welcomed back. We talked last week about returning to God, so in some sense, this the joyful story of returning, of homecoming. “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now I’m found.” John Newton’s biographer estimates that his popular hymn in sacred and secular circles is sung about ten million times annually. Let’s read the scripture, and don’t miss the openly lines, when it tells us Jesus is being accused by the powerful religious people of spending too much time with sinners, wretches, losers, scoundrels, despicable people.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable:
11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 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. 13 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. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 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. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 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. 21 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.’ 22 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’”
So many sermons have been written about this beautiful story of God’s love. Grace: no matter how wasteful and stupid and arrogant we have been, we are welcomed home. Some sermons focus on the unconditional generosity of the Father, who rushes out to welcome his son, even before the son apologizes. Great point. Some sermons focus on the importance of hitting bottom and recognizing the mess you’ve put yourself in, by reckless living. Repent and go home.
Not many, just a few sermons focus on the grumbling older brother, who is so mad at Dad and younger brother. How could little brother be so reckless and how could Dad be so recklessly forgiving of his recklessness and throw a party for a scoundrel? What about me!?
Here’s my angle on the story this time: the issue is discontentment. What separates the father from the sons is discontentment. The father is content. He gives his son the money to waste because he is content. He welcomes the son back because he is content. He loves and appreciate his older son, because the father is content. The two brothers have the same malady: discontentment. The younger one is discontent with living at home, discontent with the blessings that are his in the present, tired of waiting for his freedom, his own money and life, so he brashly asks for his inheritance early. He goes out to seek pleasure, to do whatever the heck he wants to do. It’s my life after all. I’ll go out and have fun and do great things with MY money. I don’t need you people, bothering me.
But freedom from responsibility, from the constraint of family relationships, was not as satisfying as he thought it would be. Lacking maturity, he spent all his money and ended up living a far inferior life.
Know anyone like that? Know anyone who wised up sooner? Know people who are always discontent, thinking that the grass is greener over there, thinking that someone else’s spouse must surely be better than one’s own, thinking that other people’s children are far more kind, obedient, attentive, and wise, thinking that they will go find another spouse, another family, another friend, another church, where they will get treated better. These green-grass, moving on, satisfaction seekers sometimes move to Florida because life must be better there. At least the sun shines more and the grass IS greener, even if the life is not really better or people not more pleasing than elsewhere. These green-grass seekers are always unsettled, thinking that the right car, the right house, the right clothes, the right family, the right vacation – something outside themselves will make them happy.
But contentment is deeper than that. Until your soul finds its deep security and peace in God, you will always be wandering like the Prodigal, even if only in your discontented heart and mind.
And then there’s the older brother. Let’s think about his discontentment. He’s not a risk-taker. He’s the dutiful son, staying home, helping dad and mom. He would never be reckless with money or with love and generosity. Cautious and calculating, this son is so wounded by his father’s response to the brother’s return. How could dad still love HIM? The older brother does not understand real love. He thinks he’s been earning love by his work, by his obedience. He is shocked to learn that love means wanting the best for others and trying our best to help them become their best, which is not to control them, but to give them freedom to stray, and mercy when they come to their senses. Older brother does not like this kind of love. He doesn’t want it to be that way, because he wants to remain several steps ahead of his ridiculous brother by virtue of his “good” choices, his loyalty.
Who do you know like that? People who get upset about mercy and generosity given to those who have blown it. “You make you bed, you must lie in it,” they say. And of course, they are right to a degree. They younger son did lie in a miserable state for the choices he made, and he was blessed that he had a loving family to whom to return. But his older brother cannot be merciful like his father because he, just like his daring, runaway brother, is discontent with his own life. He is not grateful for the life he has.
Discontentment creeps into our lives when we do not express gratitude often enough. Gratitude builds our awareness of the gifts of God. Discontentment distracts us from gratitude. One of the early research studies on gratitude journals by Emmons & McCullough found that "counting one's blessings" in a journal led to improved psychological and physical functioning. Participants who recorded weekly journals, each consisting of five things they were grateful for, were more optimistic towards the upcoming week and life as a whole, spent more time exercising, and had fewer symptoms of physical illness.
Participants who kept daily gratitude journals reported increased [positive attitude], enthusiasm, determination, and alertness. They were also more likely to help others and make progress towards their personal goals, compared to those who did not keep gratitude journals…[They slept better and felt more connected to others.] The same positive results was found when a group of middle schoolers were studied (Wikipedia: gratitude journals)
Consider making your gratitude list every night – at least three things to thank God for every night. If you can say why you are grateful, the benefit of this exercise are even greater. “I am grateful for ________ because __________. Expressing this gratitude to others, especially people closest to you, will transform your relationships. Do you want better relationships? Don’t look for the green grass in someone’s else’s family or job or home or church or life. Start practicing gratitude for your own life, the life that God has given you, the life that you yourself have shaped by the choices you’ve made with your freedom. Everyone has had something unfair happen to them. Even if that unfairness is not that they suffered, but that they made good choices, and the lazy scoundrels were still allowed to come home.
There are people who get angry that the poor are allowed to have food stamps, education, and medical care, because they’re not paying their share of taxes like hard-working people do. This is older brother Grinch-like attitude from the parable. This attitude is full of resentment, but why?
Do you not have a good enough life? Do you resent good coming to someone who has made some mistakes and had to pay for them by living a desperate existence? Can’t we wish and work for and share for the best for all people? Older brother says, “But I’ve worked so hard, Dad, and when did you throw a party for me?” Dad says, “We’re together all the time, enjoying life, son. But your brother had lost his way, he was desperate and despictable but we must celebrate because he came home.
From where does our discontentment arise? Discontentment comes from comparison. Comparing our lives, measuring for fairness, for equity, it never leads to anything but discontentment. Let me remind you of another parable, three chapters later in Luke.
9 Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: 10 “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer[a]: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! 12 I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It all comes to pride and humility. The younger brother starts with too much ego and gets humbled. The older brother starts with humility and ends the story with too much pride about what he’s done in comparison to his brother.
"God opposes the proud but favors the humble." 7 So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. 9 Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. (Jam 4:6 NLT)
Cast off your discontentment. Be humble and grateful and at home with God.