Sermon for March 27, 2022

Sermon for March 27, 2022


A Texas man by the name of John Ramirez committed a brutal murder and was convicted and sentenced to death. During his time in prison Ramirez developed a close bond with a Baptist pastor. When the time came close for his execution Ramirez wanted his pastor present; present not outside the execution chamber but inside. The prisoner wanted his pastor to be there to pray out loud and also be allowed to touch him, probably prayer with the laying on of hands. The prison denied this request citing security reasons. So the prisoner John Ramirez sued. This case made its way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled by a vote of 8-1 to allow a prisoner to have a pastor or cleric of any religion present in the execution chamber if so requested. The lawyer for the prisoner in this case argued, “most Christians believe they will either ascend to heaven or descend to hell—in other words, when religious instruction and practice is most needed.” Convicted murderers on death row are probably some of the most despised people in the country and do not garner much sympathy. Yet in their final moments, should not comfort and compassion be offered?

Today we heard one of the beloved parables of Jesus, the story of the Prodigal Son. Some have suggested other titles like the parable of two sons, or the parable of the Compassionate Father. The story came about when Jesus was seen welcoming sinners and eating with them. Sincere religious people, the Pharisees and scribes, observed this habit of Jesus and grumbled. It was thought that sinners, people who willfully were not living according to the instruction of the Ten Commandments and other laws, should not be befriended. It would be fine with the Pharisees if Jesus was calling sinners to repent, but eating with them was another matter. Eating with them was not just a little snack, but a full meal, and maybe even a dinner party. It was a sign of friendship. The scribes and Pharisees, with a life of careful observance of the commandments as they understood, could not figure Jesus besmirching his reputation as a teacher associating with the wrong people.

Jesus did not do some grumbling of his own and tell the scribes and Pharisees to mind their own business. Jesus, I believe, appreciated the dedication and commitment of the Pharisees and scribes with their faith. And I wonder if Jesus felt sorry for them because in spite of their holy and righteous living, their understanding of the  compassion of God was missing a key ingredient, that God loves not only the righteous, but also sinners, and Jesus would practice that by welcoming them. In response Jesus told three parables, two short ones, and the longer one we heard today. Briefly Jesus told two about a shepherd who would not give up until a lost sheep was found, and about a woman who would not cease cleaning her house until a lost coin was found. When both found what they were looking for, there was far more than a sigh of relief. There was fully fledged, community wide rejoicing. Jesus concluded both parables with rejoicing in heaven and among all the angels  when one, even one sinner repents.

So we come to the parable we heard today which gives us a lot of food for thought.  A man had two sons and the younger one wanted to get away and go away. For that to happen he needed money. Audaciously he approached his father and demanded his share of the inheritance and immediately if not sooner. This request was like an emotionally blunt force trauma. To demand his share of the property in this way was to say in effect, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” But the father complied. It would take some time for the younger son to sell the property and pocket the cash. This would cause great shame on the father and the family name. It would not be long and the whole community would know what had happened. The whispering and gossip would commence and the father could feel embarrassed and humiliated. And maybe to speculate, the father and his elder son may have words about the decision to allow the younger to diminish the family’s wealth and reputation.

The younger son went to a distant country to have a good time. He did not watch his pennies, but squandered his money. He wasn’t giving away money to charities, but spent like no tomorrow on his favorite charity: himself. He scattered his money among every bar and brothel in the place. Jesus allowed us to use our imaginations when we heard that the son spent all his funds on dissolute or reckless and wild good times. But when the money ran out he ran out of friends and food. To make matters worse, there was a famine and a shortage of food. He found a job feeding pigs, but that would be degrading work for a man of Jewish faith. But faith was not on his mind, only food and he would have gladly lined up with the pigs at the trough. But then another thought came to his mind in this extreme state: his father.

Although he effectively cut himself off from his father and family, he would return and beg for a job as a hired hand, and then have food to spare. He rehearsed his speech, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, please treat me as one of the hired hands.” Jesus’ parable can lead to discussion and at this point people have wondered about the sincerity of the son’s confession: is he holy or mainly hungry. But sometimes people have to hit rock bottom before they honestly face the truth about themselves and the harm they have done to themselves and others. But the son headed for his father and back home, not entirely sure what to expect.

What happened was unexpected. His father did see the son approaching. Notice the father did not react angrily thinking, “the nerve of that reprobate to return here” and then walk away, refusing to see the son. Some may have thought that would have been very appropriate. But the text said “his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him”. The outpouring of compassion continued when the father would not listen to his son’s speech of remorse and repentance. The father heard him say he was sorry and unworthy, and there it stopped. The father ordered the son to be dressed in the best robe, which would have been the father’s. A ring would be put on the son’s finger, a sign of authority; and sandals for his bare feet, a sign of freedom. And then the order to butcher the fatted calf for a feast, actually a festival so ordered for the whole community. Hire a band, clear the dance floor, and raise the banners saying: “My son was dead and alive again! He was lost and is found!”

Where is the elder brother in all of this? He was busy working all day and when he headed home he heard the music. When he found out his brother returned home and dad was giving a party to celebrate, this elder son exploded with anger. It was as if a repressed rage was being released, anger at his brother who took off the way he did and shamed the whole family. He would not go and meet his brother and take part in the party. His father did not leave him alone to stew, but with compassion came out to him. His elder son spoke with anger and grievance: “Listen, for all these years I have worked like a slave, and never disobeyed you. And you, father, never gave a party for me and my friends. But when this son of yours, came crawling back after wasting your property on prostitutes, you welcome him home and invite the whole community in for a shindig. !” The elder son cried “Foul” over what he perceived as unfair treatment and would not meet his brother, and refused to recognize him as such. The father continued to plead really for both of his sons, for reconciliation to take place. The father understood the shameful and sinful life his youngest had lived, saying he was ‘dead’; he was lost. But now he has returned, come back to life, he was lost and now has been found.”

You may have more sympathy for the elder son than the younger; which one would you want your son or daughter to emulate? Both sons were in danger of ruining their lives. We understand that with the youngest, leaving and shaming his family, and then a wild life that almost caused him to starve to death. Then the elder son in the story, who worked hard, was responsible, and obedient. Yet inside was an anger which refused reconciliation. Jesus left the story open for us to ponder. Yet focus on the father, who went to both sons in their distress revealing compassion. Jesus indeed welcomed and ate with tax collectors and sinners, not ignoring their spiritual condition; they were dead in the sense they were separated from God. Jesus came to them with the compassion of God. They were lost but as Jesus would later explain, ‘I came to seek and to save the lost’; the compassion of Jesus so we are found in God’s love, leading to repentance and new life and faith. As we heard in the second reading, “all this is from God”, revealing the amazing grace of God, who sent Jesus not to condemn the world, but the world be saved through him.

There is a story of a teenage girl who rebelled against her family and became increasingly estranged from them. One night, the daughter was arrested for drunk driving, and the mother had to pick her up from jail. The daughter could only imagine the lecture she would get in the morning. The next day, the mother presented her daughter with a small, gift-wrapped box. Inside was a rock. The daughter was sarcastic saying, “Thanks a lot, mom”. The mother said, “Read the card”. The card read: “This rock is more than 200,000,000 years old. That is how long it will take before I give up on you.” The parable told of the compassion of God, assuring that God will never give up on us, that was the mission of Jesus to communicate: by his life of preaching and teaching, by his death on the cross for our salvation, by his resurrection from the dead to be with us always. So let us join the party and rejoice together, “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!”