4th Sunday in Lent – 2022c

Old Testament - Joshua 5:9-12

New Testament – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32


Six Years


INTRODUCTION: For 35 years in the middle of the 20th Century, Karl Barth, the Swiss Protestant theologian, worked on a series of books known collectively as Church Dogmatics.  


Widely considered the seminal theological text of the 20th Century, Barth’s Church Dogmatics contains over 6 million words and spans 13 books in all, the last book being unfinished. Apparently, Barth still had even more things he wanted to say before dying in 1968.  


And as one might expect, a good bit of Barth’s 6 million words in Church Dogmatics is focused on the nature and character of God. Among other things, Barth discusses the Trinity, the self-revelation of God, and God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. 


Barth’s Church Dogmatics is a classic to be sure, which some scholars spend their entire careers just trying to understand, and even read fully! 

Well, like Barth, Jesus Christ also spent a lot of time talking about God, right? But unlike Barth, he didn’t write a 13-volume tome with over 6 million words.


Instead, when Jesus got around to talking about God, well, he tended to just tell stories. “The kingdom of God is like…” Jesus would frequently begin his assorted stories about God. “The kingdom of God is like…” as he charged off into various tales full of rich metaphors all meant to reveal a little something about God’s nature and character.       


And here’s the funny thing, I think. Usually, when Jesus got around to telling one of his stories about God, well, folks were often left scratching their heads and looking confused at the end of them. 


After all, God, in most of Jesus' stories usually ends up acting and behaving in some pretty odd and strange ways, right? When God isn’t on her hands and knees looking for a misplaced coin (as in the parable of the lost coin), God is leaving 99 sheep totally unprotected to go in search of the one that has managed to ditzelly wander off to who knows where.          


And when God isn’t praising one of his stewards for being a thief and embezzler, he’s giving everyone a full day's wages regardless if they worked all eight hours of the day, or just 20 minutes of it.


Yep, Jesus, it turns out, also liked to talk about God. And usually, by the time he was done, people were left scratching their heads and looking a bit confused. 


ONE: And then there is, of course, Jesus’ famous story about that wayward, wandering son. For while the focus is often on that “prodigal,” Jesus’ story, like so many of the others he tells, is really, finally, about God.    


The story begins, as you’ll surely recall, with the youngest son, who shows his disdain for his father by asking for his portion of the inheritance early. 


“Hey old man,” says the youngest, “since you’ve got one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel, what ya say you go ahead and divvy up your belongings now.” 


Robert Farrar Capon sums the scene up nicely when writing the following remarks: “What [the youngest son] in effect is saying is: ‘Dear Dad, drop dead now legally. Please put your will into effect and just retire out of this whole business of being anything to anybody and let us have what’s coming to us.’” Nice, right? 


And so with his tactless request granted, the youngest promptly cashes in his inheritance so he can go blow it all in Las Vegas on booze and women. The father, in other words, essentially relinquishes his position as the head of the family.


And while the neighbors would have been shaking their heads in dismay at the brazen youngest son as he sauntered out of town with his pockets full of cash, they would have been even more mystified by the father and his own ludicrous and embarrassing behavior. While there were surely some people muttering quietly  “Good heavens! Look at the way that boy treats his father!” 


There were also just as many people muttering, “Good heavens! Look at the way that father allows his son to treat him. What a shame. What a shame.” Apparently, the father had never read that bit from the Book of Proverbs about how “sparing the rod, spoils the child.”


TWO: Of course, even stranger still is what the father does when his son finally comes crawling home with his tail tucked between his legs.


After blowing his inheritance on slot machines and $300.00 bottles of Cristal Champagne, the father welcomes his philandering son home as if he had just won the Nobel Peace Prize. 


Decking his son out in his best attire while also slipping the family ring on his finger, the father announces it’s time to throw the party of the year. “The man has no sense of shame or honor,” the father’s neighbors would have been saying over cups of coffee at the diner. “Just look at the way his son has treated him! And there he is, rolling out the red carpet for that worthless ingrate.”  


There is a funny bit about a minister who was preaching on the Prodigal Son. Describing the father rushing out of the house to meet his wayward son, the minister says, “Dashing toward his son, the father throws open his arms and says…”, at which a small boy in the congregation pipes up loud enough for everyone to hear, “Buster, you’re grounded for a whole month!” 


Well, sounds about right, don’t you think? Based on all that the youngest son has put his father through, being grounded for a whole month should be the least of his worries.              


THREE: And then let’s not forget about the older son either and his rather petulant behavior. Granted, he’s not nearly the train wreck his younger brother is, but he’s not exactly a model child either, is he?  


With his father throwing a huge bash for his brother, the oldest son just can’t bring himself to join in the festivities. Fuming in the yard, he forces his father to leave his own party in order to plead with him in front of God and everybody to be part of the celebration.


But the eldest isn’t having any of it, is he? “All these years I was the one who took out the trash” starts the oldest “and you’ve never even once offered to kill a single calf for me. 


And who mowed the yard and tended to the garden and made the needed repairs to the house while my loser brother was running around screwing up his life? Well, I did, old man! And what have I got to show for it? Nothing, I tell you, absolutely nothing.”

Well, the poor father can’t win for losing, can he? He finally gets his youngest son back only to have the oldest dress him down in front of his house guests as they peer through the windows of his living room.


And still the father can only think to do what he’s always done. He again throws his honor to the wind by giving the remainder of his inheritance away to his eldest son right there on the spot.


“My son, all I have left is now yours. So what ya say you come join the party with me?” The father’s words are  actually a formal declaration which essentially transfers the remainder of his holdings to his eldest son. The father, in other words, no longer has a penny to his name. So by the time the story comes to a close, he’s given everything away – including even the last of his honor.


FOUR: And so as the curtain comes down on the final scene of the parable, we’re left with a kind of surprising theology, aren’t we?


After all, Jesus’ story ends up painting for us a picture of a God that just keeps giving and giving and giving until there is nothing left to give. We’re talking about a God that only knows how to do one thing, and that’s to love.


Or as someone else has put it, “The world needs to know that God’s eternal, extravagant love is not part of the gospel. It is the whole gospel…Death does not have the final word. God has the final word, a word of redeeming grace."


Fred Craddock has a wonderful story about a man who approached him one Sunday after a worship service. During the service, Craddock had preached on the Prodigal Son and the man was not very happy with his message. 


“I really didn’t care much for that, frankly?” said the man. When asked why by Craddock, he replied, “Well, I guess it’s not your sermon, I just don’t like that story. It’s not morally responsible.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Craddock.

“Forgiving that boy…forgiving that boy isn’t morally responsible.”  

“Well, what would you have done?”

“I think when he came home he should have been arrested.” 

“And what would you have given the prodigal?”

“Six years.” replied the man. Six years.


And yet when Jesus gets to telling a story about the nature and character of God, well, he ends up painting a very different picture. While that Prodigal Son may have, indeed, deserved six years, that’s hardly what he gets, is it? 


No wonder people were so often left stretching their heads whenever Jesus got to talking about God.   


CONCLUSION: And so do you see it now? While we’ve long liked to talk about God possessing certain attributes, perhaps we’re missing the point. 


For maybe, instead of just possessing things like mercy and grace, God actually is mercy and grace and yes, even love. For when gazing at that cross, what else are we to assume? 


So no wonder we’re encouraged to believe that God’s eternal, extravagant love isn’t just some bit part of the gospel. Nope, turns out it’s the whole gospel. And what more do we need to assure us of such a truth, than that cross perched high on that hilltop just outside Jerusalem with love draped all over it?   

And now blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.