Trading Corn Husks for Prime Rib

* This is the sermon I was to deliver today as part of our series entitled “Meal Times: Going Deeper with God and Others”. However, the weather decided to bless us with one last hurrah of snow and prevented us from gathering together physically. But snow cannot stop the gathering of the hearts and spirits of the Church. May you lift your palms this Palm Sunday in adoration of the One who loves us with an extravagant love.

Based on Luke 15:11-32.

prodigal-son (1)I’ve really not understood terror until I became an aunt. There are a lot of ways you could take that statement so let me explain. We often go out in public with the kids. That’s still not the terror part. The terror part comes when we are in the masses and all of the sudden I can’t find my niece or nephew.  A second ago, they were strangling my right leg. Now – they’ve vanished into a sea of tall, multiplying adults who suddenly look crazy and suspect. My heart begins to race, my stomach drops to the floor and every possible and impossible, horrible scenario runs through my mind. I start walking like I own a mall and panic starts to rise up in me as a scour the crowd for the little needle in the haystack that is my love.

And then, I see them. I see them mesmerized by some colorful toy or scene that drew them away from me. And all that I think and feel is relief. They are found.

I simply can’t imagine what kind of anguish one must experience when a child is really gone. But in these experiences where I lose them temporarily, I experience a small taste of it and there is nothing I wouldn’t do to bring them back to the safety of my presence.

I’ve always thought one of the most vulnerable, bravest things you can do is be a parent. An adoring aunt comes pretty close but it still isn’t the same. It is incredibly vulnerable to have a child. It is a weird feeling to see your heart walking around outside your body but that is what happens as a parent. And when you are a child, you think your parents are the strongest people in the world but parents know that the strongest love is also the most fragile, vulnerable love.

Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber posed this question recently on her blog. “There is so much talk out there about the strength of God and the mightiness of God and the awesomeness of God. But what of the vulnerability of God?”

Our God is strong and mighty and awesome. Our God is a Creator and a Parent. God has the strongest love possible for His children. Perhaps then, God also knows something about vulnerability. And I agree with Weber that it seems that the parable of the lost son is Jesus’s attempt at helping us understand the vulnerable love of God. 

I’ve heard the parable of the Prodigal Son many times. The more you hear something, the more you stop listening. Just asked the teenagers in my youth group about discussions with their parents.

One new thing I’ve learned this go around with this parable is what the word “prodigal” really means. I imagine someone has mentioned this before but I apparently wasn’t listening. I’ve always understood “prodigal” to mean something lost that returns. We call the parable the “parable of the prodigal son or the lost son” so I’ve simply grouped those words as having similar meanings. But the word “prodigal” actually means “spending resources freely and recklessly; being wastefully extravagant.”

The younger son is indeed a prodigal – not because he was lost and then returned but because he spent his inheritance recklessly and extravagantly on empty things. We don’t really know what he wasted it on. It could have been women and chariots. It could have been wine and goat cheese. The younger brother never says. The older brother rats him out to their dad saying something about prostitutes but you know how older brothers can be. We don’t know if he actually knew or if he is just trying to get his sibling in trouble. It doesn’t matter. The younger son wasted his fortune, spending it outrageously and ended up wishing for the corn husks that he was feeding to the swine. He would have settled for corn husks if there had been corn husks to be had. But there were none and his hunger drove him to think of His Father. We know the story of the younger son well. Even if you didn’t grow up in church, the reference is used in culture. For most of my life, I’ve focused predominately on the younger son. Because I get him. I am him. A lot my faith journey with God has consisted of me sneaking back to the pig pen to stay the night because I feel like that is where I deserved to sleep and exist. I felt so unworthy of the outrageous love of my Father and the lavished banquet He wanted to throw for me. I thought that my big brother was right to be mad that I didn’t get justice but rather mercy. And like the younger brother who decides to return to the father, I, too, rehearse speeches about how I propose to earn my keep and be worthy of His love because I’ve thought that my restoration would come in my repentance. But the Father could care less about our speeches. His love is the only thing that restores. I love how in the Message paraphrase of scripture in verse 22 when the younger son started to give his repentance speech, it reads, “The father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants.” God is the father who interrupts our lame apology speeches in order to get the celebration started.

The elder son is a prodigal as well. While the younger son is spending His Father’s money recklessly and unrestrained, the elder son is outrageously wasteful with the Father’s love. The older son recklessly spends all of his energy on toiling in order to get from the Father that which is already his. If the Father wanted something done, he did it. If there was law, he followed it. Verse 29 tells us the son’s response to the father after learning about the extravagant party for the younger son – “Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you every thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast! His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours.’”

Michael Card says in his commentary on Luke that “The hopeless son, who deserves slavery, is mercifully restored to full sonship, while the stunning revelation comes that it is the older son who has really been a slave all along – a slave to his hatred for the loving-kindness of his generous and noble father.”

The elder son has all the trust and love of the Father and it isn’t what he wants. In complaining about what wasn’t done for him, we see his true heart. He has felt obligated to work for the father and expects to be rewarded for his faithfulness. Like the younger son, he, too, wants what is coming to him. He just is willing to wait until the father is dead to get it. His pride in his moral record creates the barrier. It’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from enjoying the feast of the father. He, too, is eating corn husks when prime rib is what is being freely offered.

Within this past week, I’ve been both the younger son and the elder son. I’ve grappled with trying to earn God’s love because I feel unworthy and I’ve had discussions with God about things that I covet and that I think I deserve due to my faithfulness. Despite my desire to improve my eating habits, I’m doing my fair share of settling for corn husks. Why is it that we settle for life in such a diminished form? We feed on junk – whether its righteousness or negative self-talk or religion or low self-esteem. All of it God would call corn husks. He watches us eat this junk when He has set out a feast of prime rib for us that is available to us always. And I imagine that, as a vulnerable parent, God is hurt more than anything by our rejection of His extraordinary love and gift of Himself.

Let’s talk about the biggest prodigal of them all. If the word “prodigal” means “wasteful extravagance”, then the biggest prodigal in this parable is the father.  Isn’t it wastefully extravagant for the Father to let his child run off with his inheritance before he is even dead?  Isn’t it wastefully extravagant for the Father to lower himself and run into the street toward a rebellious son who walked away from him? Isn’t it wastefully extravagant for the father to throw such an outrageous party for a son who shattered his heart when he walked away?

Weber describes perfectly the love of the Father for the elder in this way: “Some of us might find the grace the father shows to the younger son to boarder on offensive, but the thing that really gets me in this story is how wastefully extravagant the Father is toward the older son.  The kid who never left him.  The one who has always done everything right.  The kid who is clean cut and went to college right out of high school and came back to work in his father’s business.  The kid who always signs up to do jobs at synagogue but resentfully notices all the slackers who show up and never help at all.  The kid who feels entitled. The kid who can’t stomach going into a party to celebrate the return of his screw-up of a brother. You know what’s wastefully extravagant in my book?  the fact that the Father says to that kid ‘all that is mine is yours’. It is here in this parable that we see that your relationship to God is simply not defined by your really bad decisions or your squandering of resources.  But also your relationship to God is not determined by your virtue.  It is not determined by being nice, or being good or how much you do at church.  Your relationship to God is simply determined by the wastefully extravagant love of God. A God who takes no account of risk but runs toward you no matter what saying all that is mine is yours.”

God wants to lavish His best on us. And His best is Him.

What risk God takes on us. How vulnerable is God because of His great love for us. Children who waste all His lavished gifts and chase after table scraps. Children who hold grace and love hostage from people who so clearly “don’t deserve it”. But this is a risk born of love. God embraces vulnerability by loving us recklessly because the alternative is not acceptable.  God has never asked or wanted us to earn His love. It is laughable to even think it is possible. But beyond laughable, it is hurtful to Him whose only desire is to love us with a crazy, over-the-top love. If my niece or nephew held my love at bay because they didn’t think they deserved it, it would crush me. If a friend didn’t let me love on him or her with small, unexpected surprises, it steals from me. God’s lavish love has nothing to do with my worth but everything to do with His love. His only desire is for us to receive His love and live out of that great love.

I use to think this parable was about the two sons but now I know it is about the Prodigal or Love-Crazy Father. 

Younger sons – listen to your hunger pains. Run into the embrace of our merciful Father who has been pacing on the road waiting for us to come home; a Father who interrupts your pointless apologies with His booming voice of reckless love. Believe that the minute the Father sees you limping home, His joy at your return erases every pain from your earlier departure. Don’t hurt him by refusing His extravagant love because you feel unworthy. His crazy love makes you worthy. Let Him robe you in it and usher you into a life lived in His presence.

Elder sons – God never intended for His children to feed on rules and righteousness. God intends for us to feed on Him. Some of us have been so busy working trying to earn blessings or pay off our debt or make God proud that we’ve missed God. We’re too busy working in the fields to actually spend time with the loving Father. It is an extravagant waste of your life to work so hard to earn that which is already yours.

There was once a man who had two sons – two sons that He loved extravagantly and foolishly because that is the kind of Father He was and that is the kind of Father He is.

Resources:
1. Michael Card, “Luke: The Gospel of Amazement.”
2. Tim Keller, “The Prodigal God.”
3. Nadia Bolz Weber – sermon “The Prodigal Father”.

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