preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 31 March 2019, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, by the Rev. Dr. Judy Chan. The scripture readings that day
Psalm 32, Luke 15:11-32.
morning. Let me begin with a story. There
was a lawyer who worked in a large office building. He had recently lost one of
his cuff-links, a piece of jewelry that men use to secure the cuffs of their
shirts. This link was one of a pair that the lawyer greatly prized. He was
absolutely sure he’d dropped it somewhere in the building. So he posted a
notice: "Lost. A gold cuff-link. The
owner, William Ward, will deeply appreciate its immediate return."
That afternoon, he passed by the door where the notice had been posted. Someone
had written a note. Oh, great, he thought. And this is what it said: “The
finder of the missing cuff-link would deem it a great favor if the owner would
kindly lose the other link.”
I thought of that joke when I started writing this sermon. Because that’s
what happens in Luke 15 to a Father who starts out with two sons. He loses one,
finds him, only to be at risk of losing the other son. It’s as if fate’s
working against him having both sons where they belong – together with him.
of the Prodigal Son is of course one of the most famous stories in the New
Testament, the 3rd of a trilogy of lost and found tales. Actually, I
realized I wasn’t sure what the word “prodigal” meant. Do you know? I had to
look it up. It means wasteful or extravagant. Now the word “prodigal” is not
actually in the scripture lesson itself. But around the 4th century,
the story was given the name the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and it’s stuck
pretty much until this day. In the NRSV you see a more accurate heading, The
Prodigal and His Brother. That reminds us there are two sons in the story, each
with something to learn.
Jesus tell this parable in the first place? It was a response to the Pharisees
and scribes criticizing Jesus for the company he kept. If this rabbi is so
holy, why does he hang out with the worst kinds of people? Tax collectors and
sinners. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Roman Empire and cheated
their own people by charging whatever amount they could get away with. And
sinners? Those were the immoral lowlife in Jewish society like thieves, loan
sharks and prostitutes. Good Jews had nothing to do with tax collectors or
sinners, but Jesus seemed to spend a lot of time among them. He even eats with
response to this criticism, Jesus tells a parable about a prodigal son who
wasted his inheritance on wine, women and who knows what else.
have pointed out that the younger son’s request for his share of the
inheritance wasn’t just unusual. It was unheard of. It’s not like today where
parents might give some money to their children early. Maybe the children need
to pay school fees or buy a bigger house. Maybe they want to avoid inheritance
tax. But that’s not the case here. The sons are well taken care of, and
besides, the family property should have been kept intact. So, when this
prodigal son asks for his inheritance now, it’s like saying he wished his
father were already dead. Then to add more insult to injury, the son sells his
share of the property, which would be 1/3 of the estate. Not for investment,
not to start a business, but to fund his adventures in a far off country. A
prodigal son indeed.
So it seems
Jesus purposely created a story with the worst kind of son you could have. How
is he going to be redeemed? Is he even worth redeeming?
son, things have to get worse before they get better. Junior burns through his
money, then gets caught in a famine and has to take a job feeding pigs. He’s
hit rock bottom. Broke and starving, he realizes he can’t make it on his own.
The only thing left to do is to go home and throw himself at the mercy of his
Pharisees and scribes listening to this parable, it’s obvious what the Father
should do in response. He’s your son, after all, so you can’t totally reject
him. But there’s no way you just welcome him back as if nothing had ever
happened. This son has to face the consequences of all the pain and suffering
he’s caused. He has to pay back in some way all the money that he lost. We can
forgive but we’re not going to let him forget. And that’s exactly what the
Father does, right? Wrong!
son is just a dot in the distance, when the Father spots him. And he’s so
excited, he can’t even wait for his son to arrive. He hikes up his robe and
runs to meet him with hugs and kisses. The son stammers out an apology, but his
dad doesn’t even need to hear it. The only thing that matters is his child has
come home. Bring out the best robe! Give him the family ring! Put some new
shoes on this boy! And kill the fatted calf – we’re having the biggest party
you’ve ever seen!
parable could have ended right here . . . with a postscript about joy in heaven
over one sinner who repents. But Jesus isn’t finished yet.
matter of the older brother. The one who didn’t ask for his inheritance early.
The one who was obedient and hard-working and everything you could ask of a
good son. He’s coming back from the field. He hears all the noise from the
house. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked the servant. ‘Haven’t you heard, sir? Your lost
brother has come back safe and sound. Master is giving a feast to celebrate.’
Well, no surprise that Big Brother is furious. So mad that he won’t even go
into the house. So, the Father goes outside to plead with him to join the
party. And that’s when Big Brother lets it all out. “I’ve worked my tail off
for you all these years, never gave you a moment’s trouble. But have you ever
even given me a tea party for my friends? No. Then this stupid son of yours
comes back after wasting all your money. And you throw him a feast with the
whole neighborhood. I don’t want any part of it!”
ways, we can sympathize with the older son. He has gotten a raw deal, hasn’t
he? Or has he? If we see it from the Father’s point of view, this son’s actions
are just as heartbreaking as the other son’s actions. For he too rejects his
father and his family. He too wants his reward right now. He too shames his
Father in front of the whole community. What a waste of his inheritance.
Another prodigal son in a way.
Pharisees and scribes listening, it’s obvious what the Father should do this
time too. Tell this ungrateful, disrespectful elder son to march inside right
now and greet your brother. Because if you don’t, I’ve only got one son
tonight! And that’s exactly what the Father does, right? Wrong!
telling off his older son, the Father responds just as tenderly as he did with
the younger one. “Dear child,” he says. “Nothing has changed between you and
me. You will always be my firstborn, the one who never left my side. Your
inheritance is safe. But how can we not rejoice when your little brother has
come back? It’s a miracle! We thought he was dead! Let’s just celebrate that
he’s safe and sound and home. Won’t you come in?”
know what happens after this heart-to-heart talk between father and son. All we
know is this father is willing to do whatever it takes to bring all his
children home. Even if it means sacrificing his power and dignity and
reputation. For no proper Middle East patriarch would have allowed his son to
take off with part of the estate while the father was still alive. Neither
would he have run out to the road to meet his rebellious child, who should have
come back crawling on his hands and knees to kiss his father’s feet. And
certainly he would not have abandoned the guests at his own party looking for
another son who should have been there already. But this is not an ordinary
father. In fact, in many ways, he takes a role more like a mother. People
sometimes ask “where is the mother in the story, anyway?” I think she’s right
there in this sacrificial Parent who will do anything to let her children know
they are unconditionally loved. No matter what. “Return as far as you can,” she
says, “And I will come the rest of the way to you.”
too good to be true, isn’t it? But that’s the message of the Prodigal and His
Brother. That no matter how far away you go from God, God will never stop
looking for you … waiting for you … praying for you. No matter how mad you may
be at God, not understanding divine way or will, God will go out of the way to
make peace with you. Because nothing is more important than having you home
together safe and sound.
John Buchanan, pastor of
Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, once said if he could know only one thing about Jesus other than his death on the
cross, he would want to know the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The story
Jesus told one day about the amazing grace of God that comes to wherever we
are, on whatever road we walk, in whatever field we till, and invites us to
come home to a banquet.
You know, I think it’s
no accident that Jesus doesn’t finish the story. The parable ends with the
older brother still outside. Does he come in or not? Perhaps Jesus leaves it
that way because it’s up to each one of us to finish the story. To decide
whether we will allow ourselves to be found and forgiven and loved by God, over
and over again.
“The Lost and Found”:
that’s our sermon title. It’s also the name of the place where lost things go
to be claimed by their rightful owner. If you think about it, then, that’s the
reason Jesus spends so much time with tax collectors and sinners. He’s running
a Lost and Found, the biggest Lost and Found department in the universe –
running it for God – with his own blood, sweat and tears. And it’s open 24
hours a day, 7 days a week for the past 2000 years.
Let me close with words
from a song from a movie my family watched during Chinese New Year: Mary Poppins Returns. It’s set 25 years
after the original Mary Poppins story. The young children in the story
tragically have lost their mother. So, their nanny Mary Poppins sings a song to
comfort them. It’s called “The Place Where the Lost Things Go”. It is a Disney song, but more than that. An
Oscar-nominated Disney song. And more than that, maybe even a song for all the
prodigals out there during the season of Lent. Because, remember, when we lose
God, it’s not God who is lost.
1 Do you ever lie
Awake at night?
Just between the dark
And the morning light
Searching for the things
You used to know
Looking for the place
Where the lost things go
2 Do you ever dream
Wondering where to find
What you truly miss
Well maybe all those things
That you love so
Are waiting in the place
Where the lost things go
3 Memories you've shed
Gone for good you feared
They're all around you still
Though they've disappeared
Nothing's really left
Or lost without a trace
Nothing's gone forever
Only out of place
4 So when you need her touch