4 Lent C—3/31/19
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Pr. Scott Kramer
Back in January two of my buddies and I decided to spend a few days hiking Death Valley National Park in late March. At the time we didn’t know that within three weeks my dad would die and our family would plan his memorial service for last Saturday. But, instead of canceling the hiking trip we decided that my companions would go ahead and I would catch up with them later. We met up in Death Valley on Tuesday of this past week and returned home on Friday.
One of our most memorable hikes was on Friday. There the landscape is varied and stunning. Endless possibilities for hiking exist, not only in the eroded ravines but on the bare ridges, as well.
Once down in the ravines, however, it’s easy for a person to lose their way. There are so many ridges and ravines to explore, but not all are on the route and many are dead ends.
In one of Jesus’ best-known stories, a loving father lives with the pain of two ungrateful sons. The older one is described as obedient and faithful. Yet, we discover that he believes his good behavior makes him entitled to special treatment. The younger son is selfish and rebellious. He also believes that he is entitled to special treatment.
Both sons in this story have lost their way.
In the journey of life, it’s easy to lose our way—sometimes momentarily, at other times for extended periods, and possibly even for decades. But in every chapter of our lives, there are hints and clues about the direction that will lead us home.
In Death Valley, it’s likewise possible to get lost. Fortunately, there are signposts along the way—many different kinds, in fact. Sometimes, the signs are detailed and even include maps that say, “You Are Here.” Most, though, are much smaller and simpler. They are arrows and images installed by the Park Service: Go This Way. Don’t Go This Way. Other indicators are not metal signposts but stones that line the trails–maybe a pile of stones called a cairn.
Then, of course, there are the trails themselves. These indicate where people have gone before. Well-worn trails, however, are not necessarily reliable. They will take you somewhere, but not necessarily where you want to go. Many of these lead up to ridges where you can see for miles, and even see your destination in the distance. But, you will reach your destination only by descending into the ravines and following the signposts.
In today’s story, both sons get lost. Both, in their own way, are sure of themselves. Although they seem to make very different choices, both have lost sight of the signposts that would lead them to satisfy the hunger of their hearts. Both in this story have followed the path of self-interest rather than the path of love.
This story has been called the story of the Prodigal Son. The word “prodigal” is not one we use much, but it means, simply, “extravagantly wasteful.” The fact that God’s people for centuries have called this story “The Prodigal Son” signals that we, too, may have lost our way, because this story is not about the “prodigal son.” It’s not about either of the two sons. It is about the unconditional, total love of the Father.
The story, in fact, should rightly be called “The Prodigal Father!” It is the father in this story who is extravagantly wasteful. He lavishes his love—he “wastes” his love!–on both sons, regardless of how they have responded in the past or will respond in the future.
With unconditional love like that, why would either son follow the father? If his love is there for them no matter what, why wouldn’t they both just do whatever they want?
One answer to that question is in the story of the two sons. Both seem sure of what will give them satisfaction: material wealth and pleasure for the one, hard work and obedience for the other. But neither of these strategies works. Both in the end fail to satisfy; both lead to disappointment.
We aren’t given a lot of detail about the sons in this story, but it seems like both are pretty independent, relying on their own judgment. They appear not to be in conversation and relationship with others who might offer insights that could open their eyes and change the path they’re on.
In the desert, signposts are one important clue to following the right path. But just as important as signposts are other people. Alone, I am more likely to get lost on the trail. In Death Valley, with two other people, we could each hear other perspectives. Sometimes I chose the best path, other times my two buddies did. In the company of others, God’s sons and daughters are more likely to see and make use of clues and signposts along the way. It’s dangerous to travel alone.
The two sons in Jesus’ story chose their own path, based on their own beliefs, needs, and habits. What neither realized is that the signpost they needed was right under their noses. It was the Father’s example of unconditional love that was there the whole time, available to both–and ignored by both.
We have this same signpost. The love of the Father remains the only sure path through the wilderness of our lives. But, this love is not for us alone; love is not to be hoarded but given away–extravagantly, wastefully. The Father’s love for sons and daughters is all the example we need. By studying and following the example of Jesus, our practice of love helps us to find our way…back to the Father.