Homily from service on March 27, 2022 – Fourth Sunday in Lent
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden // The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
We are all prodigal. In some ways.
Just as every character in this parable is prodigal…. In their own way. Of course, the term is linked to the younger son, but it fits everyone…at times…including us.
Prodigal is an odd word. Luke’s the only one who uses it…He uses it once…right here…to describe the way the younger son handles his inheritance…his sustenance…his might. In a distant country “he squanders his property in dissolute living,” is how we heard it this morning, but the King James translation says he, “wasted his possessions with prodigal living,”—with a footnote that defines prodigal as “wasteful.”
Prodigal means wasteful. Extravagantly wasteful…and we are all prodigal.
It’s clear that the younger brother is prodigal…wasting his inheritance. But all the other characters are as well. The father is prodigal. What else would you call giving the younger son half of the inheritance…half of the father’s life, is what the text literally says. Can you imagine that. Cashing out half of all your IRAs, and your 401ks, your pensions, your life insurance…even half of the estimated value of everything you own and writing a big, fat check and giving it to a teenager…? It’s actually a shocking request that the kid makes…essentially he’s saying, “dad, you’re already dead to me, give me my inheritance…I’m cutting you out of my life.” He’s prodigal not just with money, but with that relationship as well. Wasteful with his relationships.
When the kids comes back, dad throws a blowout party. More waste. I can see the older brother’s point, can’t you? It is…prodigal…extravagant…wasteful…and certainly not fair.
We might see the older brother’s point…we might also feel the sting and the juice of that righteous indignation. How dare they…But…the elder brother is prodigal as well…tossing aside the relationship with his brother…and with his father, as the father points out…his reaction is is also…in its way…wasteful. Does he go in and celebrate? Does he reconcile with his brother? We don’t know. Jesus ends the parable there… with this question hanging over it…will the older brother squander these relationships…with his father…with his brother…will he remain prodigal…standing apart…wastefully withholding and rejecting these relationships? Or will he join the celebration?
The brothers in the parable each highlight something true…that, in the words of one scholar, “we usually learn to demand our rights before we learn to value our relationships.”[New Interpreter’s Bible Vol IX. p.304]. And how often, by demanding our rights…by insisting that we are right…do we squander our relationships?
And what about the scribes and the Pharisees? Wasting their ire…heaping their indignation…on the tax collectors and sinners…and on Jesus…”why are you wasting your time with these people?” “Why are you so prodigal with these people?” To which the parable replies: “Why are you wasting your time being so upset about it?” “Why are you so prodigal with your grievances?”
We are all prodigal. Spending too much of our selves…our sustenance…our might…our lives…on the wrong things. On things that don’t generate light, and life, and the love of God.
We are prodigal in ignoring our problems. Prodigal in being upset at things we deem “wrong,” but that we have no control over. We are prodigal in believing we are indispensable. Prodigal in trying to prove our value and worth to others who don’t actually care about us…often at the expense of the relationships with those who do care about us. Prodigal in beliefs that in order for some to succeed others must fail. Prodigal in projecting our fears and anxieties out onto the world. Prodigal in chasing illusive dreams of perfection…You know the ways in which you are and have been prodigal, don’t you?
All the characters in the parable are prodigal…but there is a difference isn’t there? The brothers (and the scribes and pharisees) are prodigal with their desires…their fears…their fixations. While the father is prodigal with his gifts…his life…his essence…his very being. And there is a difference, isn’t there?
What would it mean for us to learn how to be more prodigal with our gifts…and less prodigal with our fears? Gifts not only of material resources, but gifts like creativity, wisdom, faith, joy, peace, kindness, love? What would it mean…what would it look like if we were more prodigal with those…and less prodigal…less wasteful…less extravagant…and less thoughtless with our fears…our resentment…our vanity…stinginess…need for control…perfectionism…envy…pride…greed?
Maybe you’re noticing a pattern…I’m suggesting focusing on becoming less prodigal…less wasteful…less reflexive in throwing around things that are typically listed as “sins” (pride, sloth, envy, greed, etc.), and more prodigal…more generous…generous even to the point of wastefulness with those things known as virtues or gifts of the Spirit: patience, humility, kindness, justice, fortitude, wisdom, understanding, reverence, hope. They are all our resources, and we can decide which to be prodigal with.
I’ve left one character out, haven’t I? Jesus. Is Jesus prodigal? He is the most prodigal of all. In the words of poet Mary Gordon, it is prodigal Jesus who “multiplied the loaves and fishes so that there were baskets upon baskets left, who turned plain water into wine of a quality [and quantity] no one required, who gave [his] life when [he] need only have lifted a finger.” [Prayer for the Wasteful, in The Paris Review, source]
God is the most prodigal. God is the one who puts stunning alpine wildflowers far above timberline, and riotously colored fish under the sea. God bedazzles the polar skies with stunning light shows…and places massive ethereal nebulas in the depths of space…unconcerned whether any of us are there to see them or not. God is prodigal like the father is prodigal…spreading the gifts of God’s very essence abundantly, extravagantly everywhere…and no matter how prodigal we are…we have been with our fears…no matter how far we have wandered…when we come to our selves…and desire to return to our true nature…just like the father…God is the one who is ever present…ever patient…always waiting…arms flung wide…to welcome us back home.