A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Rose Sunday)
March 6, 2016
Jesus’ willingness to befriend people on the margins of both society and religion never went unnoticed: the friend of ‘sinners’.
Many, however, who live to represent God do not behave this way. Holiness has an unnecessary habit of emphasising only apartness and difference. It can be used to highlight the gap – and this not only between God and people. It is also separates people and people.
And such theology is all too easily lived out. So much so that Jesus’ practice of eating with ‘tax-collectors’ and ‘sinners’ (15:1) caused the religious some anxiety: How can Jesus represent God and associate with ‘them’?
Our reading is the third of three stories Jesus told in answer to all this ‘grumbling’ (15:1). They are wonderfully down to earth: a shepherd searching for his sheep; a woman sweeping her home after a coin; and the one we have just heard, a father waiting for his son’s return.
And what this collection points to is anything but ordinary. Each of these stories offers a glimpse of heaven in party mode.
By the time we get to the beginning of Jesus’ third story there is no getting away from this interpretation. At the end of the first and second parables we have had a direct comparison between rejoicing finders and that of heaven itself. And all this over ‘one sinner who repents’.
God is an open and joyful finder of lost people. By the beginning of our passage this ‘lost-found-party’ mantra is set.
In this third telling, however, we find some unexpected changes.
This son is not just lost – he has positively abandoned his father and family. He insulted and wasted their life’s work. In asking for his inheritance he is wishing his father’s life away.
And then he is not just found. When it all goes wrong he finds himself walking home with a rehearsed speech and a broken ego. He knows that even his offer of self-imposed slavery is unreasonable. Much to his surprise he is met with a running father, roast beef, a robe, and a ring: lost-found-party.
According to this established rhythm it all should end here. But the rhythm is broken: lost, found, party, party-pooper.
You see, not all are in the mood to celebrate. The older brother hears of the feast but sees only a goat not given and the betrayal of the one who chose not to stay. For him this party amounts to little more than additional waste.
And so Jesus’ story ends with a conversation between father and angry son. It is outside and amounts to an unanswered plea for a lived out grace.
It is an appropriate silence. The Pharisees and Scribes must see themselves in this angry, young, graceless, man.
Yet even now the extravagant love of heaven is requesting their participation.
Jesus wants God’s reckless love to be lived out with the same – if not more – zeal than they have applied to their holiness theology. If our holy God can bridge this gap, surely it is not so much to ask of those who follow.
After all, participation in the party of heaven would seem the most appropriate of all possible responses to the grace of God.