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In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. [Amen.]
This is the Sunday, brothers and sisters, of the Prodigal Son, which is recorded only one place in the gospels, and that’s in the 15th chapter of St. Luke’s gospel. Eight of the 27 books in the New Testament actually have a 15th chapter, and there are some truly amazing 15th chapters. The 15th chapter of the Apocalypse is the account of the seven bulls of the Lord’s wrath, these plagues that are about to be poured out and to precipitate the downfall of Babylon: an amazing chapter. The 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles is the account of the council of Jerusalem, and the Holy Spirit gathering the apostles and the bishops and priests of the Church to solve the first great Church-wide heresy, the Judaizing heresy, and to set the pattern for conciliar life for the rest of the age. The 15th chapter of St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians is the chapter of the Resurrection, where St. Paul unveils in great detail of more than 50 verses the coming resurrection for believers. The 15th chapter of St. John’s gospel is that magnificent teaching on the vine and the branches: Jesus the vine and we the branches who bear fruit.
But I’m not sure that there’s any more beautiful 15th chapter than the 15th chapter of St. Luke. St. Luke 15, where we find the Prodigal Son, is 32 verses long, and in these verses three short stories are told. The first seven verses are the story of the finding of the lost sheep, verses eight through ten are the story of the finding of the lost coin, and then verses 11 through 32 is the story of the Prodigal Son. But before I say something about those three stories and what they have in common and what the central message is of those stories, I want to just for a moment share the context in which Jesus told these stories.
There was something happening in his ministry, something going on with his disciples and with the masses who were following him that provoked him to say these three incredible stories recorded for us in the 15th chapter of St. Luke. Luke 14 is entirely occupied with accounts of Jesus interacting with people who were not responding properly to his ministry. These people who were following him in great hordes were stuck with all sorts of wrong thoughts about God, wrong thoughts about themselves, and wrong thoughts about Jesus and his ministry.
So here’s the picture: tons of followers, basically clueless. This is what was happening in our Lord’s ministry, but the Lord wasn’t interested in being surrounded by human shells, by large numbers of confused and disoriented persons whose association with him was virtually meaningless for the cause of the kingdom and his purposes. He was and he remains concerned with fashioning authentic followers, true disciples whose association with him is not mindless but is a true quest to imitate him and to pursue the kingdom of God.
So with this background, in such a state, the Lord decided to speak to these disciples in the most poignant, provocative, and direct way possible about what it means to follow him, about what thoughts they should have in their heads as they’re following him and mobbing him. These words about discipleship are found in the last 11 verses of chapter 14, the verses that immediately precede these three tremendous stories of finding the lost in St. Luke 15. Listen to the clarion call that Jesus makes to the masses who were associating with him but not with right intentions. He looks at them and he says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and his own mother, if he does not hate his wife”—do you hear this?—“if he does not hate his wife and his children, and hate his brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” What?
He follows that with these words: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Then he says: “Any builder of a tower first sits down and calculates the cost before he starts to build. Any king, setting out to battle, first sits down and takes counsel whether he can actually win the battle with the resources that he has.” And lastly, he says: “No one of you can be my disciple unless you give up all of your own possessions.”
“Salt is good, but if it becomes tasteless, it is simply discarded.” Wow! These words constitute Jesus’ most strident teaching in all the Gospel about what it means to be a Christian, a disciple, his follower. It’s as though the surgeon, the great physician of souls, saw this mass hanging onto him and following him everywhere, and he took his knife, and said, “Look. Let me tell you what this is about and what you should be doing here. If you’re not here for these reasons, you need to change your mind or get lost.” This was his message.
The Lord in this is making it clear to all of these tax collectors, to all of these tax gatherers, to all the sinners like us that were running around his feet that he was bowing low towards them; he was so lovingly embracing them. He’s making it clear that he had not stooped so low simply to sit with us in the pig-pens of our lives. That is not why he came, and that is not why he bowed low, just to pat us on the head and to sit with us. He had not condescended to join us in a life of misery so that misery could claim one more victim. In fact, he bent so low to raise us high. He condescended so that we could put our arms around his shoulders and be lifted up to a higher life, the life of discipleship, the life that he describes in these words.
He befriended us, brothers and sisters, and did not disdain us in order to call us to a life of discipleship which he describes in these verses as a new and radical love for him, so hot, so intense that it makes every other beautiful, God-blessed, human love appear to be hatred. This is what he means when he says, “No one can be my disciple unless he hates his wife.” And his children. He took the most wonderful, beautiful, God-given loves of the earth and said: They only make sense in relationship and as an outflow of your supreme, first love which is your love for me.
He describes this discipleship as a life of cross-bearing of self-denial, a life of thoughtful building for the kingdom. This is what he means when he says, “No one starts to build a tower until he sits down and he calculates exactly what it’s going to take, and then he builds that tower.” Our Christian discipleship should be intentional. We should have a very clear goal what we’re trying to build and know what it’s going to take. He says this discipleship is also a life of victorious battle: No king goes to war with another king until he sits down with his counselors and figures what it’s going to take. How much blood is going to be lost? What kind of resources are going to be expended? How much of the treasury is going to get drained to successfully accomplish this battle?
This is the life of discipleship. It’s a life of intentional battle which leads to victory, following Christ, and a life in which we’re transformed into good salt, capable of retarding corruption. Now, keep all of this in mind. Keep all of this in mind, because why I’m telling it is so you can understand the teaching of the Prodigal son.
All of this is the background, the context, for Jesus giving these three incredible stories which have all the same theme in Luke 15. The whole context is a mass of people holding onto Jesus for all the wrong reasons and him taking out the truth and telling them: These are the reasons you should be attached to me. This is the life I’m calling you to. And now he tells these incredible stories.
In the first seven verses, the story of finding the lost sheep, then the lost coin, and then the Prodigal Son. All three of these stories reveal God’s immeasurable love for sinners. All three stories reveal the lost one being found, of the lost one returning to where it belongs, to its true owner, and to his love and care. And all three stories share a common end, which on this occasion I think is the most exciting part of all: end of chapter, the common end of all three stories.
The story of the lost sheep is about one sheep that wanders astray from the flock and gets lost. This is us, a picture of us in our sins, and when we sin, we wander astray; we depart from the flock of God’s inheritance, and we end up lost. The Lord, the Good Shepherd, does not disdain us. He makes our recovery his top priority. He comes looking for us. He finds us. He grabs us, through all sorts of means which I will not attempt to describe, but you in your own heart can describe, how his crook gets around our neck. And then he puts us up on his shoulders, and he returns us to the safety of the flock. And listen to how the first story ends:
When he has found the lost sheep, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing, and when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.” I tell you, in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.
The second story is the story of the lost coin. The woman has ten silver coins. She takes good care of them. They’re everything to her, and she loses one. What does she do? She immediately lights a lamp, she sweeps the entire house, she searches under every nook and cranny until she finds that lost coin. And when she finds it, here we go again.
When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I lost.” In the same way, I tell you there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
The second story: the lost coin.
And then the story of the Prodigal Son, the gospel lesson today. The story of the Prodigal Son is the story of a father of a son who, like the lost sheep, wanders away and becomes lost. Whatever the enticements were to leave his father’s presence, to leave his father’s love, to leave his father’s counsel, they ended up ruining his life. They left him completely ruined, stripped of everything of value, desperately hungry for significance, for his family, and for his father, for his own dad.
And eventually he stopped enduring. He came to the end of his rope of tolerance for the things that had led him to this condition. He stopped listening to the evil one. He stopped slavishly obeying his flesh which was his main problem, his inability to deny himself and to not be self-indulgent. He stopped moaning and whining about his condition. He stopped blaming others. He stopped justifying his sin. He stopped wallowing in depression. He stopped procrastinating and delaying returning to his father. He stopped enduring everything that kept him from returning to his father’s embrace.
He took custody—brothers and sisters, what I’m trying to tell you is where repentance always begins—he took custody of his own mind. And he threw out all the thoughts that were degrading to his life. He came back in humility and repentance, unworthy in his own judgment of returning to intimacy with his family, and what did he find? The same thing that the lost coin and the lost sheep found: he found a father who had never forgotten him and who was watching the road for him every day, hoping and praying for his return. He found merriment. He found rejoicing. In fact, it says, “There was music and dancing.” He found the best purple robe. He found new sandals on his feet. He found a new gold ring on his hand. He found a fatted calf and a party of unspeakable elegance and happiness. He found a party in which there were no words of reproach, no demands for recompense, no reservation of affection or insistence that he prove his new restablished loyalty over the course of so much time. None of that happened.
There is, in fact, complete embrace, unceasing rejoicing and celebration, and tears of happiness flowing with the wine which was abundant. This amazing portrayal of the love of God for us, this parabolic promise to [us] who repent of our sins and return to the Father’s embrace is so outrageous; the love that’s portrayed here is so beyond telling and measure that, frankly, very few of us, I think, believe it. It’s just too good to be true. One of the reasons we don’t believe it is because we don’t have it for others who sin against us, and we don’t think that God could possibly do this, because we can’t do it when we’ve been stepped on, degraded, betrayed. Do we receive back those who want to reestablish relationship with us the way that God is doing it to this sinner here? Sometimes we can’t imagine God being this way because we can’t imagine ourselves to be this way.
Does he really love me like this, and will he really forgive me? These are the questions we ask, and to these questions our Lord gives a very clear answer: Yes, he does, and, yes, he will.
So now let me put this incredible, outrageous declaration of the love and acceptance of God together with Jesus’ teaching about discipleship and show you how these are connected. Jesus’ call to discipleship is so direct, serious, and sobering, it’s beyond measure for us. He leaves us with our mouth down here when he tells us that if we don’t love him by hating our wife, we don’t love him at all and we can’t be his disciple. Our mouths are down low, and then at the very next chapter our mouths are down low again, as he describes the love that he and his Father have for us.
We cannot play around with our Savior like the great, confused masses that just follow him around, looking for him to throw us a bone. For so many people, that’s what constitutes their Christian faith: If they’re looking for a bone, will Jesus throw them a bone, when they’re sick? Will he throw them a bone when they need help in their business? Maybe he’ll bring someone for them to love. Maybe some bread and fish from nowhere. Maybe some better circumstance or just a blessing. Our Lord is completely uninterested in playing the role of Santa Claus. He’s calling us to get out of the pig-pen itself and to return to nearness with God. He’s asking us to love him supremely, to bear our cross in his name, while building and fighting for his kingdom.
And one of the most distinct messages of this Sunday, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, the Sunday of St. Luke 15, is that the destination of our repentance is an outrageous rejoicing and a party of God’s own design in which the Lord’s happiness is so great that the angels share in it. There’s more joy amonst the angels of God over one sinner who repents—can you imagine over a whole parish? What God must think and feel every single Lent in the churches, when hundreds of people hear the call to repent and do it; how delighted we make the Lord and all of the angels?
It’s a party of God’s own design in which we ourselves are given the purple robe, the fatted calf, and the golden ring forever. God’s love for us is really that great, and there is no greater motivation to turn from sin and to embrace the radical discipleship that Jesus asks of us than the knowledge that we’re simply returning love for love, that we love God because God first loved us. He did and he does. This is the disposition of the Holy Trinity to you, brothers and sisters, every one of you, no matter where you’re from and what you’re from.
This is the disposition of the Lord God, and that’s why we can hear the call of our Savior to love him in return. The Lord is simply asking us to reflect towards him the love that he has for us! He doesn’t have a cold love, only thinking about us now and then, when he has a few extra bones to throw. The time of change is coming upon us, and I want you to have faith. I want you to believe that the call that the Lord has to discipleship, that is so radical, that I just read to you, is actually possible in your life.
You know last week, or maybe it was two weeks now, I had an incredible blessing. I went to our annual clergy seminar, where about a hundred priests were with our bishop and were there for continuing education: three days of lectures and prayers non-stop. I was so blessed because the speaker left me dumbfounded. His name is Fr. Maximos. Fr. Maximos is a simple monk who loves God from the monastery of Simonopetra on Mount Athos. He’s not exactly a simple monk, actually; he’s a Harvard PhD and a professor from Harvard who gave that up to become a monk and to go to the Holy Mountain, and he was called back to the United States to teach and to work with the Church here, which he very graciously accepted. I don’t know why.
He gave six of the most penetrating lectures, entitled “Distraction, Technology, and the Life of Prayer.” These lectures were all about how to find the Lord God living with an iPhone. How to do it in a digital age. Fascinating lectures. And he said something that so deeply affected me, a very memorable truth, and I want to leave it with in response and conclusion of my homily. He says that often, at the time of Lent, when the Lord, through the Church, offers us so many opportunities for transformation and change, so many services and service projects and fasting; he says often, when it comes to our spiritual life, when we say, “I don’t have time,” what we really mean is, “I don’t really believe in the possibility of my own transformation.” When he said that, it just hit me. How often do we say, “I don’t have time,” but what we really mean is, “Even if I did and I went, it wouldn’t mean anything to me anyway”? “I will come out the same way I went in”? “Lent is wonderful and all, but I’m going to be the same at the end as I am at the beginning”? No, you are not! Absolutely not! That is a lie from below to keep you from your own beautiful change that the Lord has for you.
So when you decide next week, in the next week or two, how you’re going to spend Great Lent, before you say, “I don’t have time for that service” or “I don’t have time to feed the homeless” or “I don’t have time for this or that spiritual work that’s before us in Lent,” ask yourself if you really don’t or if you really are just not believing that the love of God for you is as great as the Lord in the Prodigal Son is telling you, and that it’s possible for you to change your condition. For goodness’ sake, that man was living in a pig-pen! Penniless and broke! A slave to passions, and he ended his life in a divine party, clothed in splendor, with the embrace of his father, dancing to heavenly music, whatever that is. If that doesn’t speak of the power of the love of God to effect change and transformation, what does?
God give us the faith to believe in it. Amen.