A Jewish woman who survived the concentration camps tells the story of the train ride to Auschwitz. She was with her little brother…and she looked down at him on the train and noticed that he didn’t have any shoes on.
And she screamed at him, “What is WRONG with you? Can’t you keep you things together? You’re so stupid!”
Well, it turns out that those were the last words she would ever say to him. They arrived in Auschwitz moments later and were separated and she never saw him again because he did not survive.
And she made a vow to try to never say anything nasty to anyone because she didn’t want those to be the last things she ever said to them.
And it is a similar story that we hear in the Gospel today.
We have a son…who says to his father “Give me my inheritance now!” Which essentially means “Drop dead!”
And we don’t know what the father says in return, but I imagine that he says something like “Take your money and get out! And don’t come back.”
And perhaps those are the last words that he ever said to his son, who he presumes to be dead. Could the father be regretting what was said?
But then, there his son is! The father catches sight of him and runs to embrace him and then throws the biggest party you can even imagine. Because his son, that ungrateful, ne’er do well, carousing, wasteful son –has come back home! Who could ask for anything more!?
Scripture scholars often say that the story is pretty straightforward. We are the Prodigal Son and the Father is God. And God forgives us no matter how far we stray and rejoices when we come home.
And that’s true enough.
But in this story, Jesus is addressing the Pharisees who are upset because Jesus hangs out with tax collectors–who are the lowest of the low. They’re not the IRS guys we know. They’re more like slumlords. Nobody likes a slumlord: Their tenants hate them because they don’t do repairs, the neighborhood hates them because the place is falling apart, the government hates them because they don’t pay their taxes. Nobody likes a slumlord and nobody likes a tax collector.
And so the point of the story is not so much how we are forgiven by God. But rather it’s a challenge to us to ask ourselves if we can forgive as the Father does? Can we forgive those who wish we would drop dead? Can we forgive those who waste our resources? Can we forgive that one colleague who annoys you? And what’s more after knowing how much of a louse that person is to you—and after you may have cast them off and said that you’re not going to be bothered with them—can you not only forgive them but rejoice over them coming back into your life?
Can you throw a party for the person who loves you the least?
Well, we know two things: one is the older brother cannot. And two is that God always does. The older brother tells the father that he shouldn’t throw the prodigal a party but rather he wants a party for himself. But he goes even further and says “You’ve never thrown a party for me and I work all day long and do everything I’m supposed to! You throw a party for this, this SON of yours. I’m your son, not this guy! Now I want what’s coming to me! Why don’t you just drop dead!”
Who does that sound like? These brothers are not all that different, the theme of their life is “drop dead.”
And the Father…this is a man who has experienced the renewal of his life. He was hopeless and somehow God made a way out of no way. His son came home forgetting that his father has cast him off. And in this new life of seeing his son return home has caused him to rejoice and he can’t understand why this older brother doesn’t see that.
“I’ll be dead soon enough and all I have is yours. But tonight! We eat and drink!”
Can we celebrate or even attend a party for someone who we don’t think deserves a celebration?
It would be like throwing a party for the guy who gets promoted instead of you? The younger sister who gets married before you do? The boss who denigrates your decisions but leads the company into profit? The professor who failed you who becomes a Dean? The person who breaks your heart!
It’s not that bad things happen to good people that test our faith, it’s often that good things happen to bad people …and then we become the older brother.
And the truth of the gospel here is not that we passively see God’s forgiveness of both brothers but that we ask ourselves if we too can forgive those who have trespassed against us. So that we may not be led into temptation but delivered from all that is evil.
Because evil wants us not to rejoice. Evil wants to keep us angry, bitter and resentful.
And folks, that is no way to live. And Lent is all about casting things off–and maybe tonight God is calling us to cast off resentments.
And so we come here tonight with our resentments, with the people on our minds who annoy us, who we often find to be unforgivable. And we try to move beyond where we most often find ourselves, in a sea of resentment and try see if our hearts can stretch much farther than we think. To find a place where we can cast off resentments and rejoice in reconciliation. Like the father, whose words rejoice over two sons who once said they wish he would hurry up and die.
In our lives we may have often been the prodigal son and we may often have been the older brother. But tonight, Jesus calls us to be the father.
And if we can be the father may our last words to everyone we know, even those we don’t think much of, be words of love and joy and peace.
So that we might die without resentments but rejoice in a reconciliation that leads us all into eternal life.