This is the sermon I preached at Guatemala City’s Central Presbyterian Church last Sunday, translated into English. It’s based on the parable of the prodigal son, which is found in Luke 15:11-32.
The prodigal son is featured in one of several parables in the 15th chapter of Luke in which Jesus responds to grumbling from Pharisees and Scribes about his outreach to sinners and tax collectors. In these parables we hear about losing and finding a sheep, losing and finding a coin, and losing and finding a son. The main theme of these stories is the pain of losing something valuable, and the joy of getting it back.
Contrary to lots of popular opinion, the point of the parable of the prodigal son isn’t to showcase the father’s virtue, or to depict him as a kind of God-figure. Preachers, in particular, tend to deify the father as an inspiring model of wisdom, mercy and long-suffering. Some even retitle the story “The Parable of the Loving Father.” This view distorts and limits this beautiful story by making it almost impossible to question the father’s deeds. If the father is a divine figure, then he presumably didn’t make errors in raising his sons and used perfect judgment in dealing with their struggles. How wonderful the world would be, we’re led to conclude, if every parent were just like him.
If we don’t assume the father is a metaphor for God, we open up to the possibility that maybe the father wasn’t perfect after all. The reality in the parable becomes one we can identify with, which was the aim of Jesus’ parables. We can view this family like many other families—dysfunctional, brimming over with disappointments, riddled with resentments—therefore giving hope to people with this kind of family.
As a pastor, I’d really like to facilitate a counseling session with this family. I’d like to offer some pastoral care and spiritual support. My first step would be to explore how their problems arise from family dynamics, not just the bad behavior of one son. I’d point out the likelihood that everyone, including the father, could be partly to blame for the conflict in this family.
After all, the father is a large land-holder and a powerful businessman, perhaps a workaholic. He probably expects his sons to learn the family business and be like him—with lots of servants, field workers, livestock, barns, and money. If this is his goal, it’s not necessarily the goal of both of his sons. When fathers place too high a value on business, they often don’t devote enough attention to troublesome children. In these kinds of families, there’s a tendency to substitute material things for loving relationships. Things, however, don’t solve family problems. Instead, they make it easier to avoid them.
The older brother enjoys the advantages of the first-born son, and he seems to be living up to the father’s expectations. He’s working hard and helping the family business grow. He probably can’t figure out why his younger brother isn’t more like him. His poor regard for his brother is in keeping with other sibling rivalries in the Bible, especially the book of Genesis. From Cain killing Abel and Jacob cheating Esau, to Joseph’s ten brothers selling him to the Midianites, we see a similar melodrama. Unfortunately this kind of melodrama between siblings has never ended, and continues today in many homes. Only in Exodus, with Moses and Aaron, do we find brothers who get along.
The younger brother shows signs of an inferiority complex. He senses that his father and brother aren’t interested in him as an individual. Perhaps he doesn’t want to be a rancher. Maybe he’d rather learn a different trade, or else study to become a scholar. Maybe he’d rather travel to other cultures and learn about them. If so, this no doubt would lead to arguments between him, his father and his brother, eventually leading to his tragic and typical decision to break family ties. He flees his home, expecting that life will be wonderful without his old man’s domineering attitude and rigid expectations.
Could it be that the father was relieved to see his younger child go? Why else would he so readily give the son his inheritance in advance? The father must have thought that his home would become a haven of tranquility once his trouble-making, spoiled loser of a son was gone. Good riddance… he thought… for a while… until he starts to miss his little boy.
As is the case with most runaways, the younger son discovered that life on his own was much worse, and that he couldn’t escape problems when he’s a part of them. What at first was thrilling and fun led him to lose everything, his money, his fake friends, and his sense of worth. Eventually he saw only one way to survive—go home. The homecoming would be humiliating and risky. He practiced what he’d say, and when at last he and his father reunited, he said, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and before you; I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Instead of giving his son a hard time, the father couldn’t believe that he was getting another chance at fatherhood. He ran to embrace his son. Wow! Praise God! What a royal welcome! Well, maybe even too royal! I can imagine the son saying, “Thanks, dad, this is great! As for the fatted calf, the nice clothes, the cool jewelry, and the comfortable shoes, they aren’t really necessary. What I’d like more than anything is for us to have time to talk some things over, and get to the bottom of our conflict.” If the younger son said something like that, I’d say he was right.
But I’d also say that the father was right when he said it’s “fitting to celebrate and be glad.” “Fitting” means it’s more than just permissible to celebrate or good to be glad, but that they’re necessary. We need them to get by. We can’t wait until every problem is solved to throw a party. God doesn’t want us to put off singing joyful songs until we get to heaven. When the Bible says laughter is good medicine, the message is that we should laugh even though we’re still sick, because it helps the healing process.
And I’d also say that the older brother was right when he complained about the party. Not only wasn’t the party for him, but nobody bothered to go out and invite him while he was working in the field. Just as it’s fitting to celebrate, it’s fitting to invite others, to include our brothers, to reach out to our sisters, and to make sure that no one’s left out. Sure, it’s hard to break away from the party to invite others. Nonetheless, we can’t forget about our brothers and sisters out in the field.
Yet, God’s mercy is for everyone, the brother that’s in the fold just as much as the brother who’s lost his way. The love of Christ is for all, for the sister that’s prospering as well as the sister that’s failing. God’s grace is for everyone, for parents that get along with their children and those that don’t to relate well to their children. That’s what the Pharisees and the Scribes didn’t see. Yet, even while they grumbled about it, Jesus kept inviting, receiving and loving sinners.
Two weeks ago I was in Cobán for the start of a theological training program. Among the students there was Francisco Chamay, a lay pastor from the Ixil town of San Juan Cotzal. (That’s a photo of him with this post.) Once I asked him what he’d say if someone asked why he’s a Presbyterian. His reply was longer than what I expected, but it was a fascinating testimony. Francisco told how once he used to prowl the cantinas of Guatemala City as a philandering drunkard. One night he passed out in the street, and a truck ran over his legs. Waking up in the hospital, he found out that he might lose his legs. Members of a church came to visit him, and they prayed with him. This touched his heart, and they continued to visit. Soon he became a Christian, and was discharged from the hospital with his legs recovered. He was fired up to serve Christ, and began to enter cantinas again, but now to invite people to church. Francisco studied the Bible, and eventually returned to San Juan Cotzal, his hometown. His passion for preaching in remote places got him into hot water with his church leaders, and they put limits on his evangelizing. This didn’t set well with him, and he resigned. After someone told him about the Presbyterian Church, he sought and received permission to work under the auspices of the Presbyterians. When others wouldn’t support his outreach efforts, the Presbyterians did. Now he wanders on his frail legs through the mountains and valleys around San Juan Cotzal, praying for people and inviting them to hear the Good News. And, he said in conclusion, if anyone asks why he’s a Presbyterian, this testimony would be his answer. By the way, when asked if he needed anything, he replied that a mule would helpful for him travel longer distances on rugged terrain.
It’s clear that Francisco believes that it’s necessary to invite everyone to the party. And that he’s happy in a church that gives him permission to do so. All of us have permission to share the Gospel. It’s necessary for us. This permission, incidentally, doesn’t just come from the Presbyterians; it’s a calling from God. We need to celebrate the love and goodness of God, and we need to invite all of God’s people to the celebration.