Luke 15: 11-32
“A Good Lenten Journey: On Reflecting God’s Unconditional Love”

“A Good Lenten Journey: On Reflecting God’s Unconditional Love”

Luke 15: 11-32 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ March 10, 2024


Have you ever come home…to love? I recall leaving the hospital with my newborn child, bundling them up, placing them in the car seat, and driving home carefully…home to love. Have you ever come home to love? Going to your home…with the special sights, smells and scents that make it home…with the special ones there. Going home and feeling…love.


The parables before us offer a theological feast. We could spend weeks looking at their many aspects and feel like we are just getting started. One commentator proclaims this to be the parable of all parables. And, in Jewish literature, we find the author’s main point placed right in the middle of their writings. So for Luke, the gospel writer, he places these stories of the lost right in the middle. The 15th chapter contains the story of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son. And for our purposes, I would like to focus on the return home to love: The return home to love for the younger son; the return home to love for the elder son; and the return home to love that the father makes all possible. To be clear, the love in this home is odd, other-worldly, it makes no sense. Yet as parables do, it teaches us the way of the Kingdom of God…God’s way of unconditional love!


The younger son becomes known as “the prodigal” for his reckless spending and lavish extravagance. He approaches his father with a demand that is deeply disrespectful. He asks for his share of the family inheritance; he acts as though his father is already dead. He converts it into cash and the story records his progressive estrangement from the family. He mismanages his money and descends into the depths of poverty. In a desperate attempt for survival, he attaches himself to a Gentile (a non-Jew) who tasks him to feed his pigs. This task would, of course, be an abomination within the Jewish community. The prodigal son has separated from his family, his faith, and his home. He has nothing.


The turning point moment for the prodigal occurs, as the text puts it, when “he comes to himself”. It affirms the human capacity to realize our error, reclaim our heritage, our potential. To go home to love. He realizes that he has horribly sinned against his father, his God, and his home. And something inside his heart draws him to return to that which had once been. As he returns home, he addresses him “Father”; he confesses his errors “I have sinned”; he shows his contrition “I am no longer worthy to be your son”; and he offers petition “treat me like one of your hired hands”. In an epiphany moment, the prodigal comes to himself…he arises…and he goes to his Father. Yet, before he can begin to unpack his meagre belongings into the servants’ quarters, the loving Father welcomes him…home: a ring for his finger, sandals for his feet, and a feast to celebrate that the lost has come back and the home is now more complete.


We don’t often speak about it this way; however, the prodigal son is not just extravagant in his spending. The prodigal son is also extravagant in his faith. What kind of faith allows one to “come to oneself”? What kind of faith allows us to return home and know that love will be there? The prodigal son had no reason to expect anything! He had relinquished his rights as a member of this proud family; he had given up their beloved faith. Yet, something inside him knew the love that made that family strong. He went home with the request to be received as a lowly servant. And the loving father welcomed him home with the amazing love of a family who saw their son finally alive!


Can you imagine this kind of love coming from God for you? This is the delight that God has when the lost are found! The lost coin…found; the lost sheep…found; the lost son…all found! The Father’s delight is to clean the found son up; to give him dignity ~ a robe and a ring, and throw a homecoming celebration. There was something inside the son that ‘knew’ the depth of the Father’s love…and that allowed him the faith to “come to himself” and come home.


Shifting to the character of the loving Father, we see in him the one who creates a home that is founded upon unconditional love. For the father, he had been deeply insulted with the request for inheritance. It was tantamount to saying “I wish you were dead, Dad”. To hear reports of his son’s prodigal ways reflected back on him. To hear stories of the son working amidst the unclean pigs was his final sadness as it became evident that the son had given up his religion, his family, all he had been taught.


Yet the father is a prodigal as well. The father recklessly, and unconditionally loves the son upon his return. Did you notice how the father receives the son? As soon as the son walks over the crest of the hill, the father runs to greet him. This is not the act of a dignified father! An elder, in that time, does not run. That would be beneath him! Yet the prodigal father is extravagant: he runs to his returning son; he is extravagant: he offers a robe and a ring and loving welcome; he is extravagant: he offers unconditional loving welcome.


By the measures of this world, the father should have closed the gates to the home…he should have called the servants in…he should have ignored the son knocking at the door. Yet, that is not the way the unconditional love of the father worked! The father models an extravagant love that forgives, welcomes, and celebrates. The father shapes a home that is founded in love. A home where the lost are found!


We do have a third character, the not to be forgotten older son. The older son stays home while the younger has gone off. The older son might be seen by the standards of this world as ‘the good son’. He is the son who works as his father’s right-hand man, trusted to oversee the property and the servants. It is significant to note that the text does not link the two sons as brothers: the story begins “a man had two sons”. And when the the older son makes reference to the younger, he refers to him as “this son of yours”. Indeed, Luke places a large separation between these two young men. And beyond figurative references such as “the two sons” or “this son of yours” there is the physical. The older son stays outside. He remains apart as the party is starting. We can almost sense the anger welling up inside the older son as he listens to the homecoming celebration. And we, learning about God’s extravagant love, are left wondering if the older son will ever go into the party. Will he just stay outside in anger, or will the homecoming be complete with the gathered love of the whole family?


The older son represents the commonly held belief that tells us that we can only make it on our own, that we must make it on our own. The older son is steeped in a depth of pride that causes separation in the family. And when we see the two sons, side by side, we see this sharp contrast. A contrast between those who want to be judged by merit and earn rewards, and those who must ask for grace and love when they inevitably fall short. As you heard, the older brother’s decision to enter the party is yet to be decided. His decision to enter into the home and make it complete with love is yet to be seen. I guess that kind of sums up the challenge of reflecting God’s unconditionally extravagant love. It is not easy! We see this profound love, shown in Jesus, we see the party that God yearns to throw…and the question remains whether, or not, we will join the party.  


I don’t know how you feel about the older son, but I am so glad that he is there! He represents the complex interchange between our humanity and God’s divine love. The older son has witnessed the lost being found; he has witnessed the younger son come to himself; the extravagant belief that he could come home; and the even more extravagant love of the father. In the older son’s world of checks and balances, where he had done everything that was ‘right’, this story isn’t fair: it is unconditional love. What the older son has the opportunity to to be part of is the extravagant love of God that creates a home of loving welcome…that will keep the lights on until all are safel…and will not close the gate until all are gathered.


The picture on the bulletin cover and on the screen was one of the last works painted by the famous Dutch artist, Rembrandt. Historians tell us that this painting, entitled “The Return of the Prodigal Son” was one of his last works. They encourage us to pay attention to Rembrandt’s use of light. In his elder years, his eyes were dimming. So his use of light was extremely significant. Where is the light? The light is shining brightest on the son kneeling in front of his father. The light reveals the son’s dirty feet and tattered garments…the father’s regal robe and caring face. The scene is not all in the light, though. In the shadows are other figures. The older brother, with a similar robe to the father, but a very different look upon his face. What is the look? Is it judgement, hatred, anger, confusion? What will the older son do? Will he step outside of the darkness and into the light? Will he join the father and, also, welcome the younger son?


I think that the older son is so important because he represents the profound human challenge in reflecting God’s unconditional love. Yet, in the challenge, we are reminded that both sons are part of the family. The home is not complete until they all joins the loving gathering. A challenge for our living…a challenge for our loving. This God who loves us so unconditionally, yearns for us to come home as we make it complete with love.