Here’s the sermon I preached on 11/9 at Hamline Church! I preached on The Prodigal Son, which is Luke 15:11-32.
Incase you haven’t noticed, it’s the second Sunday of Stewardship Month here at Hamline Church. Stewardship month is a time when we intentionally bring the topic of money into the worship service. We do this at this time every year, so that the issue of finances can be treated with the same discerning integrity and theological depth with which we treat the rest of our faith.
Additionally, this is also my first Sunday in the pulpit as your new Director of Youth and Family Ministry. My job here at Hamline Church is to provide support and programming for teenagers and their families, so that we all may be more spiritually enriched by the presence of young people in our congregation.
And what better a text for this occasion than the prodigal son!
Here we have a parable of Jesus that directly addresses financial matters within the family—a story of betrayal and reconciliation, bitterness and forgiveness, waste and scarcity.
This parable of Jesus is often used as a finance lesson for churchgoers, and it is often used as a very simple one: don’t. waste. money. Be wise. Don’t be like the prodigal. Look where he ended up.
However, if you really push that lesson hard enough, it begins to break down. It’s too simple, and the rest of the parable gets in the way. For instance, none of the characters in this story are particularly wise with their finances, and all of them have issues when it comes to family money matters.
There is certainly a finance lesson here in this parable, and there is certainly a call to us as Christians about how to address issues of money—but, it is certainly not as simple as it might seem.
To approach a parable is a kind of work and a kind of play. The text speaks with it’s own voice, and we come to it with our own expectations and our own needs. We play a sort of game with the text, to discover what the parable has to say to us at the exact time when we approach it. We may attempt to squeeze from it an easy lesson or a simple anecdote, but if we push that simplicity, we may find that it has something quite different to say.
Certainly, there is a lesson for us here when we consider what Christian financial practices look like. However, I invite you to approach it not as a lesson about good spenders and bad spenders, but rather as a story about a whole family that learns and develops over time.
Each one of these characters represent some sort of social ill in our society when it comes to dealing with money: waste, scarcity, and complacency. Each one of these characters goes through a transformation in the story, and all of them, after great mistakes, begin a process of healing together. It is this process of healing that I believe is the real message for us when we consider what Christian financial practices look like.
The prodigal appears to have the most obvious problem, and he certainly is upheld as the most difficult member of the family. He represents an attitude of waste, and he is often associated with American society. We don’t have to go far to find examples of wasteful spending in our selves, our neighborhoods, and our nation.
Over the past ten years, we have all become painfully aware of how much we, as a whole culture, spend beyond our means. There’s the debt crisis, the student loan crisis, the foreclosure crisis, the climate crisis—I can go on and on. There is no shortage of examples of American squandering of inheritance.
Then, of course, there’s the older brother.
If the prodigal represents the attitude of waste, then his older brother represents the attitude of scarcity. Here is an upstanding, anxious young man who has done everything right his whole life. He’s never celebrated, never taken any resources, and only worked his whole life in service to his father. He did so silently—never asking for anything that he wanted, never resting, never reflecting.
The anxiety and fear and bitterness that this older brother inhabits is infectious, and I’m sure you and I both know it well. American culture has its own attitude of scarcity deeply embedded in its cultural imagination: there’s this fundamental fear that there isn’t enough.
That fear causes us to isolate from others, since they might try to take from us what is already scarce. It causes us to become defensive and bitter. In anger and frustration, we often break our relationships with others. We begin to believe that there can never be enough—that to ask for a goat to celebrate is unacceptable—that celebration itself is unacceptable, unless it is somehow allowed or given to us by a higher power. Celebration becomes the enemy, because there isn’t enough.
Our older brother is famous for embodying that attitude of scarcity. The exact opposite of a life where everything is squandered is a life where there is never enough, but somehow—these attitudes are brothers, and they live side-by-side in our psyche.
Lastly, then, there is the father.
He seems to have some issues with communication. What if he had just talked to his sons about their money? What if, when his youngest approached him and asked for his entire inheritance, he’d been slightly more discerning? What if he’d talked to his older son and celebrated him a little bit more?
The father here represents a third social ill when it comes to money matters, and that is the attitude of complacency. That complacency seems to have created the lack of communication that led to such a bitterness in his elder son. That complacency seems to have let the younger son do whatever he wants, ending up hanging out with pigs in a foreign land.
When we don’t talk about money, we don’t learn how to talk about money—when we don’t foster our relationships, our relationships deteriorate, and the people we love suddenly surprise us with feelings and attitudes that we didn’t know existed.
Each of these three problems—an attitude of waste, scarcity, and complacency have strong currents in our society. They push us and shape us and often control us, just as they did these three men in Jesus’ parable.
But, something changed for these men.
This family drastically changed the way that they related to each other. When the younger son returns, a new investment is made. This family, as a whole, suddenly begins investing in each other. The father figure has a choice: he can reject this son. And, conventions said that he ought to. This is the most egregious sin that anyone in the ancient times could think of: running away from family and wasting everything in a foreign country.
But, he chooses not to. He invests in his son. He invests in celebration. He invests in forgiveness. He invests in gratitude. He invests in resurrection.
This son of mine was dead and came back to life. We had to celebrate.
The father turns the tables. He changes his mind. He turns away from the attitude of complacency, and he begins to profess his love of his sons. He begins talking to them. He begins celebrating them. He recognizes them as people—he is no longer silent.
This is not a story about two failure sons and a gracious dad. This is about how this family as a whole learned how to invest in joy and gratitude, together, after a tremendous lack of understanding ripped them apart and dissolved their relationships.
We as a society are not much different from this family. We too allow scarcity and waste and complacency to destroy our relationships and mar our livelihoods.
But, we too can turn the tables. We too can choose to invest in abundance. That is what we choose to do when we come to church, when we choose to be a part of the church, when we make the claim that we are Christians.
The Christian Life is a life in which we intentionally invest in an attitude of abundance. We take our time and intentionally think about how we might live out the abundance of God in a world full of scarcity, waste, and complacency. The Christian life is a life in which we are continually celebrating resurrection, in which we are continually taking that which we have invested and celebrating for the sake of new life, reconciliation, and the dead coming back to life.
At the end of the story, the prodigal is not the same man. Their family has changed forever, but there is new life among them. Perhaps our father will now understand how to show his love for his elder son. Perhaps our younger son will understand the value of a savings account–perhaps our older son will begin now to ask for what he needs in order to celebrate his life. Together, they have begun on a new journey towards a different life together, a new life together, a life where celebration is the central purpose.
This story is a call to God’s people to put aside past mistakes and make a new investment—an investment in a life of gratitude and abundance, celebration and joy, where what is dead finds new life, transformed.
And we too, are called to make the changes that this family made. We too are called to be those in our society who cultivate investments in the abundant life, investments in celebration and joy.
We are called not to revel without a care, but to invest, slowly but surely, in an attitudes of abundance, lives of gratitude, and openness to celebration. It is hard work, going against those powerful currents, and it may not be intuitive and it may not be conventional, but it is who we are called to be.
In this time of stewardship, let us discern theologically and intentionally about the ways in which our financial lives express our faith lives. Let us consider our finances as an investment in abundance, investment in gratitude, an investment in a life led in celebration. And, like the family in this story, let us move forward, together, a testimony to abundance in a broken world.