Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fourth Sunday of Lent.
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
[Jesus then tells three stories—one about a lost sheep. The first is about a lost sheep. The shepherd finds him and rejoices. The second is about a lost coin. Its owner finds it and she rejoices. The third story may be the most familiar of all–the story of a lost son.]
Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”
This is, at its heart, a parable about waste.
Wasted money. Wasted time. Wasted love. Probably even, at the end, a little bit of wasted food.
It’s even in the name. The word Prodigal can mean lavish, but it can also mean wasteful. Squandering, consuming, careless.
The word tends to produce a knee-jerk reaction to those of us in the western world. We in America are very much into efficiency. Waste not, want not.
My own Lenten discipline this year has been to reduce the amount of single-use plastic that I toss in the trash. So far it is not going very well; my success rate has been pretty abysmal. What I have been surprised by is the amount of shame that crops up when I really pay attention to how much I waste—how much I literally throw in the trash can. That’s probably a good thing—the planet can only house so many landfills, and I need to curb my contributions. But there is a lot of shame in the concept of waste.
And, in paying attention to my wastebasket, it’s also opened my eyes to other ways I waste things this Lent—the time I waste by checking out and scrolling aimlessly on my phone. The energy I waste, or by worrying about things I have no call to worry about or no control over. The relationships I let go to waste, because I don’t take the time to cultivate them. Hey look! Shame.
When I start to pay attention, I realize that I’m pretty wasteful—pretty prodigal—myself.
Which is a bit of a revelation to me. I have always felt like the older son in this parable—the good kid, the quiet kid, the one who hangs back and does what she’s told. The one who longs for someone to notice that she could use a good party but who would never ask. The one who lets resentment and self-righteousness build up just a bit too quickly.
But instead this week I have been feeling more like the prodigal son, squandering my inheritance—and inheritance of time and energy and skills, the things God bestows on me each new day—on the kind of life that doesn’t do those gifts justice. Every day God gives me 24 hours, and most days I feel like I’ve squandered more than my fair share of them.
I want to waste less. I want to be less prodigal. And so every few months I make grand plans on how I’m going to wake up earlier, watch fewer videos on youtube, plan out each minute of my day. How I’m going to practice multitasking and get started on those projects I’ve been putting off. I’m going to make every minute of my day count, put every thought towards the work I need to do. I’ll plan sermons in the car. I’ll listen to the news while I do laundry. I’ll line out a regimen and I’ll stick to it. No prodigals here. Waste not, want not.
And for maybe a week I can pull it off. And then I find that I am as exhausted and hungry as that prodigal son, longing for pig’s scraps and far from home. Not wasting a moment has me as lost as wasting too many.
Because when I don’t waste at least a little time, when I don’t put at least a little energy towards frivolous, useless past times, I end up missing some of the chances God floats in front of me—chances to chat with family, chances to build up friendships, chances to notice the color of the sky on my drive home. When I refuse to waste a moment, I end up missing the moments that are the most important of all.
I was late to church this morning. I’d already wasted all my minutes hitting the snooze button—I didn’t have any left to waste. But as I was driving by the little pond on the corner of Collins and Amsterdam, there was a great blue heron right near the road. No cars at the intersection at all, and so I wasted another minute of my day, to stop and look at the awesomeness of that great bird. It was an entirely unproductive minute, and it was pure joy.
A friend of mine uses the language of margin. How do we keep margin in our days—a little extra energy, a little extra time—so we have something left over to spend if something unexpected pops up?
I don’t want to be wasteful. I don’t want to be the prodigal son, hurting others with his carelessness, his pursuit of his own pleasure. But I am coming to realize that the answer is not necessarily to cut out all waste from my life.
I have to admit, I’ve never thought much about what it would feel like to be the father in this parable. Perhaps because I’ve only ever been a child, and never a parent. Perhaps because I do not know if I would have his patience, his joy. I do not know if I would welcome someone home so openly, so without reservation. I pray I would, but I don’t know.
Because to my eyes the father is wasteful too. Is as prodigal as his son. He wastes his time, hoping a son will come home who has made clear that he has no interest in the family business. He wastes his love on this greedy, manipulative kid. He wastes his fatted calf and his party clothes celebrating a boy who might turn around the next day and go right back to his bad habits.
I mean, we all hope that the son’s repentance is real, and that the next morning finds him apologizing to his brother and pulling his weight in the fields, but I have my doubts. Most folks don’t change overnight.
And yet the father loves him. Welcomes him. Wastes his joy on a kid that might not be worth it.
Isn’t that so hard to do? To love when we can’t be sure that love won’t be wasted? To celebrate when we can’t be positive the joy will be warranted?
I think about the people God has called me to love in my life, people on whom it has sometimes felt like love would be wasted. People with arrests and addictions, people with arrogance and self-absorption, people who only come my way when they’re hungry for something I have, and never when they have something to share back. All these imperfect people who I would love to stop caring about. Love to stop wasting my time and energy on.
People who, if I saw them coming over the fields, I would hardly run to meet with open arms.
Because while I am great at wasting time, and really great, apparently, at wasting plastic, I am apparently in need of a lesson from God on how to be more wasteful—more prodigal—with my love.
There is something godly, I think, about being wasteful. About going a little bit above and beyond what is necessary, what is efficient, what is bare bones.
After all, we worship a God who made a great blue heron where there were plenty of crows already around.
God wastes beauty on us. God wastes love on us. God wastes forgiveness on us, over and over and over again. And that’s the kind of wasteful I want to be.
There is a beautiful song by Amy Grant from the perspective of the Father in this parable, during the waiting time, when his son is gone, and he doesn’t know how things will end. It’s called the Prodigal.
Towards the end, there is a bridge that breaks my heart wide open:
Even if, she sings,
even if you never do return,
still I will have learned,
how to love you better.
The father is prepared to let all his love for his son go to waste. He is prepared to love without ever getting anything in return. He waits and waits and waits and he doesn’t know if his day of joy will ever come. But still he loves.
So my question for you today is: what are you willing to waste?
Are you the prodigal son, willing only to waste someone else’s money, someone else’s love, someone else’s time? Only willing to waste what wasn’t yours to begin with?
Or are you the prodigal father, willing to waste years of your own life, willing to waste the tears of your own heart, on the hope—even just the hope—that love will win the day once more?
Which prodigal do you want to be?