This Sunday (4th Sunday of Lent, March 14, 2010) sported one of Christ's best loved parables.
It is also one of the more poorly preached in ideological times. Liberal Protestants tend to say something like, "The 'parent' shows us that God is all about acceptance, the elder son stands for the mean, hateful traditional Christians who won't accept everybody just the way they are, and the younger son stands for all the marginalized (cough LGBT cough) people who would flock to our churches if we just blessed their relationships and ordained them as clergy."
But that is an epic falsification of the story.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.'"
The younger son was in grave danger by doing what he felt like doing. He took the blessings that his Father freely gave and wasted them. The Father did not rejoice in that, rather he rejoiced because his son turned back and came home.
Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'"
His argument would make sense if the Father were sending more money while the younger kid wallowed in waste - if the Father were an "enabler." But the younger son has turned away from waste and come home. All the Father does is rejoice - ecstatically and extravagantly - at this return from death to life. Really, the elder son is just like his brother - focused on self instead of what's right and good. It came out as self-indulgence in the younger kid; it manifests as self-righteousness in the elder. Neither brother was right in either attitude. The Father did not bless either attitude but loved his sons and held out hope that they would come under his roof again.
"Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
"Your brother was dead" is a curse, not a bit of poetry. To say "You are dead to me!" is a profound rejection in various cultures. The younger son's earlier behavior is accursed, not "affirmed," but his return to the Father is a source of joy.
The context is found earlier in the same chapter of Luke, at verse 7:
"...there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance..."
and again at verse 10:
"...I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
The younger son was most emphatically a "sinner," living apart from God's ways. The only question Jesus raises is, "Will my church rejoice over the sinner who repents?" He is nowhere suggesting that this be accomplished by "affirming" sinful behavior, which his parable describes as "lost" and "dead."
For Episcopalians, ELCA Lutherans and other Liberal Protestant groups, the question will loom largest if and when some people mired in the waste of anti-Biblical culture religion, amorality, lawsuits, fruitless causes and other dead things suddenly, like the younger son, "come to themselves" and repent. There are some very bright and, more importantly, sincerely God-seeking people among those who are inadvertently destroying churches right now.
Should some of them repent, will those who "served the Father" faithfully rejoice with Him and welcome their lost siblings home? That's the question - the challenge - thrown down by Jesus in this great and beloved story.