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Second Chances

Thomas J Parlette

“Second Chances”

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32



There was once a father who was putting his four year old daughter to bed one evening. He read her the story of the prodigal son. Then they discussed how the younger son had taken his inheritance and left home, living it up until he had nothing left. Finally, when he was reduced to living like one of the pigs, he went home to his father, who welcomed him back. When they were finished with the story, the father asked his daughter what she had learned. She thought for a moment and said, “Never leave home without your credit card!”(1)

I suppose that’s one lesson you could take away from this story, but probably not the one Jesus had in mind.

To truly understand this well-known story, we really have to read it in its proper context. When it comes to our lectionary readings, I like to point out the verses that aren’t there, the verses that are skipped or left out. You might have noticed that this morning’s text skips from verse 3 all the way to verse 11. What did we skip?

Well, the parable of the prodigal son is really the last of three parables that speak about God’s concern for the lost, the sinners of the world who repent and come back to God. When the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to listen to Jesus, and the Pharisees and scribes started their grumbling – “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”- Jesus first tells them the story about the lost sheep. If you have 100 sheep and you lose one, don’t you leave the 99 and go looking for the one that is lost. Of course you do. And when you find it and bring it home, you celebrate. It’s like that with God as well – there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 good people who don’t need to repent.

Then Jesus tells them another little story. What about the woman who has ten pieces of silver and loses one? Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search everywhere until she finds it. And when she does, she rejoices! So it is with God – there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.”

And so begins the well-known parable of the prodigal son – which is really not a great name for this story. In our NRSV pew bibles you might notice that this passage is called “The parable of the Prodigal and his Brother.” That’s a little better, but the main character really is the Father. A better name for this parable would be “The forgiving Father”, or perhaps “The grace-filled Father.” For that’s what this parable is really about – its about radical forgiveness, it’s about ridiculous grace, it’s about endless second chances. This parable about a father who had two sons assures us that when we repent, when we come back to God, we will be welcomed home – no matter what.

The youngest sons adventure begins and ends with the same word – “Father”, although the tone is very different. When he asks for his share of the inheritance, he says it boldly, almost arrogantly “Father, give me what will one day be mine.” This is not a normal request, and it’s actually quite rude. I can’t wait until you’re dead and gone Dad – I want my money now. But the Father doesn’t seem to argue with his youngest son, there is no dramatic showdown – he just gives him his share, and the youngest son goes on his way.

He promptly blows all he has on poor choices, living large and bad investments. He hits rock bottom and decides to go back home, if his father will have him. He starts practicing his apology, his repentance speech, and he uses the word Father again, but the tone is very different, rather sheepish and embarrassed – “Father, I have sinned. I don’t deserve to be your son anymore. But please take me back and give me a job.”

People hearing this story for the first time may have been sitting back expecting that the Father would at the very least have a speech ready for his ne’er do well son, and maybe not take him back at all – but before the prodigal can even get through his repentance speech, the father hugging him and giving him a royal welcome – rings, sandals and big party, because my son was lost and now is found. Not a surprise because that is exactly what happened in the previous two stories. God celebrates over the lost who repent and come home.

But remember the religious leaders are there listening to these stories, and so Jesus continues – and brings the older brother into the picture. The Father’s grace and forgiveness doesn’t sit too well with big brother. It’s not fair! The older brother complains because he has stayed on the farm, he has done his duty, following all the laws and traditions that were expected of a good son. “Where’s my reward, where’s my party – I never even got a goat barbecue and my no good brother gets a fatted calf party?” And he storms off.

The Father goes out to see his oldest son, something he didn’t have to do, especially with guests in the house. He reminds his son, “You have always been with me. Everything I have is yours. You know that. Rejoice in that. But your brother, he was gone, he was lost, he was dead. But now he has repented – he has come home. We must celebrate that.”

This uncommon father shows what God is like as he demonstrates radical forgiveness beyond what anyone would have expected. He shows a ridiculous amount of grace in light of the insult his youngest son has heaped on the household. This father shows us that with God, there is always a second chance. When we repent, when we come back to God – God is always ready to welcome us home.

There is an old story told about an itinerant preacher named G.W. Ravensbury. Ravensbury made his living traveling by train to all sorts of tiny towns out west. He would ride into town, get off the train, preach somewhere, get back on the train and continue on to the next small town.

But one day, Ravensbury had an extraordinary experience. He was sitting at the back of a railcar and noticed a young man who was sitting a few rows ahead of him. This young man had a cardboard suitcase stuffed underneath his seat. He appeared very anxious. He would get up, pace up and down the car for a bit, then sit back down. He did this every ten minutes or so.

Finally, Ravensbury decided that he would go have a chat with the young. So he got up, introduced himself and asked he could take the seat next to the young man. “Son, my name’s Ravensbury. I’m a preacher. If you don’t mind me saying, it looks like you have a lot on your mind. Would you like to talk?”

And it was like opening up a faucet. The young man’s life story just came pouring out. “Me and my Pa didn’t get along well at all when I was growing up,” he said. “We fought about everything. One day we were getting after each pretty hard – I can’t even remember what it was about – when I said something like, “Well why don’t I just leave!” And pop says, “Son, there’s the door – don’t let it hit you on the way out.”

I didn’t really want to go, but I was so angry and I didn’t feel like I had a choice. So I packed up everything I had in my suitcase, and I left. As I was going out the door, my pop yelled, “Son, if you walk out that door, don’t ever come back.” But I was so mad, I just left.

“Things didn’t go to well for me after that. I kept wandering from one little town to the next, working whatever job I could find. One night I was drinking with some friends, and we got this idea to rob a liquor store. When we got caught, I got sentenced to prison.”

“But before I got out, I decided to write home to Mom and Dad. I told them I was in prison and about to get out. I said I was sorry for how I left and for what I did. That I’d understand if they never wanted to see me again, but I’d be passing through town. You see, my house is just off the tracks here about 10 miles ahead. I told them that if they wanted to see me to tie something white out in the tree. If there wasn’t anything white, I’d just keep going to the next town and they’d never have to hear from me again.”

Mr. Ravensbury, if there’s nothing white hanging out in that tree, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m at the end of my rope. I just don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

As they got closer to his home, the young man became even more nervous. Finally, he nudged Ravensbury and said, “My house is right up around this bend. Could you check if there’s anything white tied in the tree – I can’t look.”

Ravensbury pressed his forehead up against the window hoping to see something – anything – white tied up in that tree. And as they turned the corner, Ravensbury said it was the most majestic sight he had ever seen. Apparently the family had emptied their house of every towel, every wash cloth, every bed spread, every pillow case, even every piece of underwear – everything in that house was out there flapping from the branches of that tree.

“Young man – you should take a look at this.”

As soon as the young man caught a glimpse of the tree, he grabbed his suitcase, rushed out the door, and leaped off the train car as quick as he could. Ravensbury said the last image he saw was that young man dragging his cardboard suitcase up the hill as an older couple burst out of the house to greet him.(3)

That is a picture of what God’s grace is like. The cross was God’s way of emptying Heaven’s linen closet of everything white so that it would be known for all-time that God wants to welcome us home. No matter what we’ve done, or where we’ve been – we are always welcome in God’s home. With God, we always get another second chance.

So, come to the table today and revel in God’s grace.

Come to the table and celebrate our God, a God who yearns to welcome us home. Come to the table and give thanks to our God, who always gives us a second chance.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, p61.

2.    Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p118.

3.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, p61-62.