Choices – Br. David Vryhof

Luke 15:11-32

There was once a man whose younger son wanted to make his own choices in life.  Now it pained the father to let him make these choices because he suspected that his son was not really mature enough to make wise choices – but still he gave him the freedom he wanted.  (There are times when this is a good thing for love to do.)

At any rate, his son was pleased, and he began to make his choices.  He chose, first of all, to have his share of his father’s inheritance turned into spending money.  Then he chose to leave his father’s home, taking all his money with him.  Next, he began to choose some new friends, and together with them he chose some ways to spend his money.  And with each choice that he made, that deep inner part of him, the part of him that made choices, was becoming something a little different than it was before. Until at last he found that his choices had ruined him.

That was the turning point.

One day, while feeding a stranger’s pigs (that was where his choices had led him), he remembered something.  He remembered who he was and to whom he belonged.  And he began to make some new choices.  He chose to set aside his pride and return to his father to beg his forgiveness.  He chose to be willing to be a servant in his father’s house rather than to go on being the master of his own fate.  He chose to go home. And with each choice that he made, that deep inner part of him, the part of him that made choices, was becoming something a little different than it was before. And these choices were good choices for him; eventually, they brought him security, fulfillment and joy.

He was not the only one, of course, who was making choices.  His father saw him “while he was still far off,” and he too was faced with a choice.  He could have waited in the doorway to receive him with offended dignity – but he didn’t.  He could have rebuked and scolded, demand­ing an apology for his son’s foolishness – but he didn’t.  He could have talked about making amends or doing penance – but he didn’t.  He could have refused to see him and turned him away (and with just cause) – but he didn’t.  He chose instead to hitch up his robes and to race down the road to meet his repentant son.  He chose to throw his arms around him and shout and laugh and weep with joy.  He chose to cover him with a robe, and to put a ring on his finger and new shoes on his feet.  He chose to welcome him with a feast.  And each choice that he made reflected that deep inner part of him, the part of him that made choices, which had been shaped and fashioned by many, many choices made over the course of many, many years.

Now this story about a son and his choices is also about you and about me.  And one of the things it means to tell us is that we are shaped by our choices, moment by moment, day by day, and year by year.  Every time we make a choice we are turning some deep and inner part of ourselves, the part of us that chooses, into something a little different than it was before.  And taking our lives as a whole, with all our innumerable choices, throughout the whole of our lives we are slowly turning this deep and inner part of ourselves into something that is in harmony with God and with God’s purposes in the world, or into something that is contrary to them. Each of us at each moment is progressing one way or the other.

The great spiritual leader of India in the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi, once said, “We become what we yearn after; hence the necessity for prayer.”[1] We become what we yearn after.  By these words Gandhi does not mean that we will achieve whatever we desire: that if we yearn after wealth, we will become wealthy; or if we yearn after popularity, we will become popular; or if we yearn after youth and beauty, we will become (or remain) young and beautiful.  When he says, “We become what we yearn after,” he does not mean that we become whatever we want badly enough.  But he does mean to suggest, I think, that what we yearn after, what we set our hearts on, what we most deeply desire, will influence the type of person we will become.  Our desires shape our choices, and our choices shape our character.  If we yearn after wealth or popularity or beauty or any other thing, that yearning will shape the choices that we make: choices about where and how we will live, about what work we might choose to do, about whom we will choose to be our friends, about how we relate to others, about where we put our time and energy.  Our desire, our yearning, will shape our choices in life, and the choices we make will determine the sort of person we become.  In that sense, suggests Gandhi, “We become what we yearn after.”

“We become what we yearn after; hence the necessity for prayer.” Prayer gives us space and opportunity to look deep within ourselves, to discover and name our deepest desires, to examine our true priorities, and to determine which choices are congruent with the person we want to become and that God wants us to become.  Quieting ourselves in prayer, seeking God’s guidance and wisdom, we descend into that deep place within ourselves, that part of us that makes choices, to discover what it is that we truly yearn after.  It may not be at all what we assume it is.  We may be surprised at the hidden forces of desire that rule our hearts.  We may even be shocked and embarrassed by what we find there.  But discovering and naming the desires at work within us gives us the freedom to choose whether to cooperate with them or to reject them.  It gives us the space and perspective we need to consciously make choices that are in line with the deepest and most authentic desires of our hearts, those desires that are truly from God.  Prayer gives us the gift of knowing ourselves.  It offers us the power to shape our lives by choosing according to the yearnings we have consciously embraced as being congruent with our truest selves.  In prayer the Spirit reveals to us the ways of God, ways which often are in opposition to the ways of the world around us.

The son’s initial choices reflect his yearning for independence, popularity and pleasure.  These choices do not lead him to love, security, joy or fulfillment, as he hoped they would.  Instead they ruin him.  But the second set of choices he makes, which includes the choice to turn around, to repent and to seek forgiveness, gives rise to humility and genuine contrition.  These choices bring him home.

Our choices matter.  Our lives are shaped by our choices, and our choices are shaped by our deepest yearnings.  “We become what we yearn after; hence the necessity for prayer.” One thing this story can show us is that we become what we choose, moment by moment, day by day, and year by year.

But another thing that this story means to tell us is that God also chooses – in fact, God has chosen.  God has chosen to forgive us.  God has chosen to accept and pardon and welcome us.  No matter how miserable our choices have been in the past, no matter how vacillating and unpredictable they are in the present, no matter how misguided they may be in the future, God says we are forgiven.  God’s forgiveness does not begin with us or with what we deserve; it does not wait for us to be very, very good so that we may be deemed worthy of it.  God’s forgiveness begins with God, and with what God chooses freely to give. “God proves his love for us,” St. Paul says, “in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God chooses to love us precisely when we are least deserving of it, when we are least lovable.  When we come dragging home in our lowest, most unattractive, most undeserving state, God runs to meet us.

This is the beauty of the gospel – that God loves us, without the least regard to what we deserve.  We are forgiven.  It may be difficult for us to accept this unwarranted grace.  We would prefer to win forgiveness through our own efforts.  But God’s choice does not depend on us or on anything we do or say.  It is pure gift.

Who can fathom such forgiveness?  Who can comprehend the wideness of this mercy?  Apparently not the elder brother.  He too is faced with a choice and he chooses to remain in the field – refusing to attend the party, nursing his hurt feelings and questioning his father’s generosity.

Before we dismiss him as an angry or resentful person, or as a miser who has never learned to dance, let’s consider his choice and try to understand why he made it.  What concerns him is not that his younger brother has been allowed to return; it’s that he’s receiving a hero’s welcome.  It’s the party that troubles him.  Why the feasting and dancing?  Yes, let the prodigal return – but to bread and water, not a fatted calf.  Let him return in sackcloth, not in a new robe.  Let him wear ashes, not a new ring.  Let him come back in tears, not in merriment; kneeling, not dancing.[2] What disturbs the older brother is that the father’s lavish forgiveness seems to minimize the offense.  Is the offense simply to be overlooked?  Are the younger brother’s actions to have no consequences? Is it fair to welcome him back without expecting him to make restitution?  Doesn’t having a party send the wrong message?  Doesn’t it condone his bad behavior? Is it wise, is it fair, is it acceptable, to simply let him off the hook like this?  Why throw a party?

We can understand these feelings, can’t we?  We want wrong-doers to pay for what they have done.  We want there to be justice and retribution for those who suffered as a result of the offense.  We want to send a message that this kind of behavior is not permissible.  We might agree with the elder brother that what’s needed here is tough love, not generosity and forgiveness!

Consider this: If you or I had been neighbors to this family and had been invited to the party, would we have gone?  Or would we have stayed at home to show our disapproval of the lavish welcome this foolish boy was receiving?  It’s not an easy question to answer, is it?

Jesus’ stories have a way of shocking us, just as they shocked his original audience.  And this story shocks us by showing us the wideness of God’s mercy, the generosity of God’s love, the expanse of God’s forgiveness – all of it undeserved, unmerited.  Pure grace!

If we are honest with ourselves, we may have to admit that we’re not that much different from the older brother.  We too might have chosen to deny such generosity to our younger sibling.   But when we recognize that we too have been the beneficiaries of such grace, we begin to see things differently.  The truth is that all of us, at some time and in some way, have wandered away and become lost.  All of us, at some time and in some way, have squandered what has been entrusted to us.  All of us have stumbled into darkness and lost sight of who and what we are meant to be.  “For there is no distinction,” says St Paul to the Christians at Rome, “since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”[3]

And the Very Good News of the Gospel is that God has chosen to forgive us in Jesus Christ.  When we finally awaken and are able to recall who we are and to whom we belong, when we stand up and dust ourselves off and begin the journey home, God comes running to meet us. God offers us forgiveness even though we don’t deserve it.  God offers us pardon even though we haven’t earned it.  God offers us a home even though we were the ones who chose to leave.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost and now am found,

Was blind but now I see!

Oh, and did you want a party?  Listen to Jesus’ words to tax collectors and sinners who came near to listen to him: “I tell you,” he says to them, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”[4]

Do not fear.  God has chosen to forgive you.  Welcome home!

[1] Quoted in The Diary of Mahadev Desai, p. 58.

[2] Craddock, Fred; Luke (Interpretation Commentary); (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 188.

[3] Romans 3:23

[4] Luke 15:7

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  1. Carol on March 13, 2019 at 13:54

    Thank you for this sermon. It is what I need this morning. It is what I need often. I will keep this to return to again and again.
    God bless your ministry and each one of you at SSJE.

  2. Damon D. Hickey on March 13, 2019 at 10:14

    I appreciate the emphasis on freedom of choice—God’s and ours—and that’s also where I get stuck. I can look deep within, discover what I yearn for, and intend to make different choices in the future. But my ability to change is sharply limited by the choices I’ve made before, some of them throughout my life. The force of habit—the way I’ve shaped my character—make it very hard to choose differently. That’s why prayer is necessary.

  3. Diane on March 13, 2019 at 08:56

    You brought tears and smiles to me today. Thank you for enlightening me.
    I love your caring way of teaching us, and thank you for entering my life. I will continue to pray that you and all the Brothers @ SSJE continue to follow the way of the Lord and share it with us with conviction and compassion.

  4. Thomas Phillips on April 15, 2018 at 17:07

    This Reality has been Gift and Grace, though I am slow to ‘perceive’…thanks for this enlivened clarity…
    Thomas Pghillips

  5. Claudia Booth on October 23, 2017 at 11:47

    Your message offers so much hope in the boundless love of Christ.
    Thank you, Brother David

  6. CHRISTINA MCKERROW on October 23, 2017 at 11:21

    I’ve read this sermon more than once. This morning, I read it again, and listened to it too. I weep. I can see me in the prodigal son when I was young, * I can see me in the older brother, and I can question what my reaction might be as the neighbour who may, or who may not go to the celebration.
    If I went to the party, I question why I would go? Would I go to be as welcoming to the wayward son as the father was, or would I go to support the father, while holding on to my criticism about the son’s behaviour and hurts that he had inflicted upon his family.
    * I returned home and was welcomed by my family, but friends of the family would not, or did not, come to visit during the months I was there. That was no doubt hurtful to my parents.

    Thank you again, for this beautiful reflective sermon.

  7. SusanMarie on October 23, 2017 at 07:04

    All the previous comments affirm my feelings about this sermon. It is beautiful. Thank you so very much and may God continue to bless you ~ and bless us all!

  8. NA on October 4, 2016 at 07:40

    I have listened to this sermon multiple times lately as I am going through a time of realizing that my choices are what got me into the painful place where I am. I meant well. I thought I was choosing what was good, kind, and loving, but as the basis for those choices was dysfunctional beliefs I did not realize were running the show, they led me to misery.

    This morning, I saw another layer in this story, how we can have the critical, hurting, distant older brother inside us as a duality that can talk us out of coming home. Think what sorts of things the elder brother might have said had the younger contacted him first to ask his opinion! That critical “You don’t deserve to come home,” voice could have rung so loudly in the younger son’s ears that he might have talked himself out of the very thing he needed to do most, thus keeping him trapped in his pain and need.

    There are times when it is necessary to tell our inner elder brother to keep him opinions to himself and go back to his crops and fields! In the end, even if he is technically right that we do not deserve a lavish welcome, his harsh implacable position leaves no room for grace. And we all of us, every one, need grace.

  9. Flo Kany on August 23, 2016 at 01:54

    Thank you so much for the word, l have seen the scriptures used in this sturdy in a new way. It has helped me to see myself in,a,clearer way and to appreciate God’s love more! Keep the thoughts coming. God bless the ministry.

  10. Annette Foisie OSL on August 22, 2016 at 11:19

    This teaching is a powerful truth about judgment. When we judge others, we fail to see our own sin. However, God
    is a merciful judge, and seeing our behaviors, is filled with compassion for His wayward sons and daughters.
    Thanks be to God.
    Annette Foisie OSL

  11. judy on August 22, 2016 at 08:55

    This is a keeper!

  12. Rhode on August 22, 2016 at 08:27

    Probably my favorite message yet. Thank you. I too, met the running Father on my way home bereft, in misery and covered with years of selfish choices. His forgiveness restored my faith, the coat was the blood of Christ covering all my sins. The feast is love provided everyday. So very thankful.

    • Rhode on March 13, 2019 at 11:36

      Yep, 2019 and this is still my favorite SSJE message. This Lent I am focusing and prayerfully minded about the choices of dwelling on negative thoughts and mindful of negative words that come out of my mouth. God gives grace when I would rather argue that some people just do not deserve it. Ha! After all He has forgiven me of?!?! Thank God the stories of His love are rife with illustrations.

  13. Paul on September 20, 2015 at 14:45

    The “Brother, give us a word” for today was “Salvation.” What a loaded term THAT is. I wish that this sermon had talked about “salvation” and compared it with forgiveness, and discussed what it means to be “saved.” Maybe that’s in another sermon. I’ll look for it.

    In the meantime, thank you for this beautifully articulated exegesis on forgiveness.

  14. Michael on September 20, 2015 at 12:13

    It’s so easy to be sanctimonious and so hard to be humble and grateful. I wonder if I will ever get it straight, at least a little

  15. N on September 20, 2015 at 07:25

    This is a wonderful exploration of my favourite parable. I felt deep gratitude when I finished reading it this morning.

  16. Roderic Brawn on September 20, 2015 at 05:31

    This sermon addresses many of the needs I have every day.

  17. Ruth West on May 27, 2014 at 02:09

    Our son Michael, now deceased, was an artist.
    One of his paintings was of the father, seated,
    with the son kneeling at his knee. It was such a great depiction of the Biblical story. He painted so many pictures and sold most of them. I wish I had
    that particular one, but, if not, I hope the recipient
    has enjoyed it and has fully lived its message. I
    am sure my son put his heart into painting it.

    • Christina on September 20, 2015 at 19:28

      There is a beautiful Rembrant painting of the Prodigal Son kneeling at his father’s feet.
      It would not be the same as having your own son’s painting, but you might like to have a print of the Rembrant one. Christina

  18. Selina from Maine on October 6, 2013 at 08:29

    In all the hundreds of times that I have heard this story, this is the first time I have grasped the part about grace as pure gift and how that relates to me.I have always found it harder to receive than to give, and preferred Purgatory to Paradise in the Divine. Comedy and to earn something rather than be given it. Oy ! I am an older daughter , Grace challenged.

  19. Mino Sullivan on October 6, 2013 at 08:04

    Thank you, David! Your plumbing of the meaning of the prodigal son story was just what I needed to hear as I strive to make God led choices about how I want to live, and who I want to be.

  20. barbara frazer lowe on June 21, 2013 at 11:24

    Dear Br.Vryhof – Thankyou for you deeply comforting and directing words – actuality – daily prayers.

  21. Alan Rollins on June 9, 2010 at 21:01

    I discovered this sermon, very recently. I listen to it often. It has captured my attention at a time in my life when I need to hear this the most. Though my choices may be difficult, I pray that God will help me seek a better direction.

    Thank you for your words, Br. Vryhof.

  22. Sally Stuckey on March 19, 2010 at 04:01

    A wonderful summation of God’s very gentle and steady love for me which I have trouble keeping in focus.
    Thanks so much.

    • Jeanne DeFazio on March 13, 2019 at 09:13

      There is a big scandal currently over the selling of ivy league university entrance. It’s been breaking news all day! I was praying at the close of the day over the many we make in pursuit of happiness and your words speak so beautifully to the situation:“We become what we yearn after; hence the necessity for prayer.” Prayer gives us space and opportunity to look deep within ourselves, to discover and name our deepest desires, to examine our true priorities, and to determine which choices are congruent with the person we want to become and that God wants us to become. Quieting ourselves in prayer, seeking God’s guidance and wisdom, we descend into that deep place within ourselves, that part of us that makes choices.
      Thanks Jeanne

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