The Gospel according to Luke 15:11-32
Then Jesus said, “Once there was a father with two sons. The younger son came to his father and said, ‘Father, don’t you think it’s time to give me the share of your estate that belongs to me?’ So, the father went ahead and distributed among the two sons their inheritance. Shortly afterward, the younger son packed up all his belongings and traveled off to see the world. He journeyed to a far-off land where he soon wasted all he was given in a binge of extravagant and reckless living. With everything spent and nothing left, he grew hungry, for there was a severe famine in that land. So, he begged a farmer in that country to hire him. The farmer hired him and sent him out to feed the pigs. The son was so famished, he was willing to even eat the slop given to the pigs, because no one would feed him a thing. Humiliated, the son finally realized what he was doing, and he thought, ‘There are many workers at my father’s house who have all the food they want with plenty to spare. They lack nothing. Why am I here dying of hunger, feeding these pigs and eating their slop? I want to go back home to my father’s house, and I’ll say to him, ‘Father, I was wrong. I have sinned against you. I’ll never be worthy to be called your son. Please, Father, just treat me like one of your employees.’ So, the young son set off for home. From a long distance away, his father saw him coming, dressed as a beggar, and great compassion swelled up in his heart for his son who was returning home. So, the father raced out to meet him. He swept him up in his arms, hugged him dearly, and kissed him over and over with tender love. Then the son said, ‘Father, I was wrong. I have sinned against you. I could never deserve to be called your son. Just let me be-’ The father interrupted and said, ‘Son, you’re home now!’ Turning to his servants, the father said, ‘Quick, bring me the best robe, my very own robe, and I will place it on his shoulders. Bring the ring, the seal of sonship, and I will put it on his finger. And bring out the best shoes you can find for my son. Let’s prepare a great feast and celebrate. For this beloved son of mine was once dead, but now he’s alive again. Once he was lost, but now he is found!’ And everyone celebrated with overflowing joy. Now, the older son was out working in the field when his brother returned, and as he approached the house he heard the music of celebration and dancing. So, he called over one of the servants and asked, ‘What’s going on?’ The servant replied, ‘It’s your younger brother. He’s returned home, and your father is throwing a party to celebrate his homecoming.’ The older son became angry and refused to go in and celebrate. So, his father came out and pleaded with him, ‘Come and enjoy the feast with us!’ The son said, ‘Father, listen! How many years have I been working like a slave for you, performing every duty you’ve asked as a faithful son? And I’ve never once disobeyed you. But you’ve never thrown a party for me because of my faithfulness. Never once have you even given me a goat that I could feast on and celebrate with my friends like he’s doing now. But look at this son of yours! He comes back after wasting your wealth on prostitutes and reckless living, and here you are throwing a great feast to celebrate – for him!’ The father said, ‘My son, you are always with me by my side. Everything I have is yours to enjoy. It’s only right to celebrate like this and be overjoyed, because this brother of yours was once dead and gone, but now he is alive and back with us again. He was lost but now he is found!’”
This parable Jesus told is hemmed on all sides with threads of lost and found. Both of the sons were lost, and neither could do anything to save himself. The younger son couldn’t make his father take him back, and the older son couldn’t make himself come into the celebration for his brother. For love of them, their father offered them forgiveness, and welcome, and redemption; he opened his heart to them. Both sons had dishonored the father; in ancient culture their behavior would have been unpardonable. The younger son asked for his inheritance – before his father died – which would have been interpreted as a scarcely veiled wish for his father to die and a shocking disregard for the ancient Jewish understanding that land was a gift given from God. Squandering his inheritance and disregarding his religious upbringing were further evidence of how far down the younger son had sunk. Jesus’ listeners would have sucked their breath in through their teeth to hear of such behavior. And that the father welcomed back this son, ran to meet him, and wouldn’t hear the apology, but instead hugged and kissed his son and dressed him in the father’s own robes and shoes and the ring with the family crest would have been unthinkable. Our postmodern ears aren’t attuned to the social norms the people around Jesus were listening for. They would have heard and reacted to this bleeding-heart story with disbelief and disgust. No father would allow his son to treat him so dishonorably, and then greet him at the gate with signs and words of forgiveness and reconciliation. Earning one’s way back, groveling, taking one’s punishment, perhaps that could be a way back. But for the father to offer grace – unmerited favor and love, freely given – it wasn’t respectable or a good example for the community.
Furthermore, a man in ancient Palestine did not run anywhere. Running was undignified and unbecoming in a man. More likely a man would wait for his “lesser” to come to him. But this father had tennis shoes on his dream, his dream of seeing his son appear at the gate, alive and wanting to take his place again in the family, and in his father’s heart. This father was not afraid of looking a fool. Love put tennis shoes on his dream, and he ran to meet his son and sobbed with joy and gratitude that this child, once lost and now found, once thought dead and now alive, was held in his arms. We recognize the father in this story as God, but Jesus’ listeners would have been puzzled, offended, or curious about the nature, the wisdom, and maybe the sanity of this father.
Jesus was known for His parables, stories that illustrated the nature of God. How many times could Jesus’ listeners suck their teeth in disapproval and disbelief that God would be anything like a ridiculous father running to throw himself on his son, and welcome him home? You can start to see why Jesus was considered dangerous by the religious establishment. There were rules and order and the Law that held the strict social code together. And God was known in the rules and order and Law… not in these scandalous images of love and grace and (metaphorical) tennis shoes.
The older son showed disrespect to his father too, dishonoring him by questioning his judgement in welcoming back his brother – “that son of yours” – and being outraged at not being recognized as the good son. Imagine another breath sucked in through their teeth as Jesus’ listeners, many of them “elders” in the religious community, heard the scorn dripping from the voice of the “elder” son as he spoke to his father. Another unforgiveable offense was to speak so to one’s elders, much less to expect to be honored and compensated for simply doing one’s job. What ungrateful children they would both seem, both of whom deserved to be thrown out of the father’s house and banished from his life. And yet Jesus told His listeners that the love of the father was undeterred by his two deplorable sons. The father’s love was stronger than pride or saving face or anything else. He was compelled to let his sons know that they were loved. Probably more breath was sucked in in disapproval and outrage at the outcome of this story. And perhaps some light was beginning to glimmer as the Pharisees and other leaders in the religious community started to get a hint that this was not just a story about a family but something more, like a lesson. Scripture is like baklava, the Greek dessert, that has layers of phyllo dough and butter and honey and nuts. We are meant to be enticed by it (scripture, that is) to bite into it, and to notice the complex textures and flavors. We are mean to be engaged by these stories of Jesus; and we are meant to find ourselves in them.
Those who recognized themselves as the older brother in Jesus’ audience probably didn’t like it. Proud, stubborn, inflexible, like the good son who never left home and couldn’t bend for the sake of love…. Those in Jesus’ audience who identified with the older brother may have walked away. In a huff. Those in Jesus’ audience who recognized themselves as the younger brother may have shed some tears, and stayed to hear more, hardly able to believe the outcome of the story. This scripture begins with verses 1-3 which we didn’t hear. This is the preface to Jesus’s story. “Many dishonest tax collectors and other notorious sinners often gathered around to listen as Jesus taught the people. This raised concerns with the religious leaders and experts of the law. Indignant, they grumbled and complained, saying, “Look at how this Man associates with all these notorious sinners and welcomes them all to come to Him!” We are supposed to imagine God as the merciful father in this parable, just as we are meant to see ourselves (perhaps at different times in our lives as both) the younger son and as the older son.
I’ve been asked if ministry is my second career (it is) and what I did before. Sometimes I go through the litany of jobs I’ve held and sometimes I just say, “I’ve uh… done… stuff.” Sometimes I’ve wished that I had the younger son’s story in this parable of wild and reckless living that would make it impressive that I turned to ministry. I think it was at my first meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry that I said (in response to “tell us about yourself”) that I said that I was surprised that God calls such ordinary people to ministry. This committee was made up of clergy, as well as some laity, and it was silent after my comment. I was, of course, thinking about my ordinary self and no one else, but there was no way to backtrack, so I just waited for the awkward moment to pass. A journalist asked Mother Teresa once if she was surprised that God had called her to the religious life. No, Mother Teresa said, she wasn’t surprised that she was called, but surprised by some others God called. God, she said, was not as particular as she was.
In college, in between my juniorish and seniorish years (it wasn’t a completely linear journey through college) I moved into a Christian commune in Santa Rosa. It was pretty conservative: we “sisters” wore our heads covered as a sign of submission to the brothers. We were supposedly following the Apostle Paul’s admonition that Christian women wear their heads covered in the marketplace (but without the understanding the Paul was writing to the women of Corinth to dress differently than prostitutes.) I was a romantic – in love with Jesus, in love with the idea that (as the leaders of the commune said) we would be in the front row rather than in the bleachers when Jesus came back. (Ouch. What a prideful, older-brother-in-Jesus’-parable-attitude.) One night around the dinner table at the commune people were sharing what they’d done before they came to know Jesus. A man told about being in jail; a woman told about turning tricks (a euphemism for prostitution); someone else told about a downward spiral with drugs and alcohol. Wow, I thought to myself. I don’t get to sing this song “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me… I once was lost but now am found” because I never left. I don’t have a wild younger son’s story as in Jesus’ parable to tell. Instead I found that I’m the older son: undeservedly proud of not having left home, of being the good child who wanted to be noticed and applauded for my goodness.
I didn’t last that summer at the commune. I just couldn’t make myself wear a handkerchief over my head as a sign of submission, and I couldn’t see that Jesus wanted me to live apart from the world, so I could be one of the first to shake his hand when He came back. But that summer in the commune was full of good lessons. And it turns out that I do get to sing Amazing Grace just as lustily as any wild, younger son. I described myself in last week’s sermon as a “housefly” drawn to home, to familiarity, to safety. And the love of Jesus (which led me unwisely into the commune) has also led me outside of my comfort zone and into ministry and into abundant, messy, unpredictable, life… more than I ever dreamed.
I don’t think it matters at all to Jesus how we come or find ourselves at home with Him… just that we do. One of my clergy friends says that when some people (rowdy sinners like himself, he says, identifying with the younger son in Jesus’ parable) when those people come home to God, the sound of clapping is like thunder [spread arms and give a mighty clap.] And when others who are lost and then found come home there is the sound of two hands turning quietly to each other as if in prayer. [model hands turning quietly together.] Either way, Pastor Rod says, the sound is heard and celebrated in heaven. Younger sons have a more spectacular story to tell than we older sons… but we have just as much to be grateful for – that we are so loved, and so welcomed into God’s home and God’s heart.
The church is usually full of older brothers and not so welcoming and tolerant of younger brothers. But all of us are broken, vulnerable, fragile human beings, unable to save ourselves. All of us need God’s salvific love. All of us need to know that God is like the father in this parable that Jesus told. God is watching for us, God is wearing tennis shoes to run to meet us, honor and pride be dammed (excuse the expression.) It’s God’s mission to make known to us that we are loved and that we have a place in God’s heart. If we identify as the older brother, we might have to change our viewpoint and our self-image. The Greek word for change is metanoia and it means not just change, but transformation and repentance. We might need to step out from behind our “goodness” or our success or whatever makes us feel superior, or invincible, or better than… and recognize that we are just as lost and just as in need of a homecoming as any of the rest of us.
And those of us who see ourselves as the younger brother may also need to change, to step out from behind shame and regret and accept that none of us are better or worse than any others of us. All of us fall short. Does it matter how spectacularly we’ve sinned? All of us are in need of a Savior; all of us need to know that we have a home in God’s heart. It’s God’s scandalous grace (that is God’s undeserved love and favor for you and me) that’s at the heart of this parable seen in the extraordinary love the father has for both of his sons. There is room for all of us in God’s heart.
This is a message that all the world needs to hear at this time in our history. Hate crimes and racism and fear of “the other” are rampant in the world, and our answer to that is to know, to trust, to have faith, that God is watching at the gate for us, for all of us, with tennis shoes on to run to meet us and welcome us, and that no matter what road we’ve taken to get home, the love that’s waiting and watching for us is scandalous in its abundance and unconditional nature.
There’s a caveat though, so please don’t leave here today thinking that because God loves you that you can live carelessly or use people and things like they’re expendable, like the younger son in this parable did, or that you can be proud and disdainful of anyone who isn’t as morally upright and good as you are, like the older son. (Don’t you love it that Jesus didn’t finish the story… that He lets us (and the Pharisees and religious leaders in His audience) decide if the older brother is able to accept the father’s love and join the celebration?) I digress. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, taught the church to avail themselves of the means of grace. He likened “availing” ourselves of the means of grace to standing under a doorway to receive and experience God’s love and mercy for us (instead of just knowing about it and taking it for granted.) Some of the means of grace Wesley identified are worship and prayer and the sacraments and the study of scripture and holy conversation… and there are many other spiritual practices that help us experience God’s love for us. This is the treasure in Jesus’ parable. No matter who you are… You are loved! Say that with me: I am loved! Now say: I am loved scandalously and unconditionally by God! So, brothers and sisters, the invitation to discipleship is to put on your tennis shoes and run to meet others who need to hear that they too are loved, and forgiven, and welcomed home. Thanks be to God. Amen.