An Unsettling Story

The Sermon starts at about 6:45


As I’ve told you before, I love parables.  If I wasn’t tied to the assigned readings in the weekly lectionary, I would almost certainly preach a sermon on a parable every time I stepped into a pulpit.  I love how simple they are.  How Jesus relies on common images from his time and place to share deep truths.  I love how impossible they are.  How the simple message that we think we take away from Jesus is never what are actually meant to learn.  I love how they rattle around inside my head for days and weeks on end.  I love how, even two-thousand years later, I can still find ways to enter into many of the parables that Jesus told.

I’ve long been a fan of Eugene Peterson’s description of parables as narrative time bombs; only exploding with meaning sometime down the road.  Recently, I’ve found another way to describe them that while less grandiose, is certainly equally true.  Jake Owensby, the Bishop of Western Louisiana, in his book A Resurrection Shaped Life, defines parables as “unsettling stories that invite us to rethink some of our basic assumptions.”  Today’s Gospel lesson, commonly called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is meant to be just such an unsettling story.  The basic gist of it seems fairly straight forward.  The younger son tells his dad that he wishes his dad was dead.  He takes what would be his inheritance, leaves town, and wastes it on women and whiskey.  One day, while dreaming of eating the slop he was feeding to the pigs, he has something of a come to Jesus moment, repents, and returns to his father’s good graces, only to have his older, more responsible brother, look down his nose at the whole situation.  In this parable’s most simplistic reading, the older brother serves as the lens through which Jesus seems to challenge our basic assumptions about what is right and wrong, fair and unfair, but in its most simplistic reading, I’m not sure that this parable is truly unsettling.  What’s really makes this story uncomfortable requires us to pay careful attention to three things: to whom Jesus is telling this parable, what really happened in that pig pen, and how the story ends.

The parable commonly called the Prodigal Son is the third of three parables Jesus tells back-to-back-to-back.  The lectionary skips over the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, but does give us the context for the stories.  Jesus was hanging out with tax collectors and known sinners.  Not only that, but he was eating with them.  They would have dipped their bread into the same bowl of oil and smeared it across a common plate of hummus.  The clean and unclean didn’t share meals in that way, and the Pharisees, whose job it was to interpret what was kosher and what wasn’t, made sure he knew about it.  In response, Jesus told them three parables about things that had been lost being found.  One sheep out of a hundred was lost, and the shepherd searched the ends of the earth to find it.  When he did, he threw a massive party to celebrate.  One silver coin out ten was lost, and the woman overturned her whole house to find it.  When she did, she threw a massive party to celebrate.  One son out of two was lost, and the father kept scanning the horizon searching for any sign that his boy might return home.  We he did, he threw a massive party to celebrate.  The first unsettling lesson we learn from this parable is that no matter who might want to be the judge of who is in and who is out, God is ready to throw a massive party in heaven for every stupid sheep, every seemingly worthless coin, and every ingrate child.

In each of the first two parables, Jesus is quick to mention that the lavish parties are representative of the joy that is experienced by God and all the angels each time one sinner repents.  In our parable, however, the word repentance is never mentioned.  Here, when the lost one is actually a human being who has some agency in his own return, we hear nothing about repentance.  Instead, the unsettling truth of that pig pen is that the younger son might still be a gigantic jerk.  In fact, I think this is the most likely reading of the text.  Notice how it all plays out.  After squandering all of his inheritance on “dissolute” living, the foreign land to which he had moved fell into a famine.  Not only did his funds run out, but the bottom fell out on the economy at the same time.  Everybody was hungry, so begging didn’t do any good.  The best job he could find was working on a swine farm feeding the pigs.  Can you imagine how awful life must be when you are looking longingly at the food that pigs are eating?  Jesus doesn’t say that the younger son repented, but rather in that moment of desperation, the younger son “came to himself.”  He returned to his senses and remembered that back home there was a farm full of food and even the hired hands had more than enough to eat.  So, he concocted a plan in which he would return home, say all the right things, and even if his dad would only take him back as a slave, at least he’d have food in his belly.  This, to me, is where the story becomes truly unsettling.  Is it possible that what Jesus is saying here is that God will throw a party even for those whose return to relationship seems to come with questionable intentions?  Is it possible that God is perpetually scanning the horizon, waiting to welcome home even those who are still stuck in their sinful ways simply because they’ve come searching for something more?  Given the crowd Jesus is accused of hanging out with, perhaps the second unsettling lesson we learn from this parable is that God is always ready to welcome us home, whether or not we’re here for the right reasons.

As the party unfolds, the fatted calf is slaughtered and the finest wines are poured.  The older brother returns from a day of hard work in the field only to find that his good-for-nothing brother is back and his dad is wasting more money on a party for him.  You can feel his indignation as he stands outside, listening to the festivities inside, and sneering his complaint to the old man. “I’ve been working like a slave for you, and you’ve never given me so much as a young goat to have a party.  But this son of yours.  He treated you as if you were dead.  He made you sell our land, lay off our workers, and lose our prestige in the community so that he could go off and waste your money, and for him you’ve killed the fatted calf?”  Just as he had done for his younger son, the father tried to bring the older son back into relationship.  He begged him to understand what it is like to lose something so valuable and find it again.  But, as the story ends, Jesus doesn’t tell us if the older brother ever relents and enters the party.  The parable fades to black with the older brother still outside, arms crossed, glaring into the house.  Is it possible that God would restore a jerk like the younger brother only to leave one who was seemingly faithful on the outside looking in?  Can we fathom a God who desires deep, real, perfect relationship who will also allow us to be our own worst enemies when we refuse to forgive and be reconciled? The final unsettling lesson I think we can learn from this parable today is that God is desperate to be in right relationship with everyone, but it is our own expectations, prejudices, and lack of grace that can leave us on the outside, looking in.

The more comfortable reading makes the Prodigal Son a top-3 parable of all time, but when we let parables be unsettling, when we allow them the space to challenge some of our basic assumptions, we stand to learn a lot about the Kingdom of God.  The Prodigal Son story should make us wonder just how willing we are to enter the party God is throwing for all those who were lost but are now found.  The Pharisees couldn’t imagine such a party.  The older brother was indignant about it.  God’s grace is often surprising, upsetting, and even little unsettling, which, now that I think about it, is maybe why Jesus felt the need to use parables in the first place.  There are deep lessons to be learned, if only we have ears open to listen and hearts open to learn.  Amen.

The Prodigal Father – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


 

​Words are important. You might expect to hear that from a guy who loves to write and does word history studies just for fun, but I think even if you aren’t my special brand of weird, we can all understand the power and importance of words.  Of course, some words are more important than others.  In the course of this roughly 1,400 word sermon, not every word is of utmost importance.  I didn’t labor, thesaurus in hand, to make sure I chose the correct word every single time, but there are places where a careful choice has to be made.  This is especially true when it comes to titles.  The title of a book, movie, poem, or even a sermon can be the difference between a smash hit, and something that never sees the light of day.  Take for example, the classic Alfred Hitchcock film, Psycho.  If it had been released under its original name, Wimpy, I can’t imagine it having the same punch.  What if Titanic had been called The Ship of Dreams or instead of Casablanca, it stayed Everybody Comes to Rick’s.[1]  It just doesn’t have the same appeal.  Most Bibles these days are chock full of titles; breaking down each section into an easily consumable, bite-sized morsel.  The problem with those titles is that they often begin the process of interpretation, cueing our brains to pay attention to certain details while ignoring others.  Today’s Gospel lesson is a prime example.  Pick up any Bible you can find, open it to Luke 15:11 and you’ll find the title: The Parable of the Prodigal Son.  This is one of Jesus’ best known parables.  It is so well known, that it has its own colloquialism: “the prodigal returns,” which I think means, one who has left has now come back.

How does our understanding of this story change if we know that prodigal doesn’t mean wandering or straying away, but in fact means “wastefully extravagant?”  Coming from that perspective, the Prodigal Son isn’t a story about a son who has gone away and returned, but the given title focuses our attention on the how the younger son spent his wealth on wasteful extravagance.  He squandered his inheritance on sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and given the title; I guess that is supposed to be the focus of our attention.  This creates a nice moral lesson and a fabulously easy, albeit oddly specific sermon: don’t tell your dad you wish he was dead, take your inheritance prematurely, and waste it on immoral living.  I feel like maybe that’s too easy.  I wonder if perhaps whoever titled this story had their own daddy issues, and decided to project them onto all of us.

If I were in charge of putting titles in the Bible, I would call this story the Parable of the Prodigal Father because it seems to me, that if anyone in this story is wastefully extravagant, it is the dad, who, on four different occasions, totally ignores the social conventions of his day to show his love to his sons with prodigality.  It all starts with that horribly awkward conversation when the younger son walks up to his dad and says, essentially, “You’re dead to me.  I’d like my share of the inheritance now.”  Social convention would say to tell this young man he can either fall back in line or leave without anything, but dad doesn’t do that.  Instead, he complies with his son’s request, which is no easy feat in first century Palestine.  The man couldn’t call his stock broker, sell a few hundred shares, and hand his son some cash.  Wealth was measured in land and livestock.  To give his son the money he wanted, the father would have to sell off his property, which would mean a smaller farm, which would mean fewer slaves, which would mean a general downturn in the economic stability of his household and therefore the whole community would suffer.  Out of prodigal love for his son, and a desire to let him make his own mistakes and learn his own life lessons, the father sells it off, hands his son a wad of cash, and with a heart that must have been shattered into pieces, watched him leave for a far away land.

Jesus infers that the man never really left that spot on the edge of his property.  For as long as his son is gone, he continued to watch for him, hoping and praying that one day he would return safely.  We don’t know how long it took the son to squander his wealth, or how many months of feeding slop to the pigs he endured before he decided to come back home, but you can imagine it was quite a while.  No matter how long it took, when that day came, and without care or concern as to whether his son was truly repentant or not, the father was there waiting.  While his son was still a long way off, he caught a glimpse, and out of that same prodigal love, he disregarded all social convention, hitched up his tunic, and took off running.  Men of his status didn’t run; they certainly didn’t run after sons who wished them dead, and they absolutely didn’t embrace them or welcome them with the kiss of peace, but that’s exactly what he did.

The love of the father was so over the top that he threw a party for his son who once was lost.  Social convention said that the townsfolk would gather when the son returned, but not for a party.  Instead, they’d take part in a gesasah ceremony.  “They would gather around him, breaking jars of corn and nuts and declare that he was to be cut off from the village.  His [re]entry… would be humiliating as his townspeople expressed their anger and resentment toward his actions.”[2]  Instead, dad’s prodigal love meant he killed the fatted calf, brought out the good wine, and invited the whole town to celebrate the return of his youngest son.

When word came that his older son refused to enter the party, the prodigal dad once more defied social convention to show his love for a son who didn’t much deserve it.  Instead of sending a servant out to deal with his son or simply demanding that his eldest come join the party, the father leaves the celebration to plead with his son to join in rejoicing that his brother who was dead is now alive; was lost, but now is found.  In the end, however, the same prodigal love that let his youngest son walk away would leave his first born standing outside of the party, sulking over the fact that his father’s love really was wastefully extravagant.

The Parable of the Prodigal Father isn’t a fable that invites us to not be immoral like the younger son.  Even though the story is directed at the grumpy Pharisees and scribes who complained that Jesus was hanging out with the wrong crowed, he doesn’t invite his listeners to not be stubborn like the older brother.  It isn’t a story teaching us how to forgive those who have hurt us.  The Parable of the Prodigal Son really isn’t about us at all.  It is about God, and how God’s love is wastefully extravagant; being poured out over and over again on folks like you and me: sinners, tax collectors, spoiled brat second children and slavish rule following firstborns.  In sending  his only Son, God the Father disregards all social convention, all the ways in which we think he should have fixed our mess, and all the plans and schemes of human beings, to show us his prodigal love, poured out in blood and water from the wounded side of Jesus, dead on the cross.  Words matter and the two words at the heart of this story are prodigal love: God’s wastefully extravagant, self-giving love for every human being who was once dead, and thanks to Jesus is now alive in the Spirit, who was once lost, but thanks to God’s amazing grace, is now found.  Amen.

[1] http://www.salon.com/2014/04/08/24_famous_movies_were_almost_called_something_completely_different_partner

[2] http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Prodigal-Son-Alyce-McKenzie-03-04-2013

What do people say about you?

It is Prodigal Son week!!!! The lessons are set up perfectly to preach this well known and well worn story.  A short, non sequitur, Old Testament lesson and a decent, but easily ignored snippet from Paul, clearly indicate that the brains behind the RCL would like for us to focus our attention on the Prodigal Son.  I promise that I’ll obey the great RCL hive mind as the week goes on, but first, my attention this morning is focused on the lead up to the story.

By this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is drawing quite a crowd to him.  Many in that crowd are faithful Jews, living out their relationship with God as best they know how.  Some, however are sinners, with others are generally undesirable.  It seems to be that latter group that speaks up in Sunday’s lesson, as the Pharisees and scribes mummer aloud, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

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Mr. Robertson, of Robertson’s Word Pictures (published 1930), notes that the verb “welcome” is constructed such that this is a habit of Jesus.  One might go further to say that it is one of his distinguishing characteristics.  Jesus is in the business of welcoming and eating with sinners.  That might not seem unsettling to us today, but in the Jewish culture of 1st century Palestine, this was simply not done.  Cleanliness was next to Godliness, and hanging out with sinners made cleanliness nigh impossible.  Sharing a meal with them was even worse; as sharing a meal was one of the most intimate encounters one could have with another person.  To share a meal, with the traditional sharing of bowls and cups, made it certain that one who was clean, is now very much not so any longer.

It is out of those charges that Jesus tells the Parable of the Prodigal Son/Father/God.  He doesn’t fight the charges, but rather embraces them as sign and symbol of his calling.  Jesus says, in effect, “Yes, this is what I’m about: welcoming and eating with sinners.”  Would that such a charge could be made of me, which got me wondering, what do people say about me?  What do people say about you?

Everything Jesus did was indicative of his status as the Son of God.  I’m certain that not everything I do shows off my status as a disciple, as an inheritor of the Kingdom, as a Christian.  I wonder how often people look at me and think, “what a hypocrite”?  How often do they see Christ in me?  When do they see me as anything different from the normal young professional, struggling to keep family, faith, work, and everything else in the right order?  Does my desire for the Kingdom show with regularity in the way I live my life?  I certainly hope so, and thank God for forgiveness when it doesn’t.

The start of discipleship

Last week, I ran across this video by noted evangelical, Francis Chan, entitled “How NOT to make disciples.”

The money quote is “When Jesus says something,you don’t have to do it, you just have to memorize it.”  I instantly related to that line because of my days as an evangelical kid in Young Life.  To be clear, I loved my days in YL.  I credit Fletch and the gang for helping me become the disciple I am today.  I’m not saying that my YL leaders didn’t want us to follow Jesus, but I do remember feeling like Bible memorization was pretty important.  And maybe it is, but only as a beginning to discipleship.

Of the maybe four verses I actually memorized in high school, the first one was from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which we will hear on Sunday. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has gone, the new has come!”  For a guy who isn’t good at memorizing things, I was pretty proud to have learned 2 Cor 5.17.  I knew it forward and backward, inside and out, and yet, it made little, if any impact on my life.  I spent most of my late teens, making plans for the future based solely on what I wanted to do, not asking for God’s help or opinion on anything.  I graduated from high school after a serious case of senioritis, and headed off to the University of Pittsburgh to study civil and environmental engineering.  I hated every. single. moment.

I knew that I had been made a new creation in Christ, but I wasn’t living it.  I had memorized the words, but hadn’t internalized them.  Discipleship may meaning learning, but it is much deeper than reading about Jesus.  Discipleship is about allowing Jesus to change your life, and it starts by realizing that we are a new creation.