November 04, 2012
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one— and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“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.’ 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!’ 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.’”
(Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
In the film The Princess Bride (my favorite movie of all time), there is a minor villain by the name of Vizzini who is so confident in his skills as a criminal mastermind that every time his accomplices inform him that things are not going according to plan, he responds with the exclamation, “INCONCEIVABLE!” (Vizzini is one of those rare individuals who can speak in all capital letters.)
When his assistant Inigo Montoya points out that their ship is being followed in the middle of the night through eel-infested waters, Vizzini responds, “INCONCEIVABLE!” The next morning, when Inigo points out that the same ship that has been following them is now right on top of them, Vizzini cries once again, “INCONCEIVABLE!”
When they cut the rope that the captain of the ship is using to climb the Cliffs of Insanity, then look over the edge and see that he hasn’t fallen to his death but is clinging to the rocks below and, slowly but steadily, still coming after them, Vizzini exclaims, “HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.”
At which point Inigo Montoya turns to him and very gently says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I love that line, just as I love preaching on Jesus’ parables because so often they don’t mean what you think they mean at all. The trouble with Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, however, is that it means exactly what you think it means.
In today’s parable, we are introduced to a father who had two sons, the youngest of whom—not to put too fine a point on it—was a total jerk. He was such a jerk that he didn’t even have the decency to wait until his father had passed away before demanding his inheritance. In fact, in requesting his inheritance the way he did, he was in essence saying to his father and his brother, “You are already dead to me, so you might as well give me what’s mine and get out of my way.”
The younger son took his share of the family’s assets, robbing the rest of them of the profits they might have made had their wealth and land been kept intact, turned his back on his own flesh and blood, and then, adding insult to injury, ran off to a distant land and proceeded to squander the good gifts he had been given on “dissolute living.”
Of course you know what happened next. A famine arose in the land where he was living, and, although he found a job feeding pigs, his circumstances were such that the pods they were eating were better than anything he had filled his belly with for quite a while.
And so he sat there, contemplating his low estate and feeling quite sorry for himself, in spite of the fact that he had only himself to blame. Then, conniving as ever, he came up with a brilliant idea. “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” he said. “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”
It is important to note, at least at this point in the story, that even his confession is self-serving. The younger son isn’t looking for reconciliation or interested in making any sort of restitution. There is no evidence here that he has learned his lesson or at long last come to appreciate his family; he’s just looking for a good meal, and he figures that heading to his father’s house with a well-rehearsed confession is his best bet. He was a self-centered little scoundrel when he left home, and in spite of all that has taken place, he’s still a self-centered little scoundrel when he returns.
Imagine his surprise, then, when he arrived within sight of his ancestral home and was welcomed by his father, who came running out to meet him.
You should know that back in those days, no self-respecting patriarch would ever run. It would have been considered extremely undignified, so it gives you a sense of just how unabashed and uncompromised the father’s love for his son truly was.
Before a word is out of the prodigal’s mouth, his father embraces him and welcomes him home. I’d like to think that it was enough of a surprise to jolt the young man into a mode of true confession. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” he said. I think it is quite possible that when those words finally did come out, they were both surprised at how much he actually meant them.
But before the younger son could say another word, the father called to his slaves and said, “Quickly [now], bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And [immediately] they began to celebrate.”
Well, so far so good. For any of us who have ever managed to royally screw things up in life, this parable holds out a great deal of hope. If the parable ended here, we’d all probably be perfectly happy with it. Perhaps we’d be a little dissatisfied and question whether or not some penance might be in order, but it’s not until what happens next that that you realize happy endings aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.
Actually, in some ways, this story is only just beginning, because it is at this point in the tale that the older brother decides to return home from his labors.
Remember the older son—the one who didn’t leave, the one who stayed by his father’s side and worked the land of his ancestors as a good son should? Well, the older son returns to the house to find that a party is going on and no one has even bothered to send for him. In fact, it would seem that everyone, but most notably his father, has forgotten for the moment that he even exists.
And why? Why is everyone so excited that they have overlooked him? Because his selfish, conniving, profligate, no-good jerk of a little brother has actually dared to come home.
Now, if he had returned to find his little brother on trial for his misdeeds or already robed in rags and cleaning out the latrines with a toothbrush, that would have been one thing. But to return and find his little brother decked out in fine robes, adorned with his father’s rings, sporting new sandals and dining on the fatted calf—well, let’s just say that this would be enough to send just about anybody over the edge.
Of course we know that this story is being told for the benefit of some Pharisees who object to Jesus’ eating with sinners, so it’s probably best to distance ourselves from anyone in the story who comes across as being even the least bit judgmental. But Jesus sure doesn’t make it easy to disagree with the elder son. His anger is perfectly justified, his outrage almost pure. It is not hard at all to understand why he would stand outside his father’s house in anger and refuse to go in to such a party.
In fact, he is so angry that when his father comes out to plead with him and make peace, he turns on him. “Listen!” he says. “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, [this son] who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him! For him!’”
It is easy after this outburst to distance ourselves from the older son, dismiss him as nothing more than a thinly veiled, judgmental, self-righteous caricature of a Pharisee, but man, do I feel his pain and his confusion. His whole world has just been turned upside down and inside out.
“Sure, the son who was lost has just been found. Yeah, great, the one who was dead has come back to life, but what about me? Huh? What about the one who was responsible enough to stay put and not get lost? What about the one who not only stayed alive but put that life to good use for the sake of our home, our name, and our family? I honor everything we stand for, father, and you don’t even think to give me so much as a goat. But he abuses everything we stand for, and you throw him a party just for showing up? My ‘brother!’ you call him. My brother?”
As Inigo Montoya would say, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
You know as well as I do that this sermon isn’t going to end with me holding up the elder brother as a role model for Christ-like living, but before we acknowledge where the elder son goes wrong, take a moment to appreciate all that he has done right. Go ahead and feel his pain and his frustration and his outrage, for they are real and justified.
I respect the fact that for the elder son, words like “father,” “brother,” and “son” mean something because they are titles one earns, designations one is required to live up to. In the elder son’s world, relationships might begin as nothing more than accidents of birth, but they are cemented, confirmed, and legitimized over time through one’s actions.
There is a powerful logic at work here, one I don’t necessarily disagree with. So just like the elder son, I really have to wrestle with the implications of the father’s love for both his sons—and please notice that he really does love each of them. Neither one behaves particularly well and he loves them both the same, which is both the point and the problem at the heart of this parable.
In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “[The elder son] wants his father to love him as he deserves to be loved, because he has stayed put, and followed orders, and done the right thing. He wants his father to love him for all of that, and his father does love him, [only it is] not for any of that, any more than he loves the younger brother for what he has done.
“He does not love either of his sons according to what they deserve. He just loves them, more because of who he is than because of who they are, and the elder brother cannot stand it. He cannot stand a love that transcends right and wrong, a love that throws homecoming parties for prodigal sinners and expects the hardworking righteous to rejoice. He cannot stand it, and so he stands outside – outside his father’s house and outside his father’s love – refusing his invitation to come in.” (The Preaching Life, p. 166)
What can we learn from this? Ultimately, we are meant to see that the elder son’s stance is futile. He may feel justified for having followed the rules all these years, but at the end of the day he is not the one who makes the rules. This is not his house but his father’s, and in his father’s house relationships are not earned, they are givens; once a father, always a father, once a son, always a son. A son’s actions may affect the quality of that relationship, he can withhold himself from the relationship, he can take it for granted, even abuse it, but he can never fully destroy it, because it simply is what it is.
And when you think about it in those terms, if God’s love for his children is anything like this father’s love for his two sons, than divine love has some pretty frightening implications. It means we can run, but we can’t hide. We can refuse, but we will one day recant. We can fight, but reconciliation with God and with one another is eventually inevitable. We are all in this together for eternity, and we can only resist that fact for so long.
Standing outside of his father’s house, the elder son had the opportunity to learn a powerful and painful lesson. Grace is free; it just isn’t cheap. It requires humility.
Sometimes it requires humbling ourselves and asking to be forgiven. At other times, those times when we haven’t done anything wrong—or, worse, have been grievously wronged by others—it requires humbling ourselves enough to sit down with all the other sinners, acknowledging that they too have a place at the table, they too have been forgiven by God, and—if necessary—offering to forgive them as well.
The reality of God’s grace means we’re all going to end up at the same party, a party full of people we never dreamed we’d ever have to associate with. This parable teaches us that in the kingdom of God we’re not going to get special treatment for being good. There is no extra credit, honor roll, or private skybox set aside for the truly holy. You’re not going to get so much as a goat, if you think heaven is nothing more than a place where you can go off and celebrate your own accomplishments with your own special group of friends.
In the Father’s house, there is only one table, there is only one feast, there is only one fatted calf. There is still enough to go around; the catch is that we have to share it with each other. This feast has been prepared that we all might be together, not that some might be set apart. For many of us, that can be a pretty hard truth to swallow.
For some of us, those of us who have had to put up with a host of people like the younger brother, such a thought might be nothing more than damned inconvenient. But for others among us, those of us who have been seriously hurt or caused very serious hurt, it may be nothing less than terrifying. I am sure there are people in your life you would rather have nothing to do with—and for good reason. It is also possible that some of these people are so abusive that for now, at least in this lifetime, it is best to keep your distance lest they hurt you further. But Jesus warns us this morning to be careful, lest we harden our hearts towards them beyond any hope of redemption or reconciliation in this life or the life to come.
We need to keep in mind that even the most hardened criminal was born a child of God. He or she may dwell in a distant land for now, but the father, our Father, in all his profligate love, is watching for their return as well.
Is it fair? No. Does it make sense? Not as far as I can see. But this isn’t my house; it’s God’s. These aren’t my rules; they’re his. And, therefore, I need to trust that he knows what he is doing. I need to trust that when he uses words like “grace” and “love,” “lost” and “found,” “dead” and “alive,” “my son,” “your brother,” “my daughter,” “your sister,” “my child,” “my beloved,” that he really knows what he is talking about; that his words do in fact mean what he thinks they mean. Amen.
O Lord, you are not always the God we want, and yet you are always far more loving and gracious than even the finest among us deserve. Humble our hearts, protect us from ourselves, and lead us into your light, into your house, into the great feast you have prepared for all people. Help us to take our places at your table with our hearts and our minds open to you and to the possibilities that lie deep in the hearts of one another. Amen.
Almighty God, Father of the human race, forgive us our divisions; heal the wounds of bitterness, resentment, and injured pride. By your love, reconcile us to you, that we might be reconciled to one another. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Rev. Sarah Buteux