March 31, 2019

Lent 4 March 31, 2019   Psalm 32, 2nd Corinthians 5:14-20, Luke 15:1-10, 11-32

Come home

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Religious leaders are complaining (not for the first time) about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. In response Jesus tells a four-part lost-and-found parable.  (I’ve heard the story in the past as a string of three-related parables. But this time I’m noticing Luke calls it all one parable.) And as a song sounds different depending on how fast or slow and what key and rhythm we sing it… (When the band’s in three-four time our feet want to dance a waltz… When the band’s playing with a boogie beat we dance differently…) So also with interpretation of scripture – whichever parts of the word of God get extra accents in our interpretation – wherever we hear the divine cymbals clang and trumpet calls…always influences profoundly our hearing of the word… Which I mention because…

Many of us have heard this parable of the so-called prodigal son many times. (Prodigal isn’t a word the gospel writer uses – though it probably works – prodigal  means wasteful or extravagant.) We may even know this story so well we perhaps glaze over just a little, hearing it yet again….

But not everyone has heard the story. Last week I found an art blog post where one teacher said he taught college students art interpretation twenty years, always featuring Rembrandt’s painting titled “the prodigal son.” He’d always ask his students “do you recognize this story of the prodigal son? Do you know where it comes from?’ And he said no more than 20 students in 20 years knew the story, or knew it’s from the bible.

In that famous Rembrandt picture, the younger son is seen kneeling at the feet of his father, whose hands embrace the son… Those who study the painting notice…Rembrandt paints one hand of the father as soft and vulnerable, like a woman’s hand… The other hand is strong and masculine, symbolizing different sides of the father-figure… To the right in the picture, standing upright, on slightly higher ground, stands the older son, looking on…. Art scholars point out many details of the picture I hadn’t noticed – like  the younger son’s shoes, falling apart, worn out, from traveling to and from a distant land… There’s much we can learn from artists who have spent much time considering a biblical theme from many angles of vision… As we consider again the parable of a prodigal family…

In part one of the parable a shepherd has 100 sheep and loses one. He leaves the 99, goes looking for the one that’s lost. When he finds the lost sheep he brings it home on his shoulders, and calls friends and neighbors to join in rejoicing. And Jesus says “there’s joy in heaven over one sinner who repents – more than over 99 righteous persons who don’t need repentance.”

Then in part two of our parable, a woman has ten coins and loses one. She turns on all the lights and sweeps till she finds that coin. Then she calls her friends and neighbors to join her in rejoicing… And again Jesus says “there’s joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Which sounds more than a little strange, as I think about it – since it’s hard for me to imagine sheep having any concept of repentance – and even harder to imagine a coin needing to repent – or being able to repent. (Repent meaning turn –  change it’s ways.) Yet – as with Rembrandt’s painting – every detail is important in the telling of the story…as…

Next, in part 3, Jesus tells of a man with two sons. The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. Bible commentaries point out this would be like saying, “Dad, you’re dead. Give me my share of the property.” In those days family wealth and security consisted mostly of land and animals. The oldest son normally got a double share of the inheritance. The older son may be running the farm day to day. But the father is still always head of the clan till he dies. And for a father to let a son sell his family’s land and leave town would be considered one of the most shameful foolish things a father could ever do, according to Rabbinic teachings of the time…. Yet this father does… what his younger son asks.

And the younger son leaves home and spends all he has in wild living… Till the money’s all gone and a famine strikes the land. He hires himself out feeding pigs – the most unclean, un-kosher, always to-be-avoided animal for Jews. He’s eating pig food, now, to survive… Till he remembers – all my father’s hired hands have plenty to eat. So he resolves  to go home and say “father I’m no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me as one of your hired hands.” He composes his speech, and starts off on his long journey home…from the far-distant land where he has gone…

But as he gets close to home…his father sees him coming from afar – and runs to greet him. And before he can even get through his carefully-rehearsed home-coming confessional speech – his father embraces him – calls to his servants – “Bring the best robe, put it on him – get him new shoes – give him a ring – kill the fatted calf… We’ve got to celebrate – because my son who was dead has come back to life – my son who was lost has been found.” And the party begins…

Now, in part four of the story – the older son hears the sound of music and dancing…  as he comes in from working in the fields. He smells the barbeque. Asks a servant “what’s going on?”

The servant tells him “your brother’s returned, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he’s got him back alive.”

The older son gets so angry… he won’t come near the party…

His father comes out to him and pleads with him to join the celebration. It’s a serious disgrace for an older son to avoid a father’s party. It’s a disgrace, also, for a father to plead with a son, commentaries tell us. Pleading with one’s son was considered almost as shameful a thing for a father to do… as welcoming back a son who has severely damaged family security and brought deep shame to the family…

But in spite of his father’s pleadings, the older brother has dug in…Won’t budge. He even shames his father again – accusing him of doing him a great injustice, saying, “you never gave me even a goat to have a party with my friends…But for that son of yours…you kill our best calf… ”

His father tries to reassure him – “Son, you are always with me – everything I have is yours… But this brother of yours was dead – and has come back to life – was lost – and now he’s found…”

We never get to hear… how the story ends…

Jesus leaves it open-ended….

So all who hear the story can ask ourselves – where are we in this story? Personally… Locally… Globally… As people of God…

Jesus tells this story in four part harmony… in response to the grumbling and complaining of religious leaders… But the story Jesus tells is so compelling…so universal… so powerfully told… That all within hearing range draw nearer, closer now to listen… disciples… curious crowds… people everywhere, including us… and…

Now we notice the older son is starting to look a bit like…some of the religious authorities who’ve been offended by Jesus because of his hanging out with sinners and tax collectors… And – its hard for me not to identify a little with the older son – who has played by the rules – worked hard – been there for the family… Now he’s taking the hit because of this thoughtless reckless younger brother… Who he’ll probably end up having to help support financially… and live and work and put up with…

And it’s harder now for me to like the younger son as much as I once did– the son I’ve most often been able to identify with – after reading up now, on how terribly devastating his actions must have been for his family… Forgive – yes – but like? – I don’t think so… not yet anyway…

But then again – this parable really doesn’t seem to be about our liking or not liking…As we consider also…. These tax collectors who Jesus is rebuked for associating with… are probably not easy to like… They worked for the Roman emperor and Rome’s local governor, king Herod. They were notorious for taking hard-earned money from hard-working Israelites – and squandering it on themselves and the Empire.  Nevertheless, here’s Jesus – welcoming and eating with tax collectors – along with garden-variety sinners of the wine-women-and -song-varieties – all doubtlessly surprised – to see themselves now in the picture along with the younger son – welcomed home warmly by this prodigal father.

Not because of anything good they or we or anyone but Jesus has done… to be worthy of such a welcome… Just because our father loves to call us his children… and… Welcome us home.

So… in this family portrait…in this family song… I’m seeing and hearing, now, the point of the parable – as all about the lost sheep – and the lost coin – that can’t do a thing to get themselves found… Have no clue as to how to get home….

And – all about the younger son – who for all we know from what the bible tells us – might not even be repenting – just coming home to avoid starvation – and even though our father may well even know this – still he’s giving his wayward son this crazy-loving welcome home…

And yes, the story is also all about the older son – the only one who has not come home yet… as we come to a pause… in the unfinished family of God story… and realize –

The parable Jesus tells is all about all of the above…

But most of all the parable is all about God our Father…

Still trying to get everybody in his sometimes more than a little crazy family together…

Still pleading with everyone of us…

Come home.

Come home.

Come home! Our Father says –

Where…

I will be waiting for you.

Amen.