It starts with disappointment. When I was 16 and a new driver I went out for milk one night, took the long way back, and ended up exceeding the speed limit by a good 25 miles per hour on one tempting stretch. The cop, or should I say cops that pulled me, 2 different cars, gave me a stern talking to until one of them, a Montreat officer covering a shift in Black Mountain, said he knew my dad. Instead of taking my license, which he had every right to do, he let me go. Somehow I was able to get home and walk past my parents and downstairs to my room without them noticing how much I was shaking. After that, the moment never presented itself, so I never told them. Until one morning, about 7am in July, my dad walks and wakes me up. "I was at a dinner last night and Jackie (the aforementioned officer) told me he spent some time with you last month. I don’t like him knowing more than I do about where you’ve been. I am embarrassed and disappointed. I’ll be taking your keys now." He picked them up and left.
I wonder about the last time you’ve disappointed someone. A parent or a friend, a spouse or coworker. Maybe the person you disappointed was yourself. We spend so much of our time haunted by the difference between who we want to be, and who we know we have been.
Everything in this parable turns on a moment of insight the younger son has in a pigsty. Jesus had been disappointing to the Pharisees and scribes, bearers of the law that they were. This fellow welcomes sinners – he’s not supposed to do this. He eats with them. In response to the grumbling Jesus tells 3 stories – of a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep behind to go find the lost one, a woman who scours the house to find a single coin. Then, as Luke builds the drama, we meet a man with two sons. The younger one asks for his share of his father’s inheritance. The essence of the inheritance at that time was land, and the only way it could be received was on the father’s death. Thus his request, Alyce McKenzie writes, was essentially, "Father, I wish you would drop dead."2 This is more than a teenager yelling, I hate you, through the bedroom door. This is an adult looking his father in the eye and saying, You are dead to me.
Without comment, Luke reports the response: the father divided his property between them. That is amazing enough in itself, though the son’s actions – Luke has set us up to guess correctly – are predictable. As quickly as he got the money, he took off and – this language is magnificent – ‘squandered his property in dissolute living.’ Luke sets up a progression of decisions that drive distance between the youngest son and his home: he asks for the inheritance early, relocates to the land of the Gentiles, lives fast and loose, and, then, he stoops to the level of working with pigs, an act Leviticus specifically forbids.3 By any way you measure it, he is outside the community.
And then something happens. Knee-deep in pig slop he realizes these animals’ food looks appealing. And it causes a bit of a revelation. "He came to himself…" Luke writes, decides to confess his tragic mistake and ask to be treated as a hired hand. He begins to glimpse how disappointing he has been. I imagine he got nervous, gut tightening up as he walked the dusty road, imagining all of the levels of anger he is going to have to deal with. I wonder how much he regrets asking this of his father in the first place, of the sadness he saw on his dad’s face when he asked, as he sold some of the land, as he handed him a bag of silver. He was ready for it all, he said, the yelling, perhaps a punch to the face, the way the community would talk and point, the shame.
He turns the final curve, sees the house from afar, begins the rocky path through his father’s fields. It’s in good shape; the grain is high and full. He clenches his fist. Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you… Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you…he looks down, watching his feet…and the tears come. It is then he hears the shouts from the house, he looks up, straining in the sunlight, and sees his father running. When he was far off, Luke writes, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. This word in Greek literally means ‘to have the bowels yearning’ – every ounce of him was drawn to his son. And then he ran, which is another thing, because Middle Eastern patriarchs do not run. He runs, robes flying, looking pretty silly, and embraces his son, practically tackles him. He holds him, like he had never held him before, kissing him, hugging, kissing again. The son tries to get his lines out, and halfway succeeds… Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you…and his father responds as if he hasn’t even heard him. He calls for slaves to come – quick, get a robe, not that one, the best one, get a ring, prepare the feast, get the fatted calf, the best one we’ve been saving, set up the hall, call in the musicians. We will celebrate! My son was lost and is now found, he cries as the band begins to play. Grace. Grace. Grace.
It would be absolutely perfect if the story ended there. I would prefer it. Then it’s a story about the power of grace and forgiveness. We can rest comfortably, knowing that no matter how irresponsible we are: greed and prostitutes, our egos and drive and misplaced priorities, our narrow, narrow vision, God will forgive us. We can go on today confident in that amazing grace. No matter what we do, how ridiculous we were and are, God loves us. Hooray! But. With Jesus there’s always a ‘but.’ He tells us about the elder son, working out in the field, who all of the sudden hears the music, sees the dancing. Hey, he calls a servant over, what’s the deal? At the words ‘YOUR BROTHER,’ his heart sinks, and he can barely hear about the fatted calf as the fury builds. Just like I boldly assumed last Sunday that a lot of you are likely to want to be in control – and you confirmed this for me after worship – I also imagine a lot of you are, like me, oldest children. We are responsible. We get things done; we solve problems, often problems someone else has created, and we’re only a little self-righteous about it. Why? Because that’s what oldest children do. We handle things.
He refuses to go in, and dad comes out, pleading. Come in, please. Look, dad, I have been here all of these years. I have respected you, I have respected our family, I have worked so hard. And what have I gotten? Not even a piddly ‘ole goat to eat with my friends, yet HE, this son of YOURS, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, and you killed the fatted calf for him. I see where I rate, dad. I see. And dad is near weeping, 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."
I was struck this week, for the first time, really, by how poorly the story ends. It ends with the youngest son inside at the party, probably drinking too much, but also, I imagine, ashamed. His inheritance is gone and we don’t know whether he learned anything or whether he is laughing at what a sucker his father is. The older son stands outside, furious at his dad, resenting his brother. The father has embarrassed himself – breaking the customs of the day by giving away the inheritance early, behaving effeminately by running to welcome his youngest son and kissing him publicly. His older son is outside, the younger inside. The story ends with a family estranged from one another; distant; unsure about the future.4
Barb Schmidt mentioned to me a scene from the 1977 TV mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth. I’ll have a link to the clip when the sermon is posted on the website. Throughout the early part Matthew and Peter are in conflict – anger and jealously abound. Jesus walks into Matthew’s home and begins to tell this story. He sits by firelight and talks of the younger son, the father, then the eldest, telling the story straight from the text. And Peter, who is outside, comes in and listens. As the story ends he approaches Jesus, tears welling in his eyes, sorry for what a bum he had been, pleading. After what feels like an eternity Jesus places a reassuring hand on his shoulder, but, instead of simply hugging him and telling him he is forgiven, Jesus turns and pushes him towards Matthew. He beckons to Matthew, and the scene ends with Jesus, hand on each of their shoulders, pushing them to towards one another.5
Because grace cannot stop with forgiveness. This grace, freely given and received, propels us out, so that we might be reconciled with one another – on days we are so broken and days we feel strong and entitled. We are moved towards each other, and through that to do ridiculous things like sleep overnight with a bunch of youth, take someone a meal, write another check, advocate for the poor, take time to listen to someone in the line at the grocery store. Seek reconciliation in a world so filled with violence and anger. Grace drives us out, beyond ourselves, seeking community. And so the story leaves us with a decision…will we remain stuck in the same patterns, patterns that limit even our most important relationships. Or will we risk that God has new possibilities for us – that God stands outside the party, calling, pleading, for us to come inside?
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. I will again offer gratitude to my friends, Rebekah Abel Lamar and Pen Peery. Their project for a D.Min. class at Columbia Seminary forms the foundation for this series. Rebekah is the Director of Christian Education at Decatur Presbyterian in Decatur, Georgia, and Pen is the Pastor of First Presbyterian in Charlotte, NC.
2. Alyce McKenzie, The Parables for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2007), page 95.
3. From the Rev. Pen Peery’s paper on this at the 2009 gathering of The Well, in Austin. Also Leviticus 11:7-8.
4. I am grateful to Rebekah and Pen for this specific insight.
5. "Parable of the prodigal son from the film Jesus of Nazareth" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14epxvU8XIA&feature=youtu.be