"...and his brother" 1st in Prodigal Son series
April 11, 2010, Luke 15
The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen
Jesus spoke to his followers using parables. He presented ideas this way because parables are easy to remember and they are startling enough that they help people see God's kingdom and understand how God is at work in the world in new ways. Parables make their points indirectly, so it is unwise, even silly, to take them literally. For example, Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth." Take that literally and we're all minerals in the ground. A better approach to understanding parables is to say "Try to think of it this way..." In the 15th chapter of Luke's gospel there are three parables in a row: "Try to think about how much God rejoices when someone repents," Jesus told the tax collectors, "by thinking about how you yourselves rejoice when you find a lost sheep;" and try to imagine how a poor woman celebrates when she finds a coin she's lost." Jesus told them to think about how diligently she looks for the coin and how she tells her neighbors to celebrate with her when she finds it-the angels in heaven rejoice in the same way when a sinner repents. "Try to think about it this way," Jesus invites us.
More than ten years ago the biggest grocery store in Mankato started to rearrange its shelves. The frozen foods and the dairy products were where they had always been, but everything else was in a new place. The produce aisle was different, onions were where the apples used to be. The greeting cards were where they used to have the gourmet coffee. It was weeks before I found the bread. I heard one person say that she used to be able to zip through Hy-Vee blindfolded-she knew where everything was. She bragged that she could do the grocery shopping for her family of 5 in 30 minutes. After the change it was frustrating and confusing and people complained about the change with great passion-everyone who has talked to me about it is against the new arrangement. (People in Mankato, Minnesota were more interested in talking about the grocery store than are about weather-if you can imagine!) The store had clerks walk through the aisles, offering to help the people who looked especially lost-they handed out maps.
I went to Hy-Vee and walked around and around they offered me a map, but I decided to explore instead. I was frankly insulted that they offered me a map. I am a Midwesterner! My people came to this land in Conestoga wagons! We did not need a map to find the foil, thank you very much! As I explored I found great variety in the store. I found all kinds of surprises. I found things that I hadn't seen in years; I found things that I thought were only available in bigger cities. For the record, I found the foil right where the ginger ale used to be.
I was one of those people who knew the old store so well that I could shop without thinking or noticing anything. But in being confused I was able to see new things. Now technically what I saw wasn't new, but it was new to me because I'd stopped noticing the grocery store long ago. May the Kingdom of God is like that-there's more than we know, and what we notice is a very small part of the whole.
Let me tell you a little more about Mankato. It's a river town; the Minnesota River makes a 90 degree turn and starts to flow northeast to the Mississippi at Mankato. The river has cut steep bluffs into the prairie and the left turn in the river means that the streets don't go straight.
A couple months ago I was driving up Main Street; literally, Main Street goes straight up the bluff. As I was driving up Main Street I saw a red rubber ball bouncing down the hill past me. Somehow the ball had bounced over the fence of the school that is about halfway up the bluff. "Poor kids," I thought to myself. It was late March or early April, one of the first days in months when outdoor recess was possible. I drove on, but then I had a flashback to the first ethical dilemma I can remember. I was in first grade back in Peoria, Illinois, and my school had a strict rule against going off the playground for any reason, even to retrieve a ball. I remember the tension of being tempted to be a hero and retrieve the wayward ball for my friends on the one hand, and meeting a certain swift punishment on the other. I played it safe that time. But here I was years later and a little freer thinking about those poor kids and how their ball was lost, and how they probably couldn't leave the school yard either... I decided to turn around.
It wasn't easy; Mankato has a confusing array of one way streets that make it difficult to go anywhere in a straight line. I backtracked a couple blocks and started back up Main Street and there I was it, on top of a pile of dirty slush, the red rubber ball that meant "fun" "outdoor recess" and "spring" to some 4th graders. I got out of the car and went over to pick it up-and found a second rubber ball sitting on another slush pile. I got both balls and drove up to the playground. When I got out of the car two groups of kids surrounded me and I threw the balls to the kids and they ran back to their games.
And I felt great!! All day long I walked around a little taller and stood a little straighter-I called myself "the Man who Saved Recess."
Maybe we can get a glimpse of the kingdom of God by watching kids playing together. Try to think of the kingdom of God as being like a playground where kids have just gotten their ball back.
Shepherds. Woman. Grocery stores. Playgounds. Fathers and sons. Ordinary people and places, yet they can all give us a part of the picture, a sliver of the enormous reality of God. Jesus used parables to prod his followers into seeing God's presence in everyday life.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son and His Brother is provocative-and this is true for preachers and their congregations. One of my colleagues simply cannot preach this parable. This story hits him too close to home. His mother had always been the faithful, dutiful daughter whom no one noticed-while his uncle could drop in back at home for a weekend every five years or so and the whole family would drop what they were doing to see him and shower him with attention and love. "It's not fair!" his mother says. And the idea that this story is in the Bible, well, it was just too much for her!! My colleague simply will not preach this parable.
I can't help thinking about George Bailey from "It's a Wonderful Life" whenever I think about this parable. There he was a young man, ready to go out and see the world...but circumstances kept interfering with his plans and he had to stay home and run the Building and Loan. His kid brother Harry got to go to college, his kid brother Harry was the one who was the War Hero, while George fought the "Battle of Bedford Falls" organizing scrap metal drives, serving as an air raid warden...Would anyone blame him for resenting Harry? Would anyone blame him for being angry that he never got to follow his dreams? Would anyone blame him if he stood outside and refused to go to the party the whole town was throwing for his brother?
Now think about your own family. Are you the wanderer or are you the stable, loyal, unnoticed one? In my own family it's clear who's who. I was one who charged off to the big city and "squandered" lots of money (borrowed actually), not in dissolute living, but on things like rent and theology books. And then I followed the Holy Spirit's leading to a place miles from home, in another state. While my brother stayed close to home, he still lives in our hometown. When I was ordained the church threw a huge party. My brother is a certified public accountant. No one ever throws parties for certified public accountants. That's not fair.
It's easy to find ways that this parable is like someone you know, but this isn't a parable about what is fair.
This isn't a parable about being a good son.
This isn't a parable about how to be a good father either.
This is a parable about God. This is a parable about how God rejoices and celebrates whenever someone repents. Jesus used this parable to let the tax collectors and other sinners know (you know everyone) that God is happiest when someone "comes to himself." That is the turning point in this story, verse 17, " But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!'" Notice that the wasteful son isn't motivated by what's fair to his brother or what would make his father proud. It's hunger that prompts him to come to himself; it's knowing that life is better back home. And God rejoices!
Jesus used this parable to let the Pharisees know what they were missing-a life in the Spirit that allows room for praise and thanksgiving, mistakes and forgiveness. They stood there listing to Jesus' simple wisdom. We hear it too today.
Who's happier the woman who finds her lost car keys, or the one who never loses them? Which playground is more joyous, the one with high fences that keeps every ball in, or the one that gets back the ball that rolled down the hill? Which shepherd calls his friends to celebrate with him, the one who finds a lost sheep, or the one who never loses a sheep? Which person feels more fortunate, blessed, lucky the one who never sins or the one who recognizes his sin, comes to himself and believes and trusts the reality of forgiveness in Christ?
When the parable ends, the loyal son is standing at the gate. His father tells him "We had to celebrate, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found." We don't know whether he decides to join the party. Will you?