“…and his brother…"
March 6, 2016, Luke 15:1-3 and 15:11b-32
I cannot think of another story in the Bible that causes such strong reactions as the parable from today’s gospel readings. Thursday morning as I sat down to compose these remarks I phoned a member of the church and gave a “trigger warning.” This is something that college professors have started using when reading assignments may provoke strong reactions.
This parable triggers strong reactions in many, many people.
Six years ago I preached a series of five sermons over three months on this parable. What I found is that it is a profoundly different story for each of the characters. I think it’s natural to identify with one of the brothers, and knowing you, I’m confident that most of us identify with the older brother who is angry, and probably hurt, by his father’s lavish welcome of the good for nothing son.
But imagine yourself as the mother in the story…she isn’t mentioned, but she’s connected to, and presumably loves all three men. What would her life had been like after the younger son left home?
Several years ago I was an educational event for ministers and my group looked at this parable. One of my colleagues had grown up in India, the child of Presbyterian missionaries. He said that the servants of the father would have been humiliated by the behavior of the son who asked for his share of the inheritance. That was a perspective that was completely new to me. Once after preaching this text someone told me that I shouldn’t preach it ever, because it mentions slavery. Or perhaps I should preach against slavery. My first thought was, “That would hardly be a prophetic sermon, preaching against something that has been illegal since 1863!” But I carried that comment with me, and realized there is modern slavery: addiction, dysfunctional families, under-employment…and recently there has been a lot of news about human trafficking even in our own community. Maybe taking a stand against slavery in the pulpit isn’t a bad idea. Besides, the older brother says to the father, “I’ve been working like a slave for you…”
An old, old preacher joke is to accept the dare to preach on the parable of the prodigal son and his brother, from the vantage point of the fatted calf. I’ve thought about that repeatedly, but really can’t get more than two sentences out of it: “The younger son’s back.”
When we talked about this passage at Evergreen Wednesday—and I read it out The Message, which is the translation Ken used this morning. Someone pointed out that at different times we have been each character in this parable…the younger son who behaves wastefully and selfishly; the older son who is a hard worker, steady, loyal, true…and taken for granted; the father who loves each son—and loves each son differently. And this parable really doesn’t end. When chapter 15 ends…the older brother is outside the homecoming party. His father has just told him, “We had to celebrate.” It’s a command. And if there’s one thing the older son has shown he can do is obediently follow orders. But this order, this command, to be happy is hard for him to take. And we honestly do not know whether he joins the party. That ending, or lack of one, makes this parable all the more engaging. We walk around in it. It makes us feel. Maybe those feelings are relief or gratitude or forgiveness or acceptance, or envy, bitterness, righteous anger…you should be feeling something, perhaps a lot of things on hearing Jesus tell this parable.
But the parable isn’t about any of those feelings. It is about joy. The parable is about joy. And we dove in so quickly we missed that. So I’m going to take you back to the start. There are three parables in a row here, and Jesus uses a brilliant educational technique—repetition.
First, Jesus tells the sinners who are gathering around him, and the Pharisees who are very scrupulous observers of the law about shepherd who has 100 sheep and when one is missing, he searches for it, brings it back and rejoices and says to his friends, ‘Rejoice with me!’ There is more joy in heaven when a sinner turns from his sin, than when 99 people who don’t sin…continue not to sin.
Next, Jesus tells another parable, about a woman who had ten coins and loses one and “scours” her house, “looking in every nook and cranny” until she finds it. [The Message]
And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors and says, ‘Celebrate with me!” The Message concludes, “That’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time a lost soul turns to God.”
100 to 1; 10 to 1, and finally 2 to 1. The longest illustration is the one that we know as The Parable of the Prodigal Son. And I learned one new thing this week. The phrase “that brought him to his senses” in the Message, or “when he came to himself” in the New Revised Standard Version is a medical term for regaining consciousness. That’s the turning point in the story, but that’s not the point. The point is joy. The joy of one who has gotten back something precious that he has lost. Have you ever felt that joy?
I did last month. My family was running errands and as we pulled into the driveway after our three stops I noticed I had lost my stocking cap. After everyone went in, I went back to the car and moved all the seats forward and back, I scoured the car, looking in every nook and cranny. But it wasn’t there. I called the restaurant, they asked where we had sat and said they’d keep an eye out for it. I called Target, I thought maybe I left it in the bathroom.
“Could you describe it?”
“It is one of a kind, it has every color.”
I phoned Target the next day and asked if anything like my hat had been turned in to lost and found.
“Does it have a red thing on top?”
“Maybe. Does it have every other imaginable color?”
“That’s it! I’ll pick it up this afternoon.”
I have other hats. This one is special. My mother-in-law knitted it for me in 2003 while she was staying with my family following surgery. She kept to herself in the guest room and knitted non-stop. Except when she came to the table for meals or walked laps around the first floor as part of her therapy.
She offered to knit me a hat, and I picked the yarn. It took some convincing that I would honestly, truly wear a hat made of the yarn I picked. Reluctantly, she knitted it and I loved it immediately. I try to walk every day, even in winter. And with so much snow and ice in Oshkosh, I figured if I ever fell down and went missing, this design would be easy to spot from a helicopter. After I put it on I found it was the rare stocking cap that covered my ears that didn’t interfere with my hearing aids.
Her stay with us following her surgery was also a turning point in our relationship. She was so appreciative that she could stay with us—and she really was no trouble at all—but she feared that she would be, and wasn’t. About two years later she was diagnosed with a very, very aggressive cancer, and died just a few months later. This hat is the most tangible thing I have that connects me to her, and the relationship that had been improving…
Losing this hat wasn’t just losing a hat. I’ve got other hats; I’ve even got other hats that she knit for me and my family that do not interfere with my hearing aids. This hat is precious to me because she believed my assurances that I would wear it. Losing it would be like losing her.
The parable is about joy. The joy of one who gets back something that is precious. And more than that. The parable is about the joy God feels, or heaven feels, or the angels of God feel, when even one person wakes up, becomes conscious of his sin and turns from it
This parable isn’t about your family or anyone’s family. It’s about what makes God happy.
As you know I composed this sermon Thursday and printed it at about 5 in the afternoon. It is a hard message to preach—God feels joy—on a day when we are rocked by great sadness that Moriah died in a car accident Friday. We have watched her grow up. She was one of us.
There are people who will say “This is God’s will,” but I disagree strongly with that idea. The God we worship and serve feels joy when one person turns from sin. The God we worship and serve feels joy.
The God we worship and serve also feels great sadness when an accident like the one that took Moriah’s life happens. I believe God’s heart is broken—as our hearts are broken. God’s heart was broken when Christ died on the Cross.
As I was brushing my teeth this morning, some lyrics came into my head: “Not throned afar, remotely high, untouched unmoved by human pains, But daily in the midst of life, Our Savior in the Godhead reigns.”
Friends, that’s the God we worship and serve. Who feels our joy and shares our pain. The God of Life and Death. The God of Death and Resurrection. Amen.