"The Prodigal Son through Turkish Eyes" 3rd in Prodigal Son Series

June 13, 2010                              

The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most cherished in the gospels. Years ago I heard an educator assign his elementary education students to read the fifteenth chapter of Luke's gospel because of the brilliant teaching technique that Jesus used. You notice that the first reading this morning is ten verses, also very familiar. We hear about how a shepherd goes after one lost sheep, one out of a hundred, and says to his neighbors and friends, "Rejoice with me!" when he returns with the lost sheep. 99 never strayed, and we celebrate when one is restored. If you've ever lost your keys you know that the 99 times they are exactly where you expect them to be, mean nothing. But the one time you find them after misplacing them is cause for relief if not outandout rejoicing. So it is in heaven when one sinner repents.


A few years ago in Sunday school we acted out this story. We hid 99 little sheep cutouts in the Sunday school room. We started looking. We found 73, then 80...things got a little slow...86...Carol and I started hiding sheep that had already been found...finally, we found all 99. It was not as great a success as we had hoped. But it did show us that 99 is a really large number. And heaven rejoices over one little sinner repenting.


The next parable, also in the first ten verses is about a woman who has ten coins and she loses one. Such a woman, Jesus says, searches diligently for the coin, and when she finds it calls together her friends and neighbors and says, "Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost." Now it's possible that the ten coins are more than just money. Some scholars speculate that the ten coins were the Palestinian equivalent of an engagement ring, so she didn't just get back some money that she had lost, she was able to marry, which was essential for a woman's livelihood in that culture.


In Sunday school we hid ten coins in the Sunday school room. It was much easier to find all ten coins. Ten is a lot smaller than 100. Still, that one coin was precious. And when even one sinner turns from his sin, the angels of God are filled with joy.


The last parable in the series is the one about the Prodigal Son. Lately I have noticed that this parable is referred to in a new way, now it's called "The Parable of the Prodigal Son and His Brother." There is a lot happening in this parable.


I need to make an observation about the craft of preaching at this point. I find it very hard to preach parables. Parables make their points indirectly. In fact, the word "parable" means "measuring stick," so the point of a parable is for the hearer to examine his life and ask whether he "measures up." While parables are indirect, they are also clear. And the idea of preaching a sermon to make a parable more clear, or more easily understood is a little crazy. Parables offer invitations for the hearer to insert himself into the story. We can, and should, walk around in them. That means that what is perfectly obvious to me in a parable may be invisible to someone else. Especially if that other person has identified with a different character in the parable.


I heard a preacher once say that he's preached a sermon on the Prodigal Son form every possible character's point of view-except that of the fatted calf! I feel the same way. The same preacher said that the best way to preach a parable, is to tell another parable. To throw another measuring stick down for the hearer to see whether his life and actions measure up. Parables are figurative and illustrative, they should not be taken literally. And yet, because they offer us invitations to enter them, especially in this case, whom we identify with will inform whether we measure up.


And did you notice how the numbers have gotten smaller. 100:1, 10:1, 2:1. That's the educational technique that my friend the professor wanted his students to notice, that Jesus made the same point-that there's joy whenever someone repents-a progressively smaller, and more personal scale.


I've said before that this parable is like a cubist painting, what you see in it really depends on where you're standing. The lens you use to see this parable can make it completely different. I was very fortunate to find an article recently that gave me what felt like a number of new lenses to view this parable through.


Two years ago in March I read an article in "The Christian Century" by Ryan Keating. Mr. Keating is a Christian minister serving a small congregation in Turkey. Turkey is 99% Muslim. Following Christ there offers unique challenges, and unique opportunities. When he preached this passage to his congregation, Ryan Keating found them reacting strongly to it and perhaps reacting as Jesus' first audience would have reacted. For example, it was problematic that the younger son asked for his inheritance. We hear it as presumptious, pushy and rude-"Gimme my share before you die, Pop!" But in Turkey, such a request would also have been offensive to the older brother, who had a privileged place in the family line. Such a request by a younger sibling would have brought shame on the family.

Ryan Keating also found that family ties in Turkey are quite strong. Typically, a son only leaves home to marry. And after marrying doesn't move very far away. To leave home, wander to a different land with different customs-we know this because the presumably Jewish son in Jesus' parable gets a job feeding pigs!-without it involving marriage is seen as unspeakably selfish on the part of the young son. And pigs in Turkey are regarded as completely repugnant. Some people apologize even for mentioning the word in conversation. It's like when we say, "Excuse my French" after saying a dirty word. That the son hires himself out to feed pigs shows how very, very far he has fallen!

The turning point in the parable is when a famine hit the place where the younger son had gone. He got hungry...he took a job feeding the pigs. The community in Turkey could identify with this moment in the story. They had been experiencing a drought, which had also threatened them. They had lived desperation, and understood that desperation often leads to repentance. By the way, this is my favorite part of the parable. The motivation for the younger son to turn around and head back home is that he's hungry and needy. It's not that he sees that he has insulted his father and brother and shamed his family-he's hungry! And yet, this hunger is what prompts him to come to himself. God works through this moment of anxiety, need and fear, to bring the son around.

In Turkey, the turning point was seen differently too. And among this group of Christians, the story was not familiar. Imagine their surprise! It would take great courage for a son who had been so pushy and brought shame onto the family to swallow his pride and return home. What kind of reception would await such a disappointment? There was tension. And when he preached this parable, Ryan Keating built up the father's side too. How he may have paced for hours, waiting for word about his son, standing by road, looking, wondering....


I'm a father now. I understand those moments when love and frustration and helplessness are thrown together. When people say, "If he's not dead-I'll kill him!" on TV sitcoms, I understand completely how they feel! Here's the father waiting...shamed and waiting...sick with worry, shamed and waiting...when the son returns...the father runs and hugs and kisses his son.

Now imagine hearing this story if you're a woman whose husband will not let you bring your son to church, or if you insist on your husband bringing you to church every week, but he never enters the building and sits outside smoking cigarettes the whole time you're worshipping. Or if you attend church in secret, so your family doesn't know you want to follow Christ. What would it feel like to be embraced by your father then? After you've strayed, not geographically, but religiously? To know that your father's love is strong and sure, in spite of everything you've done is a powerful message indeed to Turkish Christians.

And the party that the father throws when his younger son returns had special significance too. "The best robe" in Turkey would be a kaftan, a symbol of status in Turkey under the Ottoman Empire. The father, the patriarch would have been wearing such a robe, when he welcomed the son home. Thus his status isn't just restored, but elevated! And the ring that the Turkish Christians imagined the son getting would have been one used to seal family legal documents. It was more than jewelry, with it came authority. Even the fatted calf has special significance in Turkey. There is an Islamic tradition called Kurban Bayram in which families sacrifice a calf or other animal as an expression of thanks and devotion to God. Kurban Bayram recalls Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God's command. So feasting on fatted calf is more than a big ol' barbecue-it's an expression of deep gratitude to God for bringing the son back.

I conclude this morning as Ryan Keating concluded his article:
At least one woman in the service that day was hearing the parable for the first time. When she heard about this father who looks down his road and waits to embrace his lost son, she wept. All of us in the congregation could relate to the reality of having brought shame on our household by our rebellion and squandering of the Father's wealth in wild living. Yet there is a robe and a ring and a fatted calf waiting, and a Father who will embrace us. He insists on vesting us with the family name, and welcomes us into his house as sons and daughters. [Christian Century, March 11, 2008, pp. 12 & 13]