Sheepscott Community Church March 14, 2010
2 Cor. 5: 16-21
Luke 15: 1-3; 11b-32
“This Man Welcomes Sinners and Eats with Them”
Jesus would have been a big hit in any kindergarten class because he was the master of show-and-tell. He could tell a good story, and today’s gospel is one of his best. It didn’t originate with Jesus, it was a known story at the time. But he used it to good effect to teach about the loving mercy of God. And if he told a good story, he was at least as good at showing The Way of the story in his surrendered life as he lived it.
I’ve mentioned before that there was no Christianity as we know it in the time of Jesus. It hadn’t been codified yet as a religion separate from Judaism. It was a sect of Judaism, and Jesus referred to what he was doing, what he was teaching as The Way. How he was showing the way in the context of today’s gospel, as voiced by the Pharisees, was that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” You can almost hear them saying, “YEEEEWWWWWW.” Can we miss the parallel of the younger son in today’s gospel out in the fields with the pigs, feeding them pods or husks that he himself, because he was starving, longed to eat. That’s about as low as you can get, as low as you can go as a Jew, for the Law states, “Cursed is he who feeds swine.”
“He welcomes sinners and eats with them.” My kind of guy. We have to believe that we would be among those he welcomed and would eat with, yes? As we are all sinners fallen short of the glory of God, but, not to fear. Not to worry because we have this wonderful figure of the Father in the parable, whom Jesus wants us to understand, not as the caster of aimed lightning bolts, the thrower of the switch that zips us to hell, but as a Father who waits patiently for the return of a beloved child. Some of us were blessed with such a father. Others of us were not and consequently find it hard to relate to even God in that model of the loving patient father. But I ask that you suspend your disbelief in that model at least for the duration of this brief sermon. Give God as a Father a chance to show you who he is by what he does. Jesus learned his ability in the show-and-tell department right in the family circle of the Trinity.
So, the Father as a patient and loving God, not as the hurler of thunderbolts and the thrower of the punishing switch. Let’s try this on by focusing on the parable in the gospel. Under Jewish Law––Deuteronomy 21: 17––a father was not free to leave his property as he might wish to do. He had to leave two-thirds of it to his elder son and one-third to the younger son. And it wasn’t unusual for a father to distribute the estate before his death, as he does, at least partially, in this parable. He might want to retire from the active management of affairs, and this was one aspect of that status.
So, when the younger son demanded his share of the estate, he wasn’t being unusually unreasonable. Callous, maybe, as in, Why should I wait for you to die when I can have my share right now and get away from this boring, Godforsaken place? Do some of us parents not know that attitude? The father didn’t argue with him because he knew that if that son was ever to learn about life, it would have to be firsthand, the hard way, and so he gave him his portion of the estate and the younger son went off to a far country and squandered it, as the scripture tells us. It was only when he was starving out in the field where he fed the pigs that he came to his senses, realizing that the hired hands, the day laborers at his father’s farm had it better than he did.
Let me interrupt the narrative here to consider for a bit the idea of the young man coming to his senses. A different translation from ours is that the young man “came to himself.” It was axiomatic of Jesus’ teaching that so long as a man was away from God he was not truly himself. He was only himself when he was on the way home, when he was coming home to God. Jesus did not believe in total depravity in human beings, or the inevitability of it. God’s goodness, mercy and love were always greater and more far-reaching than the worst a man could do. The monk writer Thomas Merton touches on this when he says that the mystery of who we are is hidden in God, and it is only there, when we return there, that we indeed discover the mystery of ourselves.
Back to the story. When the younger son realized that the day laborers at his father’s farm, who had less value than slaves, were eating better than he was, he decided to return to his father and beg his forgiveness, asking only that he be allowed among the lowest of the hired hands. Up he got and off he went towards home. The father of the parable was out as usual one day scanning the horizon when he saw him, while he was still a long way off. And he ran. This old man gathered up his tunic and ran for all he was worth, his sandals flapping noisily, his heart beating fast as he ran to embrace his son.
The Father interrupted his son’s no-doubt well-rehearsed confession of repentance to tell his servant to bring a robe, put a ring on his finger, shoes on his feet and to kill the fatted calf. All of these directions, these actions have significance. The robe stands for honor; the ring for authority, for if a man gives his signet ring to another, he essentially gives the power of attorney; the shoes for a son, as opposed to a slave, for children of the family were shod, while slaves were not. [Don’t you hate slavery?] And the calf was killed for feasting, that all might rejoice at the son’s return.
This parable is among the favorite stories of the New Testament because it is so true to people’s lives. Family relations are family relations, no matter the age, no matter the culture. The daughter of a friend of Jon’s is in jail on felony, drug-related charges, and her father can’t afford the bail. As in every drug addiction story, the addict has to hit bottom and want to get well before that can happen. There are her father and her mother waiting on the road for her to come to her senses, to come to herself, and to come back home. Continuing to love her with the patience of God and bearing the suffering of not being able to bear the daughter’s suffering for her, is all they can do. So much of being a parent is waiting.
We love the story of the prodigal son, and we can understand it, rejoicing with the father, repenting with the son, but something’s missing: the elder son, the elder brother. I think we meet our other selves in him also, our judgmental, conniving, unforgiving selves, and we have to talk about that.
To say that the elder son is miffed is an understatement. He is in a fit of self-righteous pique, high dudgeon. He has judged his brother and found him wanting and now he judges his father’s merciful act of complete unconditional forgiveness and finds that wanting. What is his problem? Let’s go back to the text. “Look! All these years I have been slaving for you,” he says to his father, “and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never even gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours”––mind you, he doesn’t say, my brother––”when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf for him!”
The exclamation points in the text betray the elder son’s anger. It’s clear from his language, however, that his years of obedience to his father were out of duty and not loving service. You can almost hear the “You owe me!” The arrogance. It’s reminiscent of the Pharisees, whom he is a figure of. We know from verse two of the gospel reading that the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were there listening to this, for it was they who muttered about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. They are such sourpusses, refusing in their little self-righteous clique to hear what the teacher is saying.
Notwithstanding all of that, we understand how the elder brother feels. We knew what it was like when we were kids and one of the other kids got a bigger piece of cake, or more frosting, or got four presents to our three, or a full allowance when he didn’t take the garbage out but twice in the week, when he was supposed to take it out every day. We are close accountants when it comes to being shortchanged with regard to our own interests, and even now we get frustrated with a God who doesn’t seem to understand justice as it ought to be dispensed, which is to say, as we think it should be dispensed. We are full of objections and “But he’s...” to this God who forgives unconditionally, like the father in the parable. We want justice for others, on our terms, and mercy for ourselves on God’s terms. Really. It seems to be how we are built.
In this context, recall the last verse of the reading from Isaiah from last week’s service. Chapter 55, v. 9: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
So I understand this older brother, and I expect you do too. But we are called by Jesus to something better and higher, to God’s thought, which he was telling us about in this parable and which he shows us again and again in and by his actions. God, as the father of the parable, is more likely to be merciful toward us in his judgments than any human being would be, as in the older brother, and yet we cast God in our own judgmental image. Such idols we make, yes?
There’s a story about Abraham Lincoln, who was asked how he would treat the rebellious southerners, when they were finally defeated and returned to the Union. The questioner expected a vengeful response, but what Lincoln said was, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.” It is a marvel of the love of God that God treats us that way as well.
In contrast to the magnanimity of Abraham Lincoln and the father in the parable, we have the story of St. Paul who had anything but mercy on the followers of Jesus. A pharisee of pharisees––and I know I have alluded to this before, but Paul would be the first to say, “Use my story again and again if it means one person draws closer to God. Put it out there that they may learn from it.” A pharisee of pharisees, Paul was pulling Christians out of their houses and having them jailed, killed perhaps. Certainly he acquiesced in the stoning death of Stephen, the first martyr, as the cloaks of those who stoned were placed at his feet. Why did he do this? Because he judged them blasphemers in relation to the Law, which he swore by, and which he lived by. A man of the letter of the Law.
He was like the elder brother of the parable, who ticked off the sins of his younger brother to his father as reasons not to make a meal for him, not to forgive him, not to break bread with him. The older brother would judge him, did judge him, and would cast him out, reserving the father’s favor for the elite and acceptable group, which is to say, himself. Paul’s elite group was the Jews, the chosen people who accepted and lived by the Law. They were the ones who deserved the inheritance, not these sinners, these blasphemers who deserved only comeuppance.
The fact is none of them deserved anything, but the mercy of God covered all of of them and waited like the father of the parable, scanning the horizon for some sign of movement, some turning back, some coming to the senses. Him back to himself, her back to herself, them to the knowledge that who they are, who we are is in God, and we must return to God to find out the fullness of what that means.
Paul in his self-righteousness had to meet the living God face to face before he would be convinced, and he did and he was, permanently. For the rest of his life he cast himself as what he recognized he was, a sinner and the great persecutor of the church and thereby of Jesus as the Christ. But he accepted God’s forgiveness and allowed God to use him for the rest of his life as the apostle to the Gentiles.
Last week we heard what is called the gospel of the second chance. In the parable the owner of the vineyard allows the caretaker to give the unproductive fig tree another chance to fruit, to be useful. I think today’s gospel is also a gospel of a second chance, highlighting the uber-forgiveness of God, the magnanimity of whom and which is unsearchable. Even so, we can learn something about it through these gospel stories and can learn how to exercise that same forgiveness toward ourselves and toward others. And we know the power of being forgiven unconditionally. We must have felt that at least once in our lives. There’s nothing like it. What a gift that would be to give to someone else.
Reconciliation is there for the asking. What prevents reconciliation at the estate of the father and two brothers of this morning’s gospel is the older brother’s jealousy and judgment. I’ll conclude with a quotation from this morning’s reading from Corinthians that incorporates that. “God has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”
It has been my experience that when we see division, when we see one person seeking to divide the Body of Christ, seeking to set one person against another, we need to beware. That is not the life of God, the way of God. No. God is one, and God’s life is marked finally by the absence of division, by the reconciliation of seeming opposites. So if Paul implores us to be reconciled to God, I would implore further that we with humility be reconciled to each other that we might reflect the undivided oneness that is God, that is the Body of Christ. Amen.