Have you ever seen those “man on the street” interviews that Jay Leno does? He goes out and asks people simple questions, and they give the most foolish answers. He asked a man “See that American flag flying there? How many stars does it have?” and the man says, “I can’t count them, it’s moving around too much.”
Well, Leno never asked about God, to my knowledge, but if he did, if he asked people to answer, “What is God good at; what is his role?,” what do you think they might say? What is God famous for? Plagues? Fire and brimstone? Acts of judgment? How about commandments? God is famous for saying “Thou shalt not…” a lot, isn’t he?
That is what people expect God to do; it’s his role. Question: what is God like? Is he best at commandments and requirements?
What we are going to see today as we look at this parable, is an amazing story of God who never does what he is is expected to do; and this is going to be great cause for rejoicing – maybe. I believe we need this parable as much as the first people Jesus told it to, so let’s look at the text.
Two Son Stories
The story begins, “A man had two sons.” Professor Jon Levenson of Harvard pointed out that when a Jewish story begins, “A man had two sons” it is often a sad story that follows. Adam, the first man, had two sons; the elder killed the younger. Abraham had two sons, the elder, Ishmael by his Egyptian slave; the younger, Isaac, by his wife Sarah. The younger received the promise and covenant. He sent the elder one away. Isaac had two sons; the elder, Esau, sold his birthright to the younger Jacob who ended up with everything.
Our story begins inauspiciously, “a man had two sons.” It doesn’t necessarily end well. Is this is one of those “unhappy ending” bible stories, like Jonah? You remember: after the whole swallowed-by-the-fish bit, Jonah finally goes to the people he hates, in the city he hates, in the country he hates, and preaches that God hates them too, (unless they repent, which of course Ninevhites would never do). Except that they do repent. So Jonah goes to watch what he hoped would be the divine nuking of Nineveh, only to sit there watching nothing, miserable at God’s mercy. It ends right there – unhappily. Is our story today like that?
3 Stories of loosing and finding
Our story beings “A man had two sons” – but looses one. This is one of three stories in a row that Jesus told, of people loosing things of value. First there was a shepherd who lost a sheep, then a lady who lost a coin, and here, a man has lost his son. All three are stories of finding too. The Shepherd found the sheep, the lady found the coin, and the man found his son. So at the end of this “A man had two sons” story, the man, once again, has two sons. The question is, at the very end of the story, does he still have two, or does he loose another?
Just like the story of Jonah, the curtain comes down on the scene of someone who is miserable because God is merciful. Does the elder brother go back inside and join the joy at the banquet? We never get to see.
Did you notice that I just said that the father found his son, just like the shepherd and the lady found what they had lost? Is that correct? Would it not be more accurate to say that the son found his way back to the father?
Breaking expectations of a Fathers
No; this is one of those expectations that this amazing father does not fulfill. Normally, no father in that time would ever grant a child’s request to take his inheritance – it is tantamount to wishing the father dead already. A father would be insulted at least, if not angry enough to dis-inherit him on the spot. That son has just broken the commandment: “honor thy father and mother.” But this father does the utterly unexpected, and lets him have it.
We watch in this story of how the son pathetically and tragically squanders his inheritance, and ends up in humiliation, poverty, and hunger. What he has done is now worse than merely taking his inheritance; he has despised it. He is truly dead to his father now. Were he to return, he could never undo the shame he brought upon the family. A father would be expected to cut off all ties with him; remember “Fiddler on the Roof”?
But this father does the unexpected; his willingness to take his son back as a son is what “finds” that lost son. In the process he does a string of unexpected acts: he looses all dignity as he runs down the road to welcome the lost son. He does not make him grovel, as expected, nor even let him finish his little repentance speech.
He removes his shame by dressing him, restores his family status with the ring, and finally, rewards him with a huge feast. He has broken every expectation in the book.
It appears that what this father is good at is not requirements, but redemption!
The Other Son
But this is a story of a man who has two sons, not just one, and so far we have only seen the first one in action. Now it it time for the other; the “presbuteros” the elder.
I think he feels like Esau; his brother has just stolen his birthright and he doesn’t even get a bowl of goat-soup in the bargain. In fact, in a minute he is going to tell his father that he has been a slave to him all this time!
The father throws a feast for his foundling son, but the elder brother, it says, “became angry and refused to go inside” the banquet. Refused? Refused whom? Now who is failing to “honor thy father and mother”? How would the father be expected to respond to this new insubordination? He would be expected to command a servant to go out and drag him in.
Again he does the utterly unexpected thing and leaves the table – in front of everyone – and, in spite of the shame, now does what no self-respecting father would have done, he went out to meet his eldest son, outside. And once he is there, does he command him to shut up and require him to come in? No; he begs him to come in, and even provides him with a rationale instead of a bare requirement.
But as I said, the curtain comes down right there, and we do not see the response. Will he come in and join this newly enlarged family, or will he become the lost son?
What then, are God’s Requirements?
There is a doubling back of this story upon itself exactly at this moment. We suggested at the beginning that if Jay Leno asked people on the street what God was good at; what God was expected to do, they may say, “commandments.” We suggested that this answer is what the elder brother thought too, and what led him to feel like a slave. The younger brother broke all the commands, but he is back in the family. But now, at the end of the story of the “man who had two sons” we are faced with a requirement; if the elder son refuses to join the banquet, he may well be lost to the family. Remember, Jesus told this parable to
“the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
The great insight here is not that God has no requirements; that everything is OK with God in the end; that he is the ultimate push-over who can be treated with dishonor, disrespect, who is willing to be shamed and humiliated and still throws a party. Not at all! Rather, the God of this parable is radically committed to redemption. If you want to be part of this family, you must come in and sit at the table with the rest of us.
In the end, the kingdom of God itself is pictured as a great banquet, hosted by Messiah. The people sitting at that table are all foundlings. None of them are there because they met all of God’s requirements and kept all his commandments (they better not even claim to have!) Rather, all of them are there – all of US are there because in spite of being prodigals, in spite of often squandering our Father’s lavish grace and goodness, in spite of often blowing it on trivia and self indulgence, unexpectedly, God has searched us out and found us.
To sit at that table is to welcome the people at that table – the “sinners” eating there. Some of them have broken lots of the commandments. Some of them sitting there have gotten themselves addicted; some have had children out of wedlock, some have contracted HIV/AIDS, some have lived unhealthy lifestyles; most of them do not speak English and do not own a tie. They are already at the table; the question is, will we come in and have a seat with them? Will we finally understand that we too, have been found?
The story of Jonah ended badly – the story of a person who was miserable at God’s mercy. The story of the man who had two sons was supposed to end happily this time, with rejoicing at a great banquet – and it may; but it may not.
The story is unfinished. We are living this story now. God is at work right now, all around us, finding lost people and rejoicing over their redemption. There is a path to joy here: it is by joining his great celebration of redemption. It is by looking around and finding where God is at work finding and redeeming lost daughters and sons, and joining him!
We are not God’s commandment-slaves; we are his banquet guests, and his joy is our joy, finding people who need his love, in our families, in our community, at the Christian Service Center, at the ACTII meeting, in the tutoring program, and everywhere he is unexpectedly, happily at work. Join him!