Sermon on Exodus 19:1, 16-25 and mainly Luke 15:11-32 for Pentecost +18, September 18, 2016
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
Just about everyone loves the story of the Prodigal Son. It is one of Jesus’ most famous parables. Most of us can see ourselves in it. We see ourselves in the son who got himself into trouble by problems of his own making. We have felt regret, maybe even shame.
We can see ourselves in the older brother who feels like life is unfair; he has done the right thing and gets no credit for it. We have all felt self-righteous and judgmental.
I think we also all love this parable because of the picture of God as the father who embraces the prodigal son, after all he has done, and welcomes him back home.
This parable, so familiar to us, is not just home-spun truisms. This is game-changing. I think we need this today every bit as much as Jesus’ original audience needed its message. What I hope we will see today is how completely revolutionary this parable is.
So I want to start with two thoughts that frame this parable. The first is, what is in the heads of the people who heard it – specifically, about God. The second is what is the literary context of this parable in Luke that gives it so much power?
What Were They Thinking?
First, what was in the heads of Jesus’ audience? What were they thinking? When someone said the word “God” what images would they have had?
That is why we read the text from Exodus 19. It is the famous scene at Mt. Sinai. As the story goes, the people of Israel had just escaped from being slaves under Pharaoh’s empire in Egypt. Moses leads them to Mt. Sinai, where he meets God, receives the 10 Commandments and other laws.
This story is, for Jewish people, as important as the story we all hear in school of Columbus “discovering” America. Everybody knows it. It is our “founding story.” Or “origin myth”. Sinai is where Israel is transformed from a mob of former slaves into a community bound together by God’s covenant. So everyone knows this story by heart.
So what ideas about God, and how God relates to people, are formed by this origin story? What kind of God is God? Moses met God personally, as the story of the burning bush described, but this is where the people as a whole encounter God.
In a word, God terrified them. There was the thick smoke, the fire on the mountain, the quaking, the loud sound; it says the people trembled. They were also warned off; no one was to get too close, on pain of death.
So what do they think of God? On one hand, God is a liberator, who heard their cries, sent them a deliverer and set them free, but on the other hand, God is terrifyingly powerful; even dangerous.
This is the picture of God people still have in their heads when they speak of “acts of God” like massive flooding or hurricanes and tornadoes. This is the kind of God people fear.
This is the kind of God people are thinking of when bad things happen, and they wonder if they are being punished.
This is the picture of God that Jesus is completely overturning. This is revolutionary. Jesus is taking their origin story’s dominant idea, and utterly transforming it. Instead of a life-threatening volcano, Jesus presents God as a loving father.
Literary Context: the 3rd of 3
Just before we get into the story, one more thought; this one about where this parable comes in Luke’s version of the Jesus story. This is the third parable in a series of three. Whenever you have a series of three, it seems that the first two are there to set up the third. The climax is the third. So this is the climax.
The first two we heard about last week: the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. The Good Shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep alone to go searching for the lost sheep.
Bob pointed out that this is one of those fantastic elements that parables often have: it would be absurd to leave all your sheep vulnerable to predatory wolves or thieves and go out searching for one. Any normal shepherd would simply consider it a business loss, write it off, and be done with it.
So this is not just a parable about lostness and being found, it is also a parable of extravagance. If God is the Good Shepherd and we are the lost sheep, God’s love for us is extravagant to the point of being absurd.
Anyway, it ends with great rejoicing. Lostness, found-ness, and rejoicing is the sequence. The point, Jesus says, is that when a single sinner repents, there is great rejoicing in heaven. What was lost, has been found.
The second of the three parables is about the lady with ten silver coins, who looses one. She lights a lamp gets out a broom, and searches the whole house until she finds it. When she does, she rejoices and throws a party. The sequence is the same: lostness, found-ness, and rejoicing. The point is the same: joy in heaven over a sinner who repents. What was lost, has been found.
Of course the odd thing about both of these is that there is no repenting in these two parables. Sheep do not know how to repent, and coins do not do anything at all. This brings all the more attention to the third story in which the son formulates and rehearses an elaborate repentance speech:
“I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; …”’
The Climactic Third Parable
Now we come to the third parable, the climax. Now we are ready to hear the same sequence: lostness, found-ness, and rejoicing over repentance.
It starts with another one of those absurd exaggerations you find in parables. The idea that the younger son would ask his father for his inheritance is bizarre; as bad as it sounds in our culture, think of how much worse it sounded in Jesus’ culture of family honor and shame! The son shames the father to whom he owes honor by basically wishing him dead already.
In another absurd move, the father grants his request. This son is already more lost than the sheep or the coin, but it gets worse. After receiving the death-money, he blows it. Not just on feasting and personal indulgence, but on “dissolute living.” You can fill in the blank of whatever “dissolute” means – but it is definitely an R rated story. His older brother assumes it involves prostitutes.
Not only that, but he is doing it all in a “distant country”. He has left the purity of his promised land for the impure pagan lands abroad.
Finally, his lostness reaches its most completely absurd depths when he ends up penniless and among pigs – which for Jewish people, is a completely unclean, impure situation.
From there, as lost as a person can get, he comes to his senses and composes a repentance speech. In it, he admits his sinfulness, announces his unworthiness, and plans a future, not as an honorable son, but as a shamed hired hand.
If the story was that he returned as planned, and was able to make his planned speech, and after hearing it, his father took him back as a hired hand, that would already be absurd. No father, having been shamed so much – in fact, the whole family was shamed – would ever take back the guilty son, even as a worker.
But that is not how the story goes. It is not just that the son shows up one day unannounced at the door. Rather, apparently the father was looking down the road for him – probably every day. And when he saw him, instead of waiting with dignity and sternness, as would be expected, the opposite happens:
“But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
The father did not even notice, nor let him finish his repentance speech. So, in all three parables about lostness, found-ness and rejoicing, there is no successful repentance. Apparently the idea that repentance is the necessary condition for rejoicing in heaven was just a literary ploy. It turns out, it is not the condition.
The Volcano vs. the Father
This then is a revolutionary understanding of God. Contrast this shame-less, compassionate, rejoicing father with the smoking, quaking, threatening God of Mt. Sinai. The fear has been completely removed. Even fear of justified, rational consequences is gone.
Many of us have had the joy of the experience of coming to understand ourselves as loved and forgiven by God after periods of lostness. We can bear witness to the power of forgiveness and reconciliation we have experienced. We can tell our own story of being the prodigal son or daughter who returned home to find love instead of condemnation.
The Older Brother
If the story stopped here, it would be one of Jesus’ best parables ever. But it gets deeper. There is another brother; the older one who stayed home doing the right thing. For people who grew up with the threatening God of Mt. Sinai, this one was the wise one. He obeyed the commandments that came from Sinai. He honored his father and mother. He did not covet his neighbor’s possessions, but stayed home working for the family.
In the first parable the shepherd who found his lost sheep calls his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. So did the woman who found her lost coin. In this climax, the way it should go is that the older son comes home and shares the joy of his father who got his son back from the dead, in his perspective. He was lost, but now he has been found.
The older son, however, is angry. He deserves better. He is offended. He never got a party, for all his years of loyal labor.
Let us pause here. There is something powerful, but subtle, going on in this story. It is clear and amazing that the whole paradigm of God has been transformed. The fear of the God of Sinai has been replaced by the loving embrace of the extravagant father. But there is another transformation that has happened as well.
What was the condition of the prodigal son with his lifestyle of dissolute living in a foreign land? We would have expected to define him as sinner, as impure, as contemptible. But Jesus has defined him merely as lost. There is a huge difference.
If his older brother could have seen him as lost, instead of contemptible, perhaps he could have had compassion on him too.
These three parables are all about lostness: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. This is our condition.
I do not believe that lostness is a past experience that we can be finished and done with permanently. While there may have been exceptionally bad periods of lostness in our lives which we have come through, from which God’s compassion has found us, which we rejoice about, nevertheless, I do not think we get to leave the condition of lostness behind in any final sense.
There are all kinds of ways to be lost. When we consider our own finitude, our mortality, the fact that our lives on this earth will end, we struggle with a sense of lostness. What was it all about, if we must leave it all behind?
We feel a sense of lostness when we consider the problem of meaning. Clearly life is not only about producing things, or consuming things, or accumulating things. It cannot be meaningful in any large sense if it is simply about our own personal happiness.
We feel a sense of lostness when we look at the world and wonder where it is going. We look at politics, we look at climate change, we look at terrorism and war, and wonder what kind of world is coming.
The revolution that Jesus brings with these subversive parables helps us discover that in all our lostness, there is a Divine Presence who is there for us. God is not there to bring condemnation; God is not to be feared. God is there as the compassionate presence, luring us home, luring us to accept that we are accepted. God is there, cutting short our pretentious repentance speeches, with a ring and a robe, and a kiss and a party.
In whichever way you are lost, come home to love. Accept that you are accepted by Love, the very ground of being itself. Come home to love.
And then look around at everybody else. We are all lost. We have all been found. We are all in this together. So have compassion on other people who are at different places on their journey. Open the door, join the party, and keep the door open for everyone. Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate, until everyone comes home to love. Until every lost one is found.