By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 15:11-32
It may be that my memory doesn’t serve me well; but it seems to me that – as a child growing up in church – the sermons I heard on this morning’s parable were focused on the son who left home; the one we refer to as the prodigal. But over time, I’ve found that curious. I mean, it’s a bit like preaching to the choir. After all, our very presence in this place assumes – though is no guarantee – that we have recognized that we are sinners in need of God’s grace. Each time we join together for communion, we confess our sins and acknowledge our waywardness. We confess our disobedience, our willfulness, our rebellion, our disregard for others.[i]
If a story is really good, it provides us with a character with whom we can identify… albeit sometimes reluctantly. Jesus was an outstanding story teller and the power of his parables was about character identification. The heroes and villains of Jesus’ stories – heroes like the Good Samaritan – are often not those we expect or even want.
[i] This communion prayer of confession is found in the United Methodist hymnal on page 8 (1989; the United Methodist Publishing House)
It was only a few years ago that I used this morning’s parable in a discipleship group that encouraged people to sit quietly and reflect on their place within the parable (in other words, the character with whom they identified). By the way, we don’t do that nearly often enough. It is a classic form of prayer; to situate ourselves within the story as a way of encountering God.[i]
So, on this occasion, after several moments of quiet, I invited group participants to speak. Honestly, I expected – perhaps was even hoping – for a dramatic story of conversion (after all, those make for really good sermon fodder down the road). I thought, surely someone in this group, had a dramatic experience of conversion; their life had gone dramatically off track, they repented and turned their life around. I was ready to hear it. But instead what I heard took me entirely by surprise. The first person to speak shared how deeply they’d identified with the older son. It just didn’t seem fair. Little wonder he had skipped the homecoming party. Who wouldn’t be angry about such unfair, unequal treatment? Who wouldn’t be angry when their good behavior went unrewarded? Within moments of that first person speaking, the thoughts and feelings of others in the group tumbled out. Once they had stepped into the story, really allowed themselves to feel and experience what happened, they were all angry. I had a room filled with angry saints. It was a pivotal ministry moment for me.
And so this morning, we’re not going to talk about the prodigal, that younger son who left home to get into mischief. We’re going to talk about the older son, whose good work was built on the foundation of a very dangerous theology.
It is the theology that lays the groundwork for the so-called “prosperity gospel.” You know what I mean; those popular preachers who encourage their members to name it and claim it because God wants to make you wealthy and prosperous. But, it’s even more than that. It is also a theology revealed in statements like: “God will never give you more than you can handle” (which, by the way, is not a verse in the bible). It is the theology that underpins those dreadful statements we make to people who lose a loved one when we say things like, “It was God’s will;” “we just need to accept God’s ways; God has his reasons.”
It is an ancient and archaic theology that believes that God’s grace is something we can earn and that, if we are good enough, God will give us what we want and if we do not have what we want then surely we must have done something to make God angry and, doggone it, we just have to work hard enough to figure out what that something is so that we can get what we want from the divine vender in the heavens.
It is an ancient and archaic theology that Jesus shatters when he assures us that his heavenly Father “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[ii] It is an ancient and archaic theology that Jesus shatters when he recounts the stories of martyrs dying at the hands of Pilate or builders being crushed by the tower they are constructing and Jesus teaches that those who suffered such dreadful fates were no worse sinners than any of the rest of us.[iii]
Friends: I’m sorry to rock your world but this morning I need to tell you: following Jesus is not a hedge of protection from the bad stuff that just happens in this world. And if you’re following Jesus because you want life to go easy; to assure you are healthy, wealthy and wise, you’ve missed the point.
So what does happen with the older son in this morning’s parable? Well, we know of his existence at the start of the parable because Jesus tells us, “There was a man who had two sons.” But then the story shifts to focus on the younger son and his waywardness. The younger son shows complete disregard for his father; he squanders his inheritance; then he decides to return home with his tail tucked between his legs and deliver his heartfelt mea culpa.
Meanwhile his father has been waiting and watching and hoping for his return and, seeing his son on the horizon, he runs toward him. Now running in that culture was a humiliating, debasing thing to do. Sure; children could run. But no respectable, adult male would ever be seen running. It was shameful and embarrassing. But this father doesn’t care. He is just so happy to have his son back; it doesn’t matter what other people think of him. It matters that his son knows that he is still loved and still his son despite everything he’s done. The father is so overjoyed there must be a big celebration; a party that, likely, drew the entire village. Even a calf is killed and cooked in a culture where meat was precious and only eaten on the most important occasions.
Now, all this has taken place while the older son is left waiting in the wings, so to speak… or, more literally, out in the fields. He has remained with his father, working the fields, behaving obediently; but, as his words and actions will reveal – obedience with an ulterior motive. He expects to be rewarded for his obedience.
We are 14 verses into the story when, suddenly, our attention is turned to this older son working in the fields. He may well have been out all day under the hot sun working on behalf of his father, safeguarding his father’s interests. And as he nears home, he hears something in the distance. It sounds like music; dancing and singing. What’s that all about? He calls to a servant who informs him: “Your brother has come home and your father is so relieved that he has him back safe and sound, he’s even slaughtered the fatted calf. It’s going to be an awesome celebration.”
And at that very moment, the pretense – the “faithful” façade – is shattered. The good, obedient, socially acceptable son becomes anything but. He is angry and he refuses to participate in this celebration.
Now in that culture, the eldest son in the family had certain responsibilities with regards to hospitality. He had a critical role to fulfill; but he has had enough of fulfilling roles and responsibilities. His father, host of the celebration, must abandon his guests to go out and try and reason with this angry, belligerent son whose temper tantrum was likely seen and heard by the guests inside. The words he addresses to his father are terribly disrespectful. What he does is no less of a humiliation to his father than what his little brother did. I mean, even in our culture today, what child would berate and humiliate and argue with their parent on the porch while there was a house full of guests peering through the curtains?
The older son is angry because he expected his obedience would be rewarded and his little brother’s irresponsibility and disobedience would be punished. But it didn’t turn out the way he expected and it doesn’t seem fair.
His choice of words would have been like the strike of his fist to his father when he says, “I have been working like a slave for you…”
Yet, once again, the father who would have been well within his rights to put his older son in his place, to point out his disrespectful, belligerent tone, does the unimaginable. He says – I assume with a tone of warmth and gentleness – “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.”
“You are always with me and all that is mine is yours.” Friends: for those of us who are good little Christians that is probably the most important verse of the parable. What God promises us is not that each of us will have our own private party with all the whistles and bells. God promises us his presence. God promises that we are his beloved children. God doesn’t want us to view ourselves as his slaves. God’s address to us is “daughter” and “son.” The only promise Jesus offers for those who choose to follow him is the abiding, loving presence of God; not wealth, not health, not perfect children or the home or job of our dreams. Just the promise: “Child, you are always with me.”
Furthermore, the gifts of God are not for personal, individual possession. The gifts of God are for all his children because God’s math doesn’t follow the world’s rules; God’s economy isn’t about stocks, or the Dow; God isn’t a capitalist. God tells us, what God has is ours; just not ours exclusively.
You know, it dawned on me just this week. In the cultural context of Jesus’ time, it is highly likely that all of the older son’s friends would have been at this party. In that culture, when you threw a big celebration, you invited the entire village. If the older son wanted a party with his friends, this is it; he’s got it. He can hang out with his friends and eat and drink and have fun. This is a great party; it’s just not an exclusive party and that’s a tough thing for us to accept in an individualized society with a capitalist economy. Everything around us conditions us to believe that we must guard what we have or someone will take it from us. We are taught to be suspicious of those who might take our jobs or endanger our way of life. Today our politics is a politics of fear designed to make us view all who are different as potential enemies who are out to do us harm. But, nothing could be farther from the teaching of Jesus. Nothing; because if we trust in scripture, if we believe the teaching of Jesus, then we believe in a heavenly parent who says to us, “Son/daughter, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Friends: today we wrap up Trinity’s fall stewardship series “Setting the Table for Trinity” with this final story of table fellowship. God has invited all of us to the dinner party. He’s hoping for an RSVP. Life in the household of God is about celebrating each and every time we are able to welcome into the celebration someone who was lost and without hope. The work of the church is to spend the resources of God to seek and to save the lost and to celebrate the beautiful opportunity it is for us to be in the family of God together.
This stewardship campaign is about more than money. It is about our perspective, our attitude, toward life and those around us. If we give in to the message of our wider culture, then we will believe we must protect our personal assets; we will succumb to envy and resent those who have what we want for ourselves. And when we do not get what we want, we will shake our fists at the heavens and say, “I’ve worked like a slave for you and this is what I get?”
But God doesn’t want us to be his slaves. God names us “child” and, even when we get angry and selfish, God says with love and gentleness, “You are always with me and all that is mine is yours… But…”
But we are called to share the celebration. If we are unable to recognize the rich, vast, inclusive character of God’s grace, we will spend our lives in self-inflicted misery – continually comparing ourselves to others and defined by the things we want and don’t have. We will confine ourselves to fear and suffering. But if we can trust that our security, joy and abundance are experienced in fellowship with God and others, then we can learn to live with joy and generosity. So, welcome to the party. But remember: it’s not an exclusive party, nor is it a political party. It’s God’s party and God hopes – God longs – for all of his children to respond.
[i] For a good explanation of this type of prayer (attributed to Ignatius of Loyola), see “Ignatian Prayer: Guided Imagination” in the book Paths to Prayer by Patricia Brown; 2003; Jossey-Bass Publishing
[ii] Matthew 5:45
[iii][iii] Luke 13:1-5
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