By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 15:11-32
This morning’s message will be a bit different. I’d like to begin this morning by asking you to close your eyes as I proclaim the gospel parable. You’re going to hear it twice. As best you can, try to hear the parable from two different points of view. The first time, try to hear it from the perspective of the younger son. The second time, try to hear it from the perspective of the elder son. As each of those characters, notice how you feel at the end of the parable.
[Please read the Scripture: Luke 15:11-32]
Although most of us have grown us listening to this parable, there are some elements within the parable that we need to understand in order to under the parable itself. I want to share those with you before we look at how the parable can be applied to our lives today.
First, in Middle Eastern culture – both then and now – for a son to request his inheritance was like wishing his father’s death. Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey shares the story of a Christian pastor in Iran who came to Bailey, clearly anxious and distressed. “My son wants me to die,” the pastor said. He proceeded to explain to Bailey that the son had broached the topic of his inheritance. Three months later, the father was dead. “He died that night,” the wife said; meaning that from the moment the son inquired about his inheritance, it spelled the end for that father. So, within this parable, the son’s request has communicated that the property means more than his father’s life and their relationship.
Here’s another cultural component of this parable. In the Middle East, running is considered dishonorable behavior for a grown man. Again, Kenneth Bailey tells of a Christian missionary in the Middle East whose leadership and authority over his church was rejected for this one reason: he walked down the street too quickly. In the Middle East, one who is honorable walks at a slow and deliberate pace. That is respectable behavior. But that means nothing to the father of this parable. When he sees his son, the return of the son is clearly all that matters to him. He doesn’t care what anyone who sees him might think. He throws respectability to the wind and races toward his son.
But here is a cultural component of the story which may, particularly, impact our understanding: the older son also disrespects his father. He does so in three ways. First, in this culture, elders were always to be respected and obeyed. The exchange this son has with his father demonstrates rebellion and disrespect, not obedience and reverence. Second, guests likely could have heard this disrespectful exchange, further dishonoring the father. The design of homes in this culture provided a large open courtyard were this party would have taken place. The courtyard wasn’t closed off from the outside. So, any sound beyond this open-air courtyard would have been heard by those within the courtyard. Finally, within this culture, the oldest son in the family was under obligation to share the burden of hospitality with his father. This son should have been helping to throw this party. Instead, he won’t even join it. Everyone at the party would have noticed the oldest son’s absence and made a judgment based on that… a judgment that this father has not raised his children well and, therefore, is dishonorable. Yet again, the father seems completely unconcerned about his own reputation. All that matters is his son and their relationship.
So there’s one more thing we need to notice in this parable and its original setting. It’s something I frequently mention: that biblical culture believed in limited good. That there was only so much good stuff in the world and, if someone got too much, it meant that I got cheated out of my share. And this “limited good” thinking plays a big part in this parable. First, the younger son is focused on what is his share and determines that, once he’s lost it, he has nothing left. Then, the elder son believes that the mercy shown to his little brother is taking something away from him. Here’s something to consider: this was a village celebration which implies that the elder son’s friends would have been attending. If he wants to party with his friends, here’s his chance. But clearly, he doesn’t just want a party. He wants an exclusive party, just for him.
And friends, I think this last lesson, this lesson around limited good, is the one that matters most to us because notice what the father says, “You are always with me and all that is mine is yours.” The father rejects this limited good, exclusivist thinking. That’s not really the way it works in the Father’s household.
In a moment, I want to invite you to close your eyes one more time and think about someone in your life right now whose values, beliefs or behaviors feel threatening to you. It may be a family member whose irresponsible behaviors are making things challenging in your family. It may be a co-worker who seems pushy and never misses an opportunity to put themselves out front. It may be a group of people that our current political climate has taught you to fear. The voices of pundits and politicians have convinced you that, if they make some gain, you will inevitably fall behind.
Take a moment to think about that individual or group. I can’t imagine that any of us here this morning can’t think of at least one person or group whose values, beliefs or behaviors feel threatening to us; feel as if they’re making things harder FOR US. I want to give you a moment to bring them to mind. [pause]
One of my favorite prayers comes from a book by Henri Nouwen. At various times over the years when I have struggled with someone in this way, I go to this prayer and I pray it for myself and I pray it for the other person. I’m going to pray it as it is written. [pray]
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Let me know you as my loving parent, who holds nothing – not even my worst sins – against me, but who wants to touch me with a gentle embrace. Take away my many fears, suspicions, and doubts by which I prevent you from being my Lord, and give me the courage and freedom to appear naked and vulnerable in the light of your presence, confident in your unfathomable mercy, and willing to listen to you at all times and places. Amen.
Now, I invite you to silently pray the prayer a second time, using the name of that individual or group; substituting their name for “me” and “my” as it instructs at the top of the sheet.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on ____. Let ____ know you as his/her loving parent, who holds nothing – not even his/her worst sins – against him/her, but who wants to touch me with a gentle embrace. Take away ____ many fears, suspicions, and doubts by which he/she prevents you from being his/her Lord, and give him/her the courage and freedom to appear naked and vulnerable in the light of your presence, confident in your unfathomable mercy, and willing to listen to you at all times and places. Amen.
I would encourage you to pray this way each day for a week or two and then, at the end of that time, sit in silence to see if God may be guiding you to engage with that person to seek a more compassionate engagement. That doesn’t mean you’ll tell them what they need to fix and it doesn’t mean you’ll just sit there and take it if they become adversarial. But, if God has been working in your heart and in theirs, perhaps you can come to a place of grace and generosity with one another.
 By Henri Nouwen from his book Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith
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