Jerry Van Marter
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
March 31, 2019
Luke 15: 11-32
The summer I turned 30 – I won’t make you guess, it was 1976 and I am now 73 – I concluded my first pastorate and had never traveled outside the continental United States. So I did what any responsible, conscientious person would do – I went to the local flea market and sold everything I owned, took the money, and for the next nine months traveled nearly around the world. I returned with exactly one dollar in my pocket and went to work the next day washing dishes in a restaurant.
Thanks to the Common Lectionary and the way Deborah Fortel and I have divided up the Sundays in Lent, today we turn to a part of Luke’s gospel that is heavily sprinkled with parables. This section is a trilogy of parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son – that speaks of the joy of finding that which was lost.
Listen then to this familiar story from Luke that is commonly called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. There are three main characters in this story (more on this later) – the father, the older son and the younger son. As you listen to the story, it might help if you identify which character you most associate yourself with.
Luke 15:11-32 (show of hands)
When I was in seminary, a widely-read book – even by gullible seminarians – was the pop-psychology best-seller “I’m Okay, You’re Okay.” The premise was at least marginally biblical: “to love others you must love yourself.” And, of course, the overall sentiment appealed to the “free love” generation. But surely, all fell short. Human nature inevitably twists the REAL sentiment into: “I’m Okay … You? I’m Not So Sure About.”
Going back to way before Jesus’ ongoing battles with the Pharisees, it has been common religious (and social and cultural) practice to label the “ins” and the “outs, the good and the bad, the superior and inferior. History is replete with individual leaders and religious and political institutions who believe that the separation of good and bad people, of them and us, preserves a community’s sense of righteousness and is essential for the moral instruction of the young.
Jesus failure, his refusal to observe such distinctions seemed dangerous to the moral and religious fiber of the community. So threatening, in fact, that he had to be eliminated.
This attitude – of separating the worthy from the unworthy – persists and affects all of us. All three of these parables today are popularly known for their negative rather than positive features; it’s the parable of the lost sheep, not the found sheep; it’s the parable of the lost coin, not the found coin; and, of course, how do we refer to today’s parable? It’s ALWAYS the parable of the prodigal son, not the parable of the loving father.
In our minds, it’s the darkness of the sin, not the light of the redemption that captures our attention and colors the true meaning of the stories of Jesus. His admonition to his followers “to see that you may understand” and his frustration that they frequently don’t rings just as true for us today. It’s like the “people who dwelt in great darkness have seen a great light” never escaped the darkness, even after they saw the great light.
Consider the younger son. He began in self-will. He was not wicked at first, he just wanted to live his own life. He was not thinking about his father or his older brother. He was thinking about himself and probably believed he could find a way where others had gotten lost. It’s true that there are fates worse than death, and as the younger son’s inevitable mistakes led him to self-loathing, to separation from God. The depth of his desperation is seen in that he not only sinks to caring for pigs – “unclean” animals in his culture – but envies them their food. Doesn’t get much lower than that. But something in him stayed alive: he confronted his hopeless state AND the cause of it. He took that one crucial step homeward. That’s the history of redemption, of conversion: to face oneself, to speak the truth about oneself, to stand up, and to take that first step forward.
Consider the older son. He was not wicked at first either. He was the “loyal” son who stayed home and fulfilled his familial and cultural duty. Dutiful can sometimes be interpreted as dull, unimaginative, but that’s not fair. What’s true is that the older son was pharisaic in his belief that rules and regulations, customs and traditions anchors any particular society. By the usual criteria of fairness and justice, the older son has a point – his younger brother took his share of the father’s estate and wasted it. The younger brother’s return would cost more than just the fatted calf slaughtered for the party – it meant that the estate would be divided AGAIN. The party adds insult to the financial injury caused by the younger brother’s homecoming.
Consider the father. Here is a parent who invokes a completely different value system. He can rejoice in the presence of both sons. He understood better than the younger son the power of forgiveness and redemption. He understood better than the older son that grace is not unfairness and forgiveness is not condoning of any conduct or behavior. He did not have to choose between his two very different sons.
Because our society is so competitive, rather than cooperative, we tend to believe that there must be losers if there are winners. This is the most insidious untruth infecting our current presidential administration. The well-being of the entire planet and all of its people is NOT a zero-sum game in which for every gain by someone there must be a loss by someone else. Such an attitude flouts the truth of God’s abundance. There IS enough for everyone. Such is God’s grace, poured out for everyone, but we find it difficult not to be offended by God’s grace toward another, especially if we have serious questions about that person’s conduct and character.
Two other observations, for which I thank New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe: Two of the three parables in this section of Luke – the parable of the found sheep and the parable of the found coin – are stories that persons of any economic/social class of Jesus’ time could understand. The parable of the loving father, however, relates to a specific class: propertied people of means, the privileged class. The only other characters mentioned are the servants. In this story, they are not recipients of any grace, compassion or financial reward. For the servants, the homecoming of the younger son only meant more work.
And women are not mentioned at all in the story. Though not surprising, it must be noted. This is the parable of the absent mother as much as the loving father. Women had little role in the complexities of inheritance and estate management as long as there were men to fulfill these roles.
The good news of the gospel today is the scale of biblical values. To the commonly-held assumption that no condition is worse than death and no condition is better than life, Jesus in today’s parables, responds: There IS a condition worse than death: to be lost. There IS a condition better than life: to be found. Now, THERE’S a father straight out of Luke 15. Amen.
Oh, yeah, my own prodigal story. Though I had no inheritance to claim, my own father had severe misgivings about my 30-years-old trek. It wasn’t about the money, and I didn’t have an older brother to get ticked off at me. MY father worried that a nine-month trek into profligacy would ruin my career – create an unforgivable gap in my Personal Information Form. He may have had a point – I mean, look where I am this morning. But I’ve had a stupendous 43-year career SINCE that prodigal adventure. And when my dad died 16 years ago and we were going through his things, I found the bundle of letters I sent home during those nine months. And I’m told he relayed the contents of those letters to anyone who would listen the whole time.