Luke 15:11- 32 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 on wild 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.’”
Imagine all the people living for today... John Lennon
We've been going through a series on the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. And it's been a difficult series so far. Jesus is revealing God's saving plan for the world through this sermon, and so we've found ourselves having to ask some difficult questions about our faith walk, our discipleship, even our reason for being a Christian in the first place.
As your pastor, I need to be listening both to what God is asking me to preach, and also how this congregation is receiving it. Last week, after beatitude number four,I asked you to reflect on some things, and when I sat down, I heard what sounded like the north wind blowing through here in the rustling of bulletins. Now, while I'm sure some of you were perhaps looking at the reflection questions in the bulletin, the bulk of the congregation was clearly ready to move on with the final hymn. I thought about this- this was the first time I had heard that sound during this sermon series... and what it sounded like to me was a collective "no" we're not reflecting on this; we're full. And I get it- as I said, this series is difficult- heck I'm still asking myself questions from the first sermon about dropping ego.
So, as your pastor, trying to be sensitive to how this series is being received, we're going to take a little break from the Beatitudes for a few weeks, and pick them up again a couple of weeks after Easter. In the meantime, let's look at the parable of the Prodigal- as I think it can help us in our understanding of the Beatitudes over all. Jesus is explaining, both through the beatitudes and through the parables, a new way of being- a new way of acting that goes against what we "think" we're supposed to do, or have been taught to do, or society tells us to do, and in so doing, bring about the kin-dom of God. The parable of the prodigal son is the perfect story for Jesus to illustrate what he meant in the sermon on the mount.
The parable itself, is familiar. The takeaway is familiar. Traditionally, "we can go our own way, but no matter how far off the mark we go, God always welcomes us back home, loves us unconditionally," yes? And that's valid- I've preached this sermon that way as long as I can remember. But what if, since we're imagining the beatitudes in a different way, we look at it through that same lens. That perhaps, Jesus, in relating God's saving plan for us, has something else embedded in this beautiful story of forgiveness. Let's take a look.
There was a man with two sons. He was probably a farmer- he had not only hired workers, but also slaves. So let's revise that first statement... there was a very wealthy patriarch who had two heirs. In first century Palestine there were few land owners. This is because land was kept within the family, passed down through the sons. Marriages between cousins were encouraged so that land could be kept within the family. Land owners/ Patriarchs like this father, held responsibility in the villages for setting norms, keeping with traditions and customs, upholding the laws. In other words, they were not just complicit in the systems, they intentionally perpetuated the systems in order to keep wealth and power where it belonged.
So when his son comes to him and says "give me everything that's mine now," its not just a big deal because the father may be hurt emotionally-(as we modern family moms and dads often interpret this scene) It's a big deal because the son is breaking the rules of the system, of the community, of his powerful father. This meant disgrace in the eyes of the village for the son, sure, but for the father, it meant that he would now be forced to abide by the system rules.
No doubt after his son left home he faced questions from other landowners and powerful people- no doubt there was some gossip- no doubt it was assumed that the father had somehow lost control of his disobedient son- and though no one would shame him to his face, no doubt there was talk. (Thank goodness we've evolved, right?)
Time passes... and things go back to normal for the community and for the family.
When the son has lost all of the inheritance money on expensive things and lavish living, and he comes to his senses and wants to come home, the son knows it will have to be as a servant, if he is allowed back at all. This is not because he thinks that he is no longer loved, and that his father is so unforgiving, but rather because this was the rule of the system. Once a son did what he did, left the Jewish community and lost everything to Gentiles, or unbelievers, outsiders... well, there truly was no return to the family or the village.
"Kenneth Bailey, author of The Cross & the Prodigal, explains that if a Jewish son lost his inheritance among Gentiles, and then returned home, the community would perform a ceremony, called the kezazah. The whole community would meet the son at the city gate, and would break a large clay pot in front of him and yell, “You are now cut off from your people!” The community would totally reject him."(1) It's very important to note that during the ceremony of kezazah, the father was not allowed to be present. According to the custom, the son's mother could attend and ask for mercy for her son, but not the father.
So here is the son, knowing full well what awaited him back home, planning what he will say to his father, should he make it past the ceremony of the kezazah- he will offer himself as an outsider, as a slave. It is, in his mind, his only choice.
Except, when the father catches wind of the son heading in that direction, he starts running toward his son.
Much has been written about the significance of the father running, that perhaps it was excitement or joy in seeing the son return home, and that he was un-patriarchal in the fat that he showed his legs in running and all of that is fine, and no doubt there is truth to it- but what if the father took off running toward his son to he could get to him before he reached the city gate? What if "The father runs — and shames himself — in an effort to get to his son before the community gets to him, so that his son does not experience the shame and humiliation of their taunting and rejection." (2)
Think about it. If the father heard about the son returning home then no doubt the villagers would have heard as well. They would have also been on their way, maybe following "the running father, they would have witnessed what took place at the edge of the village between father and son. After this emotional reuniting of the prodigal son with his father, it was clear that their would be no kezazah ceremony; there would be no rejecting this son — despite what he has done. The son had repented and returned to the father. The father had taken the full shame that should have fallen upon his son and clearly shown to the entire community that his son was welcome back home, yes. But the father broke every rule of patriarchy to do it. He broke with the system he had held in check for so many years to insure his families wealth, and safety, and security. He turned the rules of society on its head in order to bring healing and reconciliation to the prodigal- and he was willing to endure the consequences.
This is what Jesus is asking of us in the beatitudes. Our world, our society, our systems and rules and boundaries and borders, must come undone in order to usher in the reign of God in our midst. We must be willing to imagine a world where forgiveness and relationship rise about formality and rules. Where we are willing to risk "showing our legs" or becoming undignified, or shamed by others in order to model God's grace.
The party? Yes, there will be a party- but as much as it will celebrate the son's return, this party also celebrates the father's withdrawal from the system- it honors the father's sacrifice of dignity, and position, and security in order to show mercy and love and forgiveness. The father reinstates his son with all of the accouterments of a full heir; a royal robe and a ring- this son of mine was lost but now is found!
As you would expect, as you may have experienced, the first criticism of the father's actions come from those closest to him; from those who might also be affected by them. The elder brother voices our reluctance to accept this nw teaching. "Wait! That's not fair! What about me? Where does this leave me? My future is at stake too- my money, my security, my status! Where's my party?"
And despite the father's explanation, we don't know if the elder brother went and celebrated or if he stayed sulking, brooding, or even if he may have gone to try to disavow himself from his father's actions in front of the other powerful patriarchs... we just don't know. But his presence in the story invites us to think about our own participation in this movement called the kin-dom of God... how far are we willing to go? How much grace is too much? What boundaries or norms or rules have we set around God and Christian living, and why have we put them there... and most important... what if we broke them down? What could be possible- what could God do if we decided to go to the party?
What could God do if we, like the father, were willing to sacrifice all for healing and reconciliation? What could God do if we, like the prodigal, were willing to offer ourselves as a servant first... without expectation of the robe and the ring... what could God do if after all we've been though, we decide to come running toward one another in love...
(1) http://magazine.biola.edu/article/10-summer/the-prodigal-sons-father-shouldnt-have-run/ Italics mine