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 is 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.’”
Today marks the third part of our July Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.
Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we are attempting to recover this sense of strangeness and re-encounter the power of the parables.
There was a man in Staunton who had two sons. For years the family enjoyed the small town feel of the community, rejoiced in running into friends at grocery stores and the park, and celebrated the goodness of God in church every Sunday. They were always the family that every other family envied; whenever they were seen in town the sons were so well behaved, the husband and wife were always holding hands, and everything looked perfect.
But within the safety of their home, far removed from public few, things were not as they seemed.
The father loved his sons, but he could tell that the younger resented him for being raised in a town such as this. The father knew his younger son enough to know that whenever he harshly reacted to a comment at the dinner table, or stormed out of the house, it was out of a desire to depart and start over somewhere else. But he remained patient with his son and always tried to love him the only way he knew how.
One day, while the father was sitting in his study, the younger son walked in with his fists clenched tightly by his side. The father listened as the son listed off his chief complaints and demanded his inheritance early. As the frustrations percolated, and the son kept talking about how suffocated he felt, the father was already pulling out the checkbook and signing his name. He said, “Son, I love you and I’ve known this day was coming for a long time. Just remember that you will always be welcome here.” And with that the son grabbed the check from his father’s fingers and walked out of the house, and out of his father’s life.
For a long time the father heard nothing from or about his younger son. Life continued as usual in Staunton: babies were born, older folks went on to their heavenly reward, time passed, and the father kept living his life. Little by little news would seep into dinnertime conversations from the mother or the older son about the one who was missing. Rumor had it that he had set up in Richmond and was spending money left and right on all sorts of things, including some that could not be mentioned out loud. But the father gave it no thought. The money was his son’s to do with as he pleased.
But as time passed, the rumors became fact, and the father knew his son was in trouble. The money had run out and he was working odd jobs to get by. The mother no longer even had an address to send him letters because he was either moving from house to house or living on the streets.
The days became weeks, the weeks became months, and the father eventually heard nothing about his younger son. No letters arrived in the mail, no text messages were sent, and the son even stopped updating his Facebook account. As far as the father knew, his son was gone.
And then it came to pass one afternoon, while sitting in the same study where he had given the son his inheritance, the father glanced out the window and saw a figure walking up the road. From his vantage point the father thought it might be his son, but the person was too frail, and slumped over with what looked like shame. But sure enough, the closer he came to the house, the more it looked like his son. Before he knew it the father was running out the front door and he tackled his son to the ground on the front yard. He simply could not contain himself and he began covering his younger son with kisses and the tears were flowing out his eyes.
Only then did the father hear his son say, “Dad, I’m so sorry, and I am no longer worthy to be called you son.”
But the father wasn’t listening. Instead he was yelling up to the house describing preparations for the party he was about to throw. Go to the grocery store. Invite all the neighbors. Get the music ready. We are going to party tonight!
Hours later in the midst of a rather crazy party the father noticed the older son standing in the corner with what looked like an angry expression on his face. The father was filled with such merriment on the return of his one son that he walked over to the other with a smile on his face and asked what was the matter.
The father listened as his older son started listing off the complaints. But it was what he said at the end that hit him the hardest, “Dad, I’m glad that he’s home just as you are. But did you really have to throw this party? I’ve been living with you all this time while he was gone wasting his life away and you never even let me invite my friends over and now look at all this!”
And the father put his arm around the older son and said, “I love you and all that is mine is yours. But we had to party tonight because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!”
We call this the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is easily the most familiar of all of Jesus’ parables, and has been embraced by faithful and secular alike for its powerful message. We like the idea of a reconciled relationship and we sigh in affirmation whenever we hear about the wayward son returning home. But, as the church has so embraced the clichés of the story, we’ve missed out on the offensive grace that it dramatically conveys.
We call it the parable of the Prodigal Son, but we should probably call it the Parable of the Loving Father. The father is the main character of the parable and the one that Jesus identifies with. He tells this parable in response to an attack against his character for eating with sinners. He, Jesus, is the one who welcomes everyone to the table in celebration regardless of circumstances. And for as much as we enjoy hearing this story, we should really be offended by it.
The older brother has every right to be angry. I would be if one of my siblings ran off and my father treated them the way the one does in the parable. It’s fine to welcome a wayward child home. Sure, give him some clothes and some food. Let him rest at home until he can get back on his feet. But it is simply bad parenting to throw a party in the wake of so many mistakes. For years we have emphasized the moment where the prodigal son “came to himself” and we have identified with a particular moment in our lives when we turned back. But in so doing we have neglected to confront the utter strangeness and offensiveness of the father’s love.
Reading and imagining the story from the father’s perspective frustrates our understanding of justice, fairness, and grace. We want people to be punished for their mistakes, we want them to grovel when they’ve wronged us, we want payment for our suffering.
We don’t want to welcome the prodigal home. We want to be rid of the people who drive us crazy. We don’t want to waste our time on someone who might disappear again. We want to honor the good people who have been with us. We don’t want parties for sinners. We want celebrations for saints.
And then Jesus tells this story about the Loving Father and everything gets flipped upside down.
The power of this parable is not the good and warm and fuzzy feelings we have when we hear it, but in God’s love being so strong that it can offend us. God’s forgiveness and mercy is so powerful that it is beyond our ability to understand. God truly loves the unlovable, forgives the unforgivable, and welcomes us whenever we stray away.
God’s love is weird. And we would do well to remember that. Not to belittle God’s love into a line on a Hallmark card, but to be offended by how God could love the people we hate. Not to limit God’s love to the people in the pews next to us, but get angry that God even loves the people who sleep in on Sunday mornings. Not to assume that God only loves Christians, but to be offended by the truth: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.
The parable of the Loving Father will forever frustrate and offend our sensibilities precisely because God’s grace is offered to all, and all really means all.
We are going to try something a little weird. I want us to take a moment to think about someone that absolutely drives us crazy. It might be a neighbor who is forever frustrating our understanding of decency. Or maybe it is someone in our family that always takes everything too far. Or maybe it is one of the candidates running for president this year. Just think of someone who you can’t stand. Picture them in your mind. And then I want you to think about them walking into our sanctuary right now and pummeling them with loves and kisses. I want you to imagine grabbing them by the hand and dancing around the sanctuary in the midst of the greatest party you’ve ever attended.
Because in a moment we are going to put on some music, and we are going to dance like we’ve never danced before. We are going to break out of our pews and boogey up and down the church. And it is going to be weird and uncomfortable, it is going to upend our ideas of what church should be like, because sometimes God’s grace should be offensive.