Over the last seven or eight months, I’ve told a lot of stories about my family and me as a child and my parents and my sister. And it could probably go without saying that I wasn’t a super easy child to raise. I was always getting into trouble for stuff. There was one time, when I was younger, that my cousin and I both tried to fit on the same swing on a swing set that my aunt and uncle had in their backyard, and…we broke it. And when my mom saw this, she was like, “For the love of God, J.T. You’re 20 years old. It’s time to cast childish things aside!” I mean, she didn’t say exactly that; I cleaned it up a little bit. That’s not verbatim, but it’s the general thrust of what she said. Or when I was in high school one year, I went out with a bunch of my friends one night and I came home at like 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and I was carrying one of those giant, 5-foot-tall traffic cones. And my mom woke up and saw me and I didn’t even really say hello to her. I was just like, “NO QUESTIONS” and then I walked into my bedroom and closed the door and went to sleep.
I mean, I could have been an easier child to raise, right? But, to an extent, this stuff can be summed up in the fact that I was just young and wasn’t really thinking through my actions. But there’s a definitive difference between stuff like what I just talked about, and the kind of stuff that happens in our story this morning. There’s a definitive difference between a young person behaving as a young person in their relation to others, and a young person being malicious and spiteful in their relation to others. Our text this morning is about this second category, and we get to peer into the lives of these characters from the outside as people who have probably been in the position of each of them before.
So, at the top of this story, we’re introduced to the characters: a man and his two sons. And before we can really learn anything about them, Jesus immediately jumps into the drama of the story: “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.” Now, I’m sure most or all of the parents here had been hurt by something their kid said or did. Is that fair? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I’m thinking that none of our kids have levied an insult against us quite as powerful as the one hidden in this verse. Because what this kid is basically doing is imposing a death wish on his dad. He’s saying, “I have a pretty sizeable inheritance coming to me, so why don’t you just get on with the dying already, so I can take it and get out of dodge.” Now, not only is this already extremely offensive and hurtful, but there’s a bit more packed in here. According to Jewish law, it is the responsibility of the children to care for their parents in old age. This goes back to our old friend, the Ten Commandments, right? “Honor thy father and mother.” So, basically, when this son asks for his share of the inheritance, he’s not only telling his dad to drop dead, but he’s telling him that he’s not going to stick around and take care of him as he ages and dies. He’s not going to adhere to the Law. He’s not going to see to it that his father has a proper Jewish burial. He’s just taking everything that’s his and getting out of town.
And we’ve done this too, right? Maybe not on as grand of a scale or in as openly abhorrent of a manner, but we’ve gone about things with the sole purpose of getting what we want and getting out. Whether it’s a job or a relationship or whatever, what we’re often prone to do is to operate in such a way that we, metaphorically, raid houses and plunder villages, without thinking about any of the consequences. This happens in relationships all the time. We’re “friends” with someone, not because we want to legitimately live life with them or care about their wellbeing, but because we need someone we can plug into and unload all of our emotional baggage onto, without having to reciprocate that same act of love for them. Or how appropriate is it that we have our first “Hungry for Change” talk today on climate change and environmental injustice? Because this is exactly the way humanity treats the earth. This is one of my favorite little comics that’s floating around social media these days: a guy in a suit sitting around a fire with a few kids, saying “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time, we created a lot of value for shareholders.” I mean, it sounds a little ridiculous to say it this bluntly, but is this not the underlying logic of so many today? It’s the exact same thing the younger son is doing in our story. “I couldn’t care less what happens to you or anyone else. I just want what I think belongs to me.”
So, that’s exactly what he does. Our text says he “…gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout the country, and he began to be in need.” Oh snap! So, just so we’re all clear, let me recap what’s happened up to this point: This guy told his dad to drop dead, took his inheritance, abandoned his home and family, wasted all his money on “dissolute living” – you can probably imagine what exactly that means -- and now he’s basically starving to death. And this is when he hits rock bottom. It says he hired himself out to feed pigs and that he was so hungry he would have eaten the pigs’ food. And, just so we have some context here, in Jewish culture, pigs are the most unclean animals one can deal with, so feeding pigs, eating the food of pigs, would have been completely taboo. So, not only is this guy distanced from his father and his family physically and morally, but he’s distanced from them spiritually.
And this is never anything we want to experience or we want our loved ones to experience, but it’s worth noting that, often times, something amazing happens when you hit rock bottom. When you enter this kind of space and your existence becomes so eccentric – so out of your grasp and control – it’s as if you realize for the first time that there’s this throne in the universe that someone sits on and it’s not you. It’s when you realize that you needed to experience this in order for your life to open up to love and meaning and grace.
I never thought I would really talk about this in a sermon, but one of my favorite movies of all time is Fight Club with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a good family flick. You should check it out. But there’s this scene where Brad Pitt is talking to Edward Norton, who recently lost his house and lost his job and doesn’t have anyone or anything; he’s basically hit his own rock bottom. And Brad Pitt says to him, “this is the greatest moment of your life, because it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” Isn’t this kind of the same thing we see here in our story? I mean this kid grew up in a wealthy family with every advantage. He could have gone anywhere and done anything. And it took him squandering every last cent of his inheritance and becoming envious of the pigs he was feeding to finally be free.
Our text says “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.”’” Now, some commentators don’t buy into the idea that the son is actually repentant. Some say that he was just hungry and knew his father would take him back and that’s why he turns around. But I think they’re wrong. I think that, in this single moment of grace, the young man finds the will to repent and turn back to his father because he knows, not only, that he doesn’t sit on the throne, but he also knows that he doesn’t deserve to. I think he recognizes his sin, feels his brokenness, and he genuinely desires to be restored to his father’s good graces.
So, he sets off to go back to his father, but our text says that, “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.” Now, we’re prone to think about this in sentimental terms, but if that’s the only way we think about it, we’re bound to miss just how radical this is. The historical context here is super important, and it revolves around the fact that this culture was patriarchal in nature. To be sure, contemporary American culture is patriarchal too, just in a different way. Whereas in today’s culture, a man can basically say or do whatever he wants, without repercussion, as long as they’re rich and white, in this time men still had much of the same advantage, but everything they did was scrutinized, too. It was not expected for men to be very emotional, to talk about love, to openly show affection. That’s one of the things that makes Jesus and his early followers so radical and countercultural – because they’re confusing these lines between masculine and feminine and openly speaking of love and showing affection when, in the past, it was strictly taboo for a man to do as much.
So, now that we know this, the way the father responds to seeing his son off in the distance starts to be a little clearer. He was probably wearing a robe and had to lift it up to run, thereby exposing his legs. That was very unheard-of at this time. He threw his arms around his son and kissed him. He didn’t let his son come to him and beg his forgiveness as would have been expected. Long story short, the way the father reacts to seeing his son in the distance would have been completely humiliating in this culture. And yet, the father just doesn’t care; he’s completely oblivious to how this might reflect on him and he does it anyway.
And if this doesn’t illustrate how God relates to us, at least in part, then I don’t know what does. I mean, that’s why this parable has always been so powerful in the history of the church. Because the love of the father in our story illustrates the same kind of reckless abandon in relation to his son as our father in heaven does to us. He comes to us in the person of Jesus who suffered at the hands of a corrupt system and died a horrific death so that we might find meaning and freedom in a life which is inherently meaningless and unfree. And much like what happens in our story, we should be moved to repent and bring our confession to the father, but that doesn’t mean the father won’t cut us off mid-sentence and interrupt us with the message that there was never a time when we weren’t forgiven in the first place. There was never a time when the father’s love didn’t belong to us.
We see in our story that the son had rehearsed this whole speech for his father, and he only gets through half of it when the father starts calling for his servants to bring clothes and jewelry for his son to wear, and to kill the “fatted calf” for a celebration. And then he says, “…let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” The Greek word here for “alive again” is ἀναζάω; it means to “revive” or to “recover life.” We might think about it being used if we were to do CPR on someone and they were to regain life, but I think Luke is using it here, less to refer to a technical regaining of life, and more to refer to a kind of resurrection. I talked last week about the resurrection; about how we deny the resurrection all the time when we aid in oppression and choose to place ourselves on the throne, and we affirm the resurrection in the few rare moments that we’re placed outside ourselves and into the love and care for another. Sure, I’d be happy to say that the resurrection was a definitive event which happened 2000 years ago in first-century Palestine, but the resurrection happens all the time, even when a kid, who told his dad to drop dead and blew his entire inheritance, is moved to ask for forgiveness.
And it’s at this point of resurrection that we’re introduced to our last character: the older brother. We’re told he was in the field working, heard the music, came to the house, and was told by a servant that his brother had come home and his father was throwing a party for him. And the brother is livid. So, his father leaves the party to come outside and try to get his eldest son to join the party, but the son replies, “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. (Oh man, if I had a nickel for every time I had this fight with my parents: “Jessi always gets the good goats!” Anyway…) But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Now, we often forget about the older brother. We usually think about the youngest son and this malicious, spiteful thing he’s done – and when we identify with someone in this text, it’s usually the younger brother. But I actually think we, far more often, occupy the space of the older brother in the story.
I would be willing to bet that, more often than not, we don’t seek out ways to be mean or spiteful or hateful toward people, but that we do so by omission and complicity. I would think that these sins of ours are typically fueled by a skewed idea of fairness – that, because so-and-so made certain decisions or lived a certain life, they shouldn’t have the opportunity to change or repent or start over anew. They should have to lie in the grave they dug for themselves. Something about this makes us feel threatened, right? I mean, I grew up my entire life, never was convicted of a crime, never told my parents to drop dead, never took advantage or abused people for my own gain, and I find myself at this place in life. But when someone who had a life defined by all those things I just mentioned ends up in a similar place in life as I’m in, it can be easy to feel like that’s not fair. I did all the right things; they did all the wrong things and yet we’re both side-by-side. It can be easy to fall into the trap of feeling like that’s not fair.
But that kind of fairness is not what the Christian faith is about! If we want to follow Jesus – the same person who preaches about dignity being afforded to the slave and prisoner and calls sex workers and tax-collectors to live life with him – then we need to be willing to rejoice every single time someone’s life is changed by the gospel. None of us deserve the grace and mercy afforded to us; I don’t deserve this awesome job; I don’t deserve that awesome house. I really don’t deserve my awesome wife or my awesome kids. But, nevertheless, here I am. The grace of the resurrection – the power which takes us from being sinners and makes us into saints -- is what leads us to all the goodness we have in our lives. Seeing someone turn their life around or make their way to a different place and become something new is nothing other than seeing the resurrection before our very eyes.
This is what the father tries to tell his oldest son toward the end of our story: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” For every preacher, there’s always kind of one thing we hope people walk away with. Sometimes it’s explicit; sometimes it’s implicit, but it’s always there. And this verse illustrates one of the things I hope you’ve walked away from my preaching with: and that’s the fact that the beauty of the gospel -- this grand, majestic story we’re called to believe – is that no matter who someone is: whether they’re Christian or atheist, Democrat or Republican, LGBTQ or straight; whether you’ve played the part of the younger son or the older brother – no matter who someone is, they’ve always been with God, and all that God has is theirs. All the grace, love, mercy, peace and promise that God showers on the world belongs to them, too, and they belong to God. And when someone realizes this – not when someone forces it down their throat – but when someone is given eyes to see and ears to hear that they belong to God no matter what, then they’re found; then they’re resurrected. It’s our job to go out and talk about this God, talk about Jesus, not because we think we can save people, but because they’ve already been saved. And the hope is that God will use our witness, use our mission, to bring people into alignment with this event of love in which they’re told they’re his, that they’ve never stopped being his, and that they’re cherished, not because of anything they’ve done, but merely because they exist. If more people bought into that idea, imagine how different our world would look. Let’s pray.