March 6, 2016
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The story is told in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and the scribes, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
This is a parable for the faith community, Jesus’ faith community and ours.
There was a man who had two sons . . . .
One son did everything wrong for all the wrong reasons, but came to himself and came home.
One son did everything right for all the wrong reasons, and refused to go into his home.
Both sons were lost—one by his actions, and one by his self-righteousness
Neither one was home.
The younger brother decided to become independent. He wanted to make his own choices about his life, and what unwise choices he made. Have you ever made unwise choices? Do you remember the time when you first understood yourself to be an adult with some freedom about the way you spent your money and your time? Do you remember the dollar that burned a hole in your pocket? The freedom to sample activities that are reserved for adults? Do you remember trusting someone that you shouldn’t have? Or getting stranded a long way from home? Or do you remember when your children came of age and did all of those things. I had a friend whose son was suspended from college because he and his roommate threw a TV out their dorm room window on the fifth floor, just to see what happened. Do you remember looking for yourself because you knew you didn’t want to be your parents, but you had no idea who you were? The younger son gets a bad rap. True, he ran through all of his inheritance, but he took the work he could find and in doing that work, and being genuinely hungry, he “came to himself.” He remembered or perhaps realized for the first time who he was and what he had lost. He grew up. He came home as an adult, ready to take responsibility for his actions and to start at the bottom working for a man he could trust—someone whose love had made him who he was at the center of his being.
That’s what it means to come home, to find the authentic center of our being where we meet God. That’s what it means to find our True Selves, not the self we create to fit in and please other people, but the self that understands that we are loved and whole. The younger son came to himself and went home and he was welcomed with a feast by the father who had scanned the horizon for him every day that he was gone.
And there was his older brother out working in the field. There was nothing wrong with the older brother’s faithful obedience and hard work, until he wanted to shut the door in his brother’s face. Did you notice how he referred to his brother? “This son of yours.” He refuses to acknowledge his kinship. His jealousy over his father’s extravagant welcome blinded him to the love he had received all his life. He thought he had earned it by his hard work. He didn’t recognize how his father’s love had surrounded him since birth. He didn’t realize he couldn’t lose that love no matter how hard he tried. He couldn’t see that he had eaten a hearty meal at his father’s table every night that his brother had been gone. He only heard the party noises and felt robbed. His self-righteousness made him feel cheated.
At the end of the story we don’t know whether the older brother went in and joined the party or whether he became alienated and stormed off on his own. We do know that the father’s lavish love fell on both his sons.
In Jesus’ time, the temple had been taken over by older brothers. Even with this story in our Bibles, the church has gotten really good at telling the first part of this story as the model for repentance. I have a music planner that suggests hymns to go along with the readings each week. There were plenty of songs we could have sung today about coming home that are written from the older brother’s viewpoint. They involve a lot of groveling and name calling. “Come home, come home . . . oh, sinner, come home.” But Jesus told this story to the Pharisees and scribes, the older brothers who were angry that Jesus ate with people they looked down on. Wherever Jesus ate, there was celebration that people were coming home to themselves and to the God who loved them. And the Pharisees and scribes couldn’t stand that. They knew a sinner when they saw one. They didn’t even need to know their particular sins, they could just imagine! I catch myself doing that.
There are a couple of things I notice in this story. The father didn’t chase after his son. He let him encounter the natural consequences of his actions. The father didn’t rescue his younger son or provide more than what was legitimately his inheritance. The father honored his son’s free will and agency. The father trusted that his son would find himself and his way home. Then the fatted calf was killed, the celebration began and the son was reinstated to his rightful place in the family. In the same way, the father didn’t force his older son to go into the party. He simply reminded his son of his love and his son’s living inheritance and let his son make his own decision. And when the older son spat the disowning words, “This son of yours . . ,” the father reminded him that, “This brother of yours has come home. He was as good as dead to us, but now he is alive.” How respectful the father’s love is!
There are three actors in this story. There may be times when we see ourselves in the younger son, having made some poor decisions and wondering if we can come home. There are certainly times when individuals and churches act like the older brother, when our self-righteousness overshadows our compassion and sense of kinship. But as the Body of Christ, as people who mediate the love of God to the world, we are invited to act on behalf of the father. We are invited to welcome home all those who have wandered in search of happiness and found only disappointment. We are invited to welcome home all those whose search for themselves has led down different paths than ours. We are invited to welcome home all those whom society names as different, less than, or other. We are invited to welcome home all those who have been called “sinner” instead of “beloved.”
And we are invited to welcome home those who feel they have earned their place in the world and are not obligated to share. We are invited to welcome home those who feel that they are somehow cheated every time those who they believe are undeserving get a break. We are invited to welcome home those who have a disparaging name for anyone who is different. We are invited to welcome home the hard-working and the whiners. We are invited to welcome home the gatekeepers and snobs. We are invited to throw out the rules and welcome home our brothers and sisters, to throw a party and rejoice. We are invited to love as respectfully and as extravagantly as the father.
How will we welcome all of our brothers and sisters home?