LENT IV

The Prodigal Returns Home – Robert Barnum

The Pharisees believed that keeping the law would earn them God’s presence and love.  Jesus told them that they had it backwards. God is already present and he already loves you.  God’s love makes possible keeping what of the law is worth keeping.  This made the Pharisees very unhappy with Jesus.  The Pharisees, bless their hearts, are the sort of folks that would turn a party into an exercise in etiquette. 

The truth is that you can only get into the kingdom because of grace.  Getting your tickets punched will never get you in. In fact it can keep you out!  To make that very point Jesus told a series of parables ending with today’s Gospel reading, which we call the prodigal son.

LITTLE BROTHER LEAVES HOME.

A man had two sons.  The youngest said give me my inheritance now, a request which in essence says I want you dead.  In fact the father did just what his son asked him, he legally dropped dead on the spot and probated his own will, giving his younger son his inheritance.

  • Little brother liquidated his assets and skipped town with his pockets full of cash.  He settled in another country and set out to make a name for himself.  Just imagine it:
  • He bought a candy apple red Lamborghini racing chariot.
  • He had a penthouse apartment exquisitely decorated with original art in the best zip code in town.
  • He had long three martini lunches and always picked up the tab.
  • He threw lavish parties and had lots of friends.
  • He vacationed at ski resorts on Mt. Hermon.
  • He got interested in the NASCAR-chariot race circuit and even raced himself for a while.

The bank kept calling but he never returned the calls. Then one day a registered letter arrived.  He had been spending the principle for a long time.  The letter informed him that he was flat broke.  His friends wouldn’t return his phone calls and his girl friend took up with a fellow better equipped to keep her in the manner to which he had made her accustomed.

So he had to go to work.  The college education his Daddy had paid for and that he had played for didn’t qualify him for much.  Just then the economy took a nosedive toward depression and the bears ate the market. 

Things were bad.  He finally was so desperate that he took a job slopping hogs. This is the worse thing a yuppie Jewish boy could wind up doing.  It’s the sort of fate that strikes fear into the hearts of Jewish mothers.

Little brother was in the pigpen, reduced to eating pig feed.  But then He came to himself, which in the original language describes something like awakening from a dream.  He said to himself, “Self, what is wrong with this picture?  Back home even the hired hands have more than enough to eat.  I know what I’ll do.  I’ll go to my father and say, ‘Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of the hired hands.’”

So rehearsing his speech he went on toward home.  His daddy had been watching for him, as an old black preacher put it, “the old man had been watching for him with his nose pressed to the window pane.” He had compassion on him, his heart went out to him.

Now an aside about compassion: compassion should not be confused with pity.

The question to ask is: “Can you celebrate with the people you are helping?”  If you can’t it’s probably pity and if you can it’s likely compassion.

Pity focuses on the differences between people. Pity is being sorry for one who is weak and inferior. Pity is done from a safe distance, preferably from above the one pitted. Pity separates us from the one pitied.  Pity ends in the “giver” feeling good about themselves across the divide between the pitying and the one pitied.  I not sure that pity has much divine content.

Compassion knows that human beings are more alike than they are different.  Compassion on the other hand, moves us toward the one in trouble and says, “We are in this together.” Compassion is the flow and overflow of the fullest human and divine energies.  As Paul writes the Christians in Corinth, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given the ministry of reconciliation to us.” Compassion is always consummated in celebration!

THE FATHER’S RESPONSE:

Now back to the story at hand. The father felt compassion and that energy overflowed into reconciliation as he ran, embraced and kissed his son.  The son then began to get his ticket punched, begins his well rehearsed speech, “I’ve sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son!”   —- But notice he doesn’t even get the part about going to work as a hired hand at minimum wage out of his mouth, cause his father shushes him and starts giving orders to the servants.  The old man says, “Go and get:

  • A robe – the best one – he is to be dressed as an honored person.
  • A ring – a signet ring with the family crest – his status as a son is restored.
  • Shoes – few people had shoes – bare feet indicated poverty even slavery. Shoes give safety and power. The old spiritual expresses this exactly, “All of God’s chillun got shoes.  When I get to heaven I going to put on my shoes; I’m going to walk all over God’s heaven.” Shoes are for sons!

See the restoration:

  • the robe of honor,
  • the ring of inheritance, and
  • the footwear of prestige!
  • AND if that wasn’t enough –  for sheer delight (which is one of the things God does best of all).
  • kill the fatted calf = 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.

Remember that compassion overflows and brings us together which leads to celebration.

[Simon Tugwell says that the last temptation of the younger brother was to insist on being a hired hand.  If his father won’t punish him he will do it for him.  Which is what we do when we let someone convince us that we are no good  and not acceptable].  The boy can’t really come home and be a hired hand.  He has to be a son or nothing.  AND THE SAME IS TRUE FOR US:  IT’S SON OR DAUGHTER OR NOTHING.  NO HIRED HANDS HERE THANK YOU VERY MUCH!  

So they had the mother of all parties.  Everybody who was anybody was there and as the society writer for the local paper put it, “a good time was had by all!”  WELL NOT QUITE.

THE ELDER BROTHER’S RESPONSE.

The elder brother was in the field looking at the crop of cabbages. As he came close to the house and heard the strains of the local dance band he thought, “What is this, music and dancing and it’s a week night? What is going on here?  So he spied one of the boys who worked on the place and the boy explained.  “Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound!”

The elder brother was in the field looking at the crop of cabbages. As he came close to the house and heard the strains of the local dance band he thought, “What is this, music and dancing and it’s a week night? What is going on here?  So he spied one of the boys who worked on the place and the boy explained.  “Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound!”

[Robert Farrar Capon says that if you are looking for the Christ symbol in this story look no further than the barn.  The Christ image here is the fatted calf who is just waiting to drop dead so there can be a party.  Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.]

Even Biblical illiterates remember the Fatted Calf

FATTED CALF!  We can’t really comprehend what a big deal this was.  We think nothing of having steak any time we choose to haul out the grill. In the ancient world eating meat was a rare experience. In the first century people who could afford it kept a calf, and fed it real good so that it got really fat. When they killed it they had a huge party and ate the whole things there being no way to preserve meat for long.  A fatted calf was barbecued only on occasions of surpassing importance.  The old man kills the fatted calf as an act of wanton joy!

Big brother, hereafter to be known as Bubba, was so angry that he stayed outside.  He wouldn’t dignify this nonsense with his presence. His father came outside and pleaded with him.

 [Simon Tugwell describes the elder brother as, “a good man in the very worse sense of the word, the kind of goodness that if you insist on it will cost you your soul.”] 

Bubba begins his tirade, “Listen, all these years, I’ve been working like a slave.  I’ve never disobeyed your command; yet you have never even given me a goat that I might have a goat-roast, and celebrate with my buddies.  But, this trifling no-account son of yours comes slinking home, the very one who has devoured your property with harlots and you have killed the fatted calf!”

PROSTITUTES? Who said anything about prostitutes?  Nowhere does it say that little brother hung out with prostitutes.  Even if he had, Bubba couldn’t have known about it.  But what we can say with certainty is, that we now know what Bubba would have done if he had gone!  You can’t not tell your story.

Bubba was good, earnest so busy getting his ticket punched that it never even occurred to him that his father had already divided the property between the brothers.  Bubba already owned the plantation.  He could have killed the fatted calf himself if he had wanted to, let alone settle for goat burgers.

His father said to him, “Son you are always with me and all I have 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.”  Bubba’s response is not recorded.

WHAT IS JESUS TELLING US?

  • The criteria for entering the Kingdom of God is being lost and dead  and  knowing it. By the end of the story almost  everyone is dead:
  • The father is legally dead because he has probated his own will.
  • The younger son is dead to the old of being – he died to it back in the pig-pen.
  • The fatted calf is dead so there can be party.
  • The only one who is alive is Bubba, who is so busy being alive on his terms that he misses the point entirely.

Who’s really alive?  As Jesus says two chapters later in Luke 17, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” [Luke 17:33]

Like the elder brother we can do NOTHING to earn God’s love.

Like the younger brother we can do NOTHING so terrible that we can lose God’s love.
All we to do is reject or accept God’s love.  That is what God has given us in Christ Jesus. As we look toward Holy Week and Easter,

REMEMBER: the gift of eternal life begins now not later. God is throwing a party in our honor. We are the only ones that can keep us out.

Amen.

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