Which One?

Posted by secondchurch on April - 3 - 2019

When a story from Scripture is very familiar, like this one about the prodigal son, and the resentful brother and the forgiving father, it’s difficult to hear it as if for the first time – with the ears of those who heard it first from Jesus himself. The story, because of its strong images and richly drawn characters, sticks in our minds. We know that young prodigal, don’t we? Maybe we were him once. We know the compulsion that caused him to strike out on his own. We recognize the fun he had spending his inheritance and we empathize with his despair when he realized his stupidity. We like him, too, especially when he figured out how foolish he had been and when he returned to ask his father for forgiveness.

And we know his older brother, too, don’t we? Face pinched into a dutiful expression, quiet, steady, hard-working and conscientious, a little martyr-ish, we know exactly how he felt when his brother came home and got a party. We understand his resentment and his anger. We know what motivates him to work so hard, what deep sense of duty keeps him at his father’s side with little recognition or acknowledgment of his sacrifices.

And we know this father, too. Parenting two sons as different as night and day and no matter how fairly you treat them, it never comes out even. Loving them both so deeply it hurts and knowing them so well – their individual weaknesses and strengths and how each one needed something different from him, this father is as familiar as the face in the mirror. What a wonderful story. What a strong, clear, well-known and deeply loved story Jesus told.

Sometimes, especially when I listen to people talk about their adult children, I try to decipher which ones of us want to identify with the prodigal son. There’s something about him, something rebellious and independent, reckless even, that attracts us and entertains us a little bit and makes us want to pretend that we’re like him too, only just a little more restrained. When I was choosing hymns for this morning, all the choices in the New Century Hymnal that refer to this story are about this prodigal boy, with a little bit thrown in about the forgiving father, of course, but there’s not one hymn about the older brother’s experience.

Of course, the prodigal is a lot more appealing than the dutiful brother, but that’s my contemporary American experience talking. He wouldn’t have been appealing to the original audience. He would have been just what he appears to be at first glance – short-sighted and self-indulgent. Jesus described someone every one of those first listening ears would have immediately heard as just plain no good. There would have been no sympathy for him, no understanding, no secret little attraction.
Jesus’ first listeners also would have been shocked at the behavior of the father. They would not have believed that any father would act in such a way. They would have shaken their heads at the image of an old man running toward his disobedient and disloyal son to embrace him and welcome him home again. They would have made little sounds in their throats and clicking noises with their tongues at the very idea that the father would have sacrificed his best calf and thrown such an extravagant party for this son who should have been ignored, shunned, written off. They were with the brother – nodding their heads at his arrival and his anger, identifying completely with his outrage, disbelieving the father’s words.

Jesus’ first audience would not have realized the story was about them and not particularly flattering until he was well into it. They would not have recognized themselves until it was too late. Jesus’ first listeners would have been lulled into thinking the story was, in fact, about the prodigal, wayward son because he couldn’t possibly have meant it was about them, could he? They weren’t dissolute squanderers of their fathers’ inheritance, and they certainly weren’t like that foolish old father, forgiving and loving that wayward boy and the only character left to identify with was the righteous, dutiful and mistreated older brother. That’s right! The brother who did things right! Only he doesn’t exactly come out looking all that good. In fact, he looks a lot like the Pharisees and the scribes.

Don’t you hate that when that happens? when it turns out Jesus is talking directly about you and worse, that what he’s saying makes you look foolish or selfish or short-sighted – you, and not the prodigal, after all.

I don’t believe Jesus aimed this story at the tax collectors and sinners Luke tells us were coming to listen to him. Even though the story would have been a tremendous comfort to them since its message was clear that God will run toward them, embrace them, forgive them, and welcome them home again, I don’t think it was the sinners Jesus most had in mind. Luke tells us that the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling – that they didn’t like that Jesus welcomed sinners to his table. So, Jesus told the story to the sinners and tax collectors, knowing that the Pharisees and scribes would be listening in, It’s pretty clear that Jesus wanted his listeners to recognize themselves and to recognize their relative position within the circle of God’s love and acceptance.

And we do, don’t we. Because we are the right audience for this story. We are the dutiful, older brother. We are the scribes and the Pharisees. And if we think Jesus told this story for someone else, we probably should take a closer look in the mirror.

As these weeks of Lent wear on, the Gospel readings get increasingly difficult – not difficult in that they are difficult to believe or difficult to understand. Rather, difficult in that they are difficult to model ourselves after, difficult to enter with the “mind of Christ”. The Jesus narrative is taking us to Jerusalem soon. The conflicts are getting more pointed – even more daring, in a way. It’s as if Jesus decided to raise the stakes in his already dangerous ministry – to push his message into sharper contrasts. I know to our contemporary ears, the story of the prodigal son and his resentful brother and their forgiving father doesn’t register as the kind of story that would enrage people to the point of calling for a public execution. What’s so daring about that forgiving, loving image of God? Well, only this: if you believe yourself to be one kind of person, basking, so to speak, in the light of God’s approval, and someone with genuine moral authority tells you you are in fact another kind of person, and your whole life is built on a self-image that turns out to be cracked and distorted, one certain reaction is going to be anger and it’s going to be aimed at the one who holds the mirror.

To understand why the things Jesus said and did those last weeks of his life led directly to his death, we need to understand more about the context in which he lived, don’t we? This little story, taken on its own merits, is just a story of God’s generous love, a love that is undiminished by human conduct. The tax collectors, those Jews who colluded with Rome against the interests of their own people would certainly have rejoiced at hearing such a tale. God still loves you, even though you have been stupid and greedy and weak and even a little cowardly, God will still hike up his robes and run toward you with the open arms of welcome and forgiveness. But sinners aren’t the only ones who hear the story. No, we righteous ones are listening too.

We’re living through a truly ugly period in our national life – we are – and I pray that it will quickly pass. Honestly, I don’t know how to address it, how to stay hopeful when so much of what I value and even revere in public discourse, community principles, institutional integrity and individual responsibility is being demeaned and degraded every day from the highest levels of, well, you know what I’m talking about. I don’t know how to change it, influence it, even address it in any meaningful way, so I go back to the stories of my faith – of our faith – the stories that taught me my most cherished values – stories about Solomon and Moses and Sarah, the truth Nathan told to David, and the prophecies of Jeremiah and Micah and Hosea, and the wisdom of Sophia, God’s woman-partner in creation. I think back on the stories Jesus told – parables about unjust labor practices and economic exploitation and religious rigidity, stories about how he forgave the enemy woman at the well who had slept around, and his friend Martha who yelled at him when he let her brother Lazarus die. And even this story about two brothers and their father – a story that was aimed at a dangerous audience and hit its target true.

What kind of story would Jesus tell today, I wonder? What kind of story are we telling? What story is reminding us how we should act, how we should believe, how we should live and love and forgive? Which one? Which one? Amen.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

March 31, 2019
Rev. Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor

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