Generous or Wasteful?
copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
September 30, 2010
“For all these years I have been working like a slave for you...
...this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property...”
“...we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours...
was lost and has been found.”
Which of Jesus’ parables is more well known than this? None, I would say, though perhaps the parable of the Good Samaritan is equally well-known. These two are probably the top two of Jesus’ many parables and stories in terms of familiarity. I wonder why that is.
Initially, we probably think that Jesus’ stories are heart-warming and universally loved. As one Bible commentary says of today’s passage, “Let the parable be one of those beloved texts that always repays a return visit.1 But is it really “beloved?” When we examine the parables more closely, we invariably discover that they are filled with challenges to common wisdom, obstacles to the thinking of religious people in our day as well as in Jesus’ day. Even a cursory overview makes this evident.
I recall teaching groups, leading groups in study of this parable on many occasions. I used study groups in various settings in preparation for work on my doctoral dissertation, and we focused a good deal of attention on parables, including this one. Most of the time the reaction to this parable was anything but universally positive. I have a friend who took this story into a classroom of 2nd and 3rd graders. The responses of the children were merciless. “I would have killed the younger brother,” said one. “I hate this story from Jesus,” said another. “This is not the way it goes at our house,” came the less-than surprising response of a third. “If you don’t do your work, you don’t get your allowance,” said still another.
Consider some reasons for the strength of these reactions, not only from children but from us all.
The parable is filled with a variety of life experiences, some of which are certain to be familiar to many of us:2 youthful rebellion; alienation from family; the appeal of distant and foreign places; the consequences of foolish living; the way remembrance of home functions in our minds; the experience of coming to oneself, admitting personal shortcomings, repentance; the sheer joy of reunion; the unexpected and humbling power of forgiveness; the dynamics between siblings described in one’s departure and the other’s indignation; the contrast between relationships based on merit and those based on love and the recognition that most of our lives we live within some sort of combination of those two.
Just look at the cast of characters:
A younger brother, pampered baby of the family, who seems clearly bent on pursuing the wild impulses of his youth and, his elder brother suspects, the full exercise of his libido, drinking and partying away the proceeds from his father’s hard-earned estate in the full-speed-ahead quest of dissolute living, or, what another translator more vividly rendered as “riotous living.” If we think about it for long, there are reasons why the younger brother’s role in this parable, should it be made into a movie, would possibly get it an “R” rating.
An elder brother, the oh-so-good presumed heir to the family fortune who has nursed his bitterness toward his brother – and possibly his father – over a period of many years. This is the sort of child destined to give even King Lear second thoughts on common practices of succession. The elder brother, far from rendering to his father dutiful and satisfied service, apparently resented the passing of each day as he awaited his turn to take over the farm, working, as he said, “like a slave for you.” This, even though he summoned and dismissed one of his father’s real servants with an accustomed snap of the fingers. It is interesting to me that both sons returned to words for service or slavery, both thinking the only thing their father could ever want from them was servile work and plenty of it. And by the end, both had clearly misjudged their father by a wide margin.
The father. Was he just a doting parent who had gone soft in the head over his spoiled-rotten younger son? And is the main offense of this parable the realization that Jesus seems clearly to be comparing the person of this permissive parent to God? Remember, he started this little sequence of parable-telling in response to the objections of the religious authorities who saw him gathering with the lowest rung of the fallen people in Israel, tax collectors and sinners, murmuring just under their collective breath, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!” Imagine the offense of Jesus declaring that God in heaven was like he was, welcoming, eating with, even celebrating those who had fallen so low!
How can we find the offense in this story so that we may also be touched by its potential to redeem us? I’ll share a story that helps me get there.
I know a family that had not two but four handsome sons. The boys were part of fellowship programs, part of the life of the church. When the boys grew into men, each left home to make his own way in the world. The youngest son — let’s say his name was Alfred — was a popular member of the youth group all through his high school years. He took part in summer mission trips, participated in retreats, was blessed with a bright mind, a great sense of humor, and an outgoing, sparkling personality which endeared him to all his friends. When Alfred left home he went through a few failed terms in college, moved to another city, and took up a thoroughly unconventional lifestyle. Though Alfred’s parents were not thrilled about the choices he had made, they hoped and prayed that he would be able to make something of himself. His macho brothers found Alfred to be something of an embarrassment, but since they all lived in different parts of the country, there were few times that required them to think about it. Mostly, no one talked about it much.
As years went by, Alfred’s parents heard from him less and less. He seemed to have cut himself off from them, though they had always tried to keep the lines of communication open. Finally, after an extended period of time during which they had no contact with Alfred and had even lost track of where he was living, they chanced to get in touch with one of his friends who told them Alfred was sick and staying in a small hotel. They went to find him. They were horrified to discover that Alfred was suffering from fully developed diseases related to AIDS. Alfred was as upset at their discovery as they were. He hadn’t told them because he knew how unhappy it would make them, and he dreaded the whole scene. He had resolved to die alone in his dingy one-room flat. He had convinced himself that if they knew of his condition, they would have refused to have anything further to do with him anyway. He believed he no longer deserved to be called their son, and he wasn’t even about to ask them to treat him as one of their hired hands.
Alfred’s parents packed him up and took him home. They set up a hospital bed in their living room and for months they nursed him through every day of his disease until the day he died. And then they wrestled with the decision whether or not to request a memorial service at the church. It wasn’t an easy decision. This was still in the earliest days of the AIDS crisis, when many people were all too willing to dismiss AIDS sufferers. Still, the church had always been their spiritual home. They scheduled a service. Who knew who might come? Who knew what people might say?
Many people came. All three of Alfred’s brothers were there. The arms of the church opened wide to love and support his family in their suffering, even as the arms of the parents had opened wide to accept their son back home in his time of need. It was, for me, an experience of living in the middle of the parable of the prodigal son. This story of reconciliation is not just a story, it is very truly our story.
It is not an easy story, not one we can receive without being changed right down to our very foundations. But if we fail to live this story in some way, we fail to be the church that Jesus called us to be. If as a church we fail to understand this story, we fail to be a hospitable church to outsiders, to all outsiders. Jesus, remember, did not tell this story at a Sunday school picnic. It was told in response to critical people who were grumbling because Jesus chose to eat with the sinful sort of people who had been thrown out of the synagogues. The story can’t end with the feasting and celebration, because the crux of the story is the appeal to the older brother to set his self-righteous resentment aside, be reconciled to his brother, and join the feast which his father had prepared.
If we fail to follow Jesus’ intention in telling this story, we cause those outside the church to conclude, rightly, that for us discipleship in Christ is concerned mostly with abstaining from this and refraining from that, and most of all, condemning those who fail to follow the rules. As a church, we always have the choice set before us in our actions, both large and small, whether we will be the older brother or the father. That is the choice with which the story leaves us.
In the end, the question for us as a church, as well as for us as individual believers, is whether to accept the older son’s interpretation of events or the father’s; just as the question for those who heard the Pharisees and scribes grumbling about Jesus’ choice of sinners and tax collectors as his dining companions was whether to agree with the objections of the moral authorities or to accept Jesus’ insistence on the propriety of his eating with those who have fallen short of community standards for acceptable behavior. The older son said, in effect, it’s not fair. He’s right, of course, it isn’t fair. But remember, the father’s love insistently reaches out to the older son just as fervently as he has welcomed his younger son. The only way the older boy will be excluded from the party is if he insists on excluding himself by some self-determined standard of fairness.
Certainly the Pharisees and scribes did not want to participate in Jesus’ feasting with people that everyone knew to be sinners. But Jesus declared that this lavish, grace-filled love of God is offered to the sinful not in order to exclude the righteous; and they don’t have to exclude themselves. Jesus’ mission was to save the lost, that is the business of the kingdom.
The already-saved always have a choice: to celebrate the return of the lost, or to grumble in self-righteous self-pity. Those who believe the main business of the church is to enforce justice and morality will always find Jesus’ eating habits offensive, along with his stories of prodigals and Samaritans. For Jesus – and for us if we want to be the church Jesus has in mind – something more profound than equal distribution of justice and human fairness is at stake in our life together here.
The mercy of God is set in highest relief among the sinner and the lost, but it is a mercy that falls on everyone, the saint as well as the sinner. It does, that is, unless by insisting on our own standards of fairness over God’s, we try to prevent the lost and least from receiving the abundant grace of God, and in the process, hold it at arm’s length from ourselves.
copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder
1. New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 304.