Psalm 32; Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32
****** Congregational Church, Bridgeport, CT
March 18, 2007
A few weeks ago at our church's jr. high Pilgrim Fellowship meeting I was introduced to a great book entitled More Would You Rather?: 465 More Provocative Questions to Get Teenagers Talking. Some examples of the questions: Would you rather pet a porcupine or lick a cactus? Wear platform shoes or 6" stilettos? Get locked out of the house naked or trip and fall at your wedding? Spend a night in a bed full of itching powder or wear a poison-ivy suit for a week? Stuck in a mental institution surrounded by patients or in an elevator with a dozen therapists? A bullet to the chest or a knife in the back? A quick, painful death or a long boring life?
The questions are “either/or” to get us thinking. Neither answer is better than the other, but how we answer sheds some light on who we are and on perhaps the person we’d like to become. I’d like to use some “Would you rather…?” questions about the gospel lesson to start off the sermon.
Would you rather sit at table and share a meal with tax collectors and sinners or would you rather stand with the scribes and the Pharisees? Would you rather eat with a prostitute, an arms dealer, a terrorist, a thief, a gang member, and a child molester with Jesus at the head of the table, serving and smiling at everyone? Or would you rather be with the local clergy association who are meeting with a group of lawyers to make sure that their liability insurance is up to snuff but can’t keep their eyes off Jesus and the folks he is eating with?
By associating with the outcasts of his day, in plain sight of the religious authorities, Jesus is asking this question of those present: would you rather join me or stay where you are? And he answers the question by telling three stories, one of which is the story of the prodigal and his brother.
Who would you rather be? Would you rather be the younger son in the story or the older son? Would you rather be selfish, have the time of your life only to wind up homeless and hungry, repentant and willing to be a servant in your father’s house, then be forgiven by your father and have a lavish party thrown for you? Or would you rather be faithful, diligent, self-sacrificing, live a comfortable life, have your father’s constant love, but be unable to forgive your brother, possibly miss out on his homecoming party, and be estranged from your loving father?
Since this is a parable, the story can be read on several levels. At its simplest, the story is about birth order, about an oldest child and the youngest child, one the hero, the other spoiled. Or is it good kid/bad kid pitted against one another to see who gets the father’s attention?
Freud might characterize the father and two sons/brothers this way: The younger son represents the id, that part of us that is about self-gratification. The older son represents the superego, the conscience, knowing right from wrong. The father represents the ego, the reality test that mediates between the id and the superego.
At a faith level it is a story about Israel’s children to whom Jesus was sent and the Gentiles who were coming into the faith before and during the time this gospel was written, around 70 CE. There were serious questions referring to the Jewish purity laws, about what food was allowed; was circumcision required; what kind of lives had the Gentiles led before committing themselves to the Way of Jesus. We can hear the voice of Jewish Christians in the elder brother and his refusal to accept his younger brother of the faith, these Gentile Christians who do not appreciate the history and relationship of God with the Jews. How can a covenant with God be shared and include those who may have no idea what it means to live in covenant with one another? How can the prodigal Gentile, those were once unclean and considered to be depraved, be called brother, sister?
Who can tell me what ‘prodigal’ means? I had thought that it meant ‘lost’; in some translations of the Bible, the story is entitled “The Parable of the Lost Son”. The word ‘prodigal’ has been used popularly to mean ‘one who has strayed and has now returned’, perhaps with the connotation of repentance included.
Wanting to be accurate, I looked it up in the dictionary. What I found surprised me; it means to be wastefully extravagant, to squander, to lavish. In fact, I think it would be very difficult to be frugally extravagant. It is easy to see that the younger son was wastefully extravagant and foolishly so, but truly both were prodigal sons. The younger son was prodigal of the flesh: he was wastefully extravagant upon himself and the pleasures of the flesh. The older son was prodigal of the spirit: inwardly he starved himself of joy, squandering his father’s extravagant goodwill and generosity by never asking for that party with his friends, which his father surely would have given him.
At its deepest level, this story is about Jesus as the ultimate prodigal son and his ‘older brother’, the tradition of the Law and the Prophets from which he came yet he seemed to flout again and again. Theologian Karl Barth depicted Jesus as the one who left the Father to travel into the far country to share tables with sinners, loving wastefully and extravagantly. It was Jesus who said, who reminded those who kept the Law, that the Law could be summed up in two commandments: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. And the second is like the first: you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10: 27).
This story is the heart of the gospel, the Good News of Jesus in a nutshell. This and the parable of the Good Samaritan are the most well-known stories and teachings of Jesus among both churched and non-churched folks alike. It is the central message of the whole New Testament, the essence of the Christian faith. Simply said, it is this: God is love: wasteful, extravagant, unconditional love. And Jesus is the embodiment, the incarnation of that love.
Retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong puts it this way:
“God is the Source of Life who is worshiped when we live fully. God is the Source of Love who is worshiped when we love wastefully. God is the Ground of Being who is worshiped when we have the courage to be.”
Jesus loved wastefully and extravagantly when he sat at table with sinners AND when he included the scribes and Pharisees in the telling of his parables.
I had asked you whether you would rather be the younger brother or the older brother. We usually tend to think in either/or questions, but God’s love is a both/and answer. It doesn’t matter whether you are the younger son or the older son, God wants everyone at the lavish party of reconciliation and forgiveness. It doesn’t matter whether we are Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, sinner or righteous, wasteful or frugal, lost or found—God wants all of us, no matter who we are. God is wastefully extravagant, for we can never squander God’s love; there is no end to it. To be sure, we can suffer when we turn away from that love; we can abuse God’s goodwill but God will always be there, waiting for us to come to ourselves, to come to our senses, to repent and turn to find God running toward us, God waiting for us to join the party.
And in the end that is what the story is really about, what the true title of the parable should be: The Waiting Father.(1) This story gives us the whole picture of who God is and thus, what we are called to do and be as God’s children. We are called to love wastefully and extravagantly and lavishly, especially those whom society would call outcasts, especially those who are not sure they are welcome at God’s celebration, at God’s table. We are called to forgive one another and search out the hurt and forgotten as God has done with us. God is the seeking and yearning one who comes offering a restored relationship. We who have been restored and raised to new life worship God when we offer those gifts to others unrestrainedly.
And so I ask you, ****** Congregational Church, what do you seek, what do you yearn for this Lenten season? How are you wastefully extravagant with the inheritance and blessings that God has given you? How does this community of faith see itself—as the younger brother or the older brother or both? What would help you in your striving to be the forgiving father? In what ways do you need to come to yourself, to your senses, to repent and turn? What has been your experience of church tradition meeting new interpretations? When was the last time you had a party together and truly enjoyed each other, inviting any and all to the celebration?
Jesus’ greatest gift to us is that he invites us “to step into [our] own humanity so deeply that [we] will find it a doorway to God”.(2) We step into that depth of humanity when we love as Jesus loved, that is, extravagantly and wastefully, so much so that he gave his life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1) Helmut Thielicke, German theologian and preacher.
(2) John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World.