March 31, 2019 – The Prodigal Father


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“THE PRODIGAL FATHER”

By Rev. Victor Kim
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
(03-31-19) Lent 4

 

One of my favourite theologian and authors, Brian McLaren, suggests that there are two ways to read the Bible, frontwards and backwards.[1]  We usually read the Bible backwards.  It means that we as modern Christians look backwards to Jesus through the lens of those who have interpreted him.  We can begin with the ones who are closest to us in time, whether they be people like Billy Graham or the Pope, or someone else, depending on your theological persuasion.  Going backwards we encounter people like John Calvin, John Wesley and Martin Luther. Back even further we see through the lens of Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine and finally, the apostle Paul and the early church.  It is through these filters that we read the story of Jesus and come to understand his teachings, including the parables he told.

The parable of the Prodigal Son, is perhaps, along with the parable of the Good Samaritan, the most widely known of Jesus’ stories.  The themes in this parable transcend a particular location or time and have been repeated in countless tellings in a wide variety of settings.  Think of the universal themes that are represented in this parable.  The beginning of the parable speaks of the brashness of youth, the generation gap between father and son, and the longing of the younger son to leave the restrictions of his upbringing and to strike out on his own, to make his own way in the world.  Who among us hasn’t imagined at one time or another, running away from home, especially when we were young and felt constrained by the boundaries of age regulations, cultural assumptions and family expectations.  The younger son, asks for, and is given his share of the property. But he is young and not as mature as he thinks he is. Soon enough he takes all he has and leaves for the lure of the bright lights in the big city.  And while there his life becomes a cautionary tale of wasteful living and broken dreams.  Then one miserable day, sitting there, a Jewish boy among a herd of pigs, the younger son comes to himself, has an epiphany, realizes the huge mistakes he has made and decides to head for home.  He expects to be treated accordingly, as one who has rebelled against expectations, as one who has rejected his upbringing.  But upon his return, it is redemption, reconciliation and restoration that the younger son experiences because his is a father who is gracious beyond belief.

Then there’s the matter of the older brother.  He’s righteously angry with his brother’s return.  Rather than good riddance, it’s now good grief. His gripes regard issues of justice, fairness, appropriateness, but there’s more there than he’s willing to admit.  There are themes of forgiveness, sacrifice and mercy which underlie what the older brother struggles with at the return of his brother.  Fittingly, the father does not neglect his older son, but goes out to him as well.

From the backwards reading of this parable, we have tended to locate ourselves within the story as one of the brothers.  We either identify with the younger son or with his older brother.  For most of us we have always known this parable as the parable of the prodigal son.  So even the title tells us where the focus has been.  There have been countless sermons preached on the prodigal son, of the one who was lost but then is found, and there may have been just as many preached on the older son who stayed home.

He may, in fact, be the de facto Presbyterian in the Bible story.  He is dutiful, he is diligent, he isn’t flashy, he doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of humour, though he’s got quite a sense of what’s just and what’s not.  But when Jesus told the parable, who did the listeners fastened themselves onto?  When you think about who it was that Jesus was speaking to, and remember, it was the Pharisees and Scribes and their grumblings about Jesus and the company that he was keeping, that led to the telling of this parable, the figures of the younger and older sons wouldn’t have caught the attention of the listeners, certainly not nearly as much as the portrayal of the father that Jesus painted.

In some ways when we read the Bible backwards, when Jesus is the one to whom we must get, as we work through a series of filters, we impose two thousand years of interpretation upon what Jesus said and much of that interpretation has, at its center, a focus on the individual. And so we find ourselves in the parable as the rebellious son or the resentful son.  But what if we were to read the Bible frontwards, with Jesus as the destination of our interpretation and not as the departure point?

Instead of working backwards to Jesus through a series of interpretive lenses, what if we moved frontwards to Jesus, starting from Adam and Abraham, Moses, David, the Prophets and John the Baptist.  If we locate Jesus primarily in light of the story that has unfolded since his time on earth, we will understand him in one way.  But if we see Jesus emerging from within a story that had been unfolding through his ancestors, as the fulfilment of promise and prophecy, if we primarily locate him that story, we might understand him in a very different way.[2]

Rather than seeing the parable before us today in terms of what it says about us, what if we were to look at the parable in terms of what it says about God?  The figure of focus in Jesus’ telling of the parable wouldn’t have been the prodigal son, but the prodigal father.  Prodigal means wasteful and though we could all agree that the actions of the son were indeed wasteful, his prodigality pales in comparison to the wastefulness of the father.

Teacher, preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor, has written a sermon on this text entitled, “The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family.”  In it she notes that there are concepts in this parable that we in 21st century western society have no reference for – such as the huge honour owed to the patriarch of a clan, and the elaborate code for keeping that honour in place.  Patriarchs did not run and they did not leave their places at the head of their tables when guests were present to plead with a son who wouldn’t attend a party.  Patriarchs told their children what to do, and they expected to be obeyed.  But this father, this father seems weak, with two rebellious sons he could not or would not control, and this father is willing to sacrifice his honour to keep his family and his community together.

When we read the Bible frontwards and read the stories of Jesus as Jesus intended, in the context in which Jesus told them, we find that the primacy of the individual is supplanted by the centrality of the community and the absolute commitment of the father in the story to bring reunion and reconciliation to the community, to the family, no matter what the cost.

The Talmud in Jewish tradition is what might be called a commentary on the Jewish scriptures.  The Talmud describes a ceremony to deal with what happens in the event that a Jewish boy loses his family inheritance to Gentiles.  Remember that land was at the center of God’s promises to the Jewish people.  The Hebrews were led out of captivity in Egypt, and they were promised a land, the Promised Land.  When the people finally entered the land, each tribe was allotted a portion of the land and each clan therein was given their share of it.  The idea of land was so central to Jewish identity that even if a man, and it could only be men who owned the land, sold his land to another Jewish man to pay for debts, that land was to return to the original owners every 50 years through the year of Jubilee. Given the importance attached to the land, it is understandable that there were severe consequences for any Jew who lost his land to a Gentile, thereby giving up the inheritance that he had received from the Lord.

In this ceremony, called the qet-sat-sah, if a Jewish man who loses the family inheritance shows up in the village again, the villagers can fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the offender and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people. After that, he will be a cosmic orphan, who might as well go back and live with the pigs.[3] And maybe that’s something like the fate that awaited the younger son as he made his way back to his father.  News would reach the community that the one who had squandered his property in dissolute living had returned home.  The community would gather and essentially excommunicate him from his heritage, from his people, from his identity. Yet the father, the patriarch, sees him first, while he was still far off, as if he was watching for him, and he runs to him, hitching his long robes up, exposing his ankles, breaking every rule in the ‘What not to do as a Patriarch’ handbook.

His actions may cost him his honour, but it’s a price he’s willing to pay. And before the community can strip his son of his identity, his father bestows on him new one.  There is a sense of urgency here. Quickly, he orders his servants, get the best robe and put it on him, get a ring on his finger and put sandals on his feet.  And get that fatted calf and get dinner started, because we’re going to have a feast like nothing this community’s ever seen!  His father will throw his son a party before the community can throw him a qet-sat-sah.  As Taylor Brown puts it, the prodigal son is saved, though not in isolation.  He is saved by being restored to relationship with his father, with his family, with his clan, with his village, with his people.

And it doesn’t end there. There’s the matter of the older son, the one who gets lost without ever leaving home.  And as we’ve noted, there’s a lot for the older son to get angry about. His brother has lost his share of the inheritance, yet now has returned home. Guess whose share of the inheritance will get used up to provide for the wasteful fool? How come the younger brother gets the best robe in the house and how come he gets the fatted calf when he really only deserves a fat lip?  And so, his father leaves the party, leaves his proper place, leaves his guests, breaks all the rules again, and goes out to his older son and pleads with him.  It doesn’t matter that his son talks back to him, even accuses him of being a lousy father, the prodigal father knows that both his sons need to be reconciled and that there’s no honour worth protecting if it means he can’t have his family together. 

I suppose that if we do need to find ourselves in the parable, it’s the older son who most resembles most of us.  He’s as pig headed as the younger son, but for the older son, there is no apparent resolution.  It feels good to stand in the yard, to know that we won’t be any part of any party that honours foolishness and wastefulness.  It’s an affront to our integrity. It feels good to know who’s right and who’s wrong, and which one we are. But the problem is that we get drawn back, again and again, to the father, to the prodigal, wasteful father, who just doesn’t seem to care about what’s deserved and what isn’t.  The prodigal father doesn’t understand that you don’t get something for nothing and that in life you get what you deserve, or at least, what you can justify.  And a wasteful, prodigal God is something that doesn’t fly so well in our backwards reading of scripture.

We have been so conditioned to read the Bible through our lenses, through our filters, through our sense of what is appropriate and what is proper, through 2000 years of Western thought and interpretation.  But the father in the parable isn’t a Canadian father, he isn’t a Scottish or English or Chinese father.  He isn’t even Korean or Pilipino or Malaysian.  He is Jewish and Jesus portrays him from a very Jewish perspective.  Yes, he breaks all the rules, just like the God who breaks all the rules with a people who just don’t seem to get how much God loves them.

He’s like the God who delivers his people from oppression and restores his people from exile, but who finds that the people, his sons and daughters, have such short memories.  They break covenant, they give up their identity, they squander their inheritance in dissolute living. Yet God won’t give up.  God goes out looking for his children, and when we’re still a long ways off, God hikes up his robe, bares his ankles and runs out to embrace us.

While we’re still a long ways off, God offers the gift of his Son, Jesus our Lord. Jesus isn’t something we deserve or can justify.  Jesus is just God’s gift. Maybe it’s a wasted gift, an act of prodigality, and if you look at all that seems wrong in the world today, it sure might seem that way. But God isn’t interested in measured responses,  and grace by its very nature is wasteful. 

Grace is something we haven’t earned or deserve, but its something we know because of the prodigal, extravagant nature of God.  God doesn’t give us what we deserve, God gives us more. So, in this season of Lent, let’s move away from identifying with the older or younger son and let’s look at the father, the prodigal father, because that’s what Jesus was getting at.

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” said the Pharisees and Scribes at the beginning of the text today.  He sure did and he sure does. Over two thousand years, we’ve become pretty good at restricting who Jesus should welcome and who Jesus should eat with, but the parable today would challenge those kinds of interpretations.  In this season of Lent, the example of our prodigal God invites us to examine whether we would dare to be prodigal in our grace and with our love. 

 God invites us to think about whether we would sacrifice our honour, our individual rights, for the sake of family, community, for the sake of the other. We can stand in the yard and God our prodigal father will stand there with us, as long as it takes.

But there’s a party going on and we’re invited. We can go to the party, just as we are, as long as we don’t insist on staying that way!

Thanks be to God, Amen!

 

Written by Rev. Victor Kim
Preached on 31 March 2019
at Richmond Presbyterian Church.

 

[1] Brian McLaren, “A New Kind of Christianity – Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith”

 

[2] McLaren

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family