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To Throw a Party, or Teach a Lesson?
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
What makes a good story is often conflict, how it happens, how long it lasts and how it gets settled. The younger son begins to create some conflict in this story when he asked his dad for his share of the family’s money. Normally a son might be given property before dad dies, however the dad would still administer the property.
But this younger son can’t wait to get away from the family. It was unthinkable for any son to ask his father for control and free use of his inheritance while the father was still living. Some folks think that by asking his father for the goods, what he was saying to his father was, I want you to die.
The younger son, the Prodigal, says give me what’s mine, saying, in effect, the heck with the rest of you. He discards relationship, forstuff. So the son here may not have broken the law, but he has broken his father’s heart.
He was entitled to a third of the family’s wealth, however, their wealth is not in the form of stocks and bonds and cds; rather it resides in animals and land. So with this exchange the family is losing one third of its value. What is shocking is that this guy is settling his affairs in just a few days. This means that he was trying to turn land and animals into cash, liquidate his assets in a hurry, which tells the buyers they can get a deal. Any price will work because I want out of here. In the Middle East the guy that sells in a hurry, sells cheap. The agony of rejected love is the only thing he leaves behind for his father.
There is no trust here; the younger son takes his future into his own hands. He seems to feel that his father no longer can be trusted with that future. He wants privilege without responsibility. He uses long wordy phrases. He could have said “I want my inheritance,” rather he says “give me the share of the property that falls to me;” he uses eleven words instead of four. He avoids the word inheritance because to accept inheritance is also in Middle Eastern families to accept leadership responsibility within the family. Instead he cuts himself from his roots, he gives up his identity Home here meant more than money, it was identity. He has substituted the passing for the permanent.
Let’s look at his older brother. He knew what was happening. The informal chatter chain would have landed on his ears. He also is taking no responsibility, he disappears. Some folks are really good at hiding when conflict comes along and then stand back and blame everyone when it’s over. In Middle Eastern culture everyone knows that when a dispute arises the older brother should be the reconciler, but here he’s disappeared. I wonder sometimes if the younger son just wanted to get away from this passive aggressive older brother.
The father grants the younger boy freedom to go, but he doesn’t break his relationship to this younger boy. The younger son broke it, not the father. The father’s suffering here provides the foundation of the possibility of the son’s return. Jesus breaks the bonds with patriarchal culture to present this image of God who suffers with a broken heart until all that is lost is found. If you think you’re suffering or worry over a lost one is pointless, well perhaps you are laying down a pathway of return. And return is another way to spell home.
Our text says he left town, he traveled away from his own people. We do know that it was among a Gentile population because they raised pigs. In this far away land he squandered his property. There is no record as to how he scattered his money. We all take the report of the older brother that he spent it on wine, women and son, but there is no evidence in the text for such speculation.
The term “loose living” in Hebrew actually means that of wasting his money. Some believe that he likely used his money to secure his reputation in this far off land, to establish a reputation as a person of generosity. Perhaps he staged large banquets and gave expensive gifts. To gain status in the eyes of new friends through an exercise of generosity would have meant pleasure for this younger son.
But soon we realize that he not only runs out of money but he does so at a time when a famine hovers over this land. Should he go home; no, I can’t face the know it all mind of my older brother. That, “I told you so”, comment that draws no one closer.
The farm owner thinks perhaps that if he offers him the job of feeding pigs then he will surely just go away. But no, he stays and works with the pigs. We are told by inference that he wanted to eat the pods he was feeding the pigs, but his stomach couldn’t digest them. Perhaps he longed to be a pig so that he might digest these pods. Hunger can make you do unthinkable in things.
The text says he came to himself. Polite words that might describe I’ve tried everything from begging on the streets to following wedding parties hoping for a scrape of leftovers. You can’t change for the sake of wife or kids, finally you have to change because you begin to value yourself. We’ve all been there, in one form or fashion.
On the way home perhaps he is rehearsing his speech - sorry for losing all the money. Perhaps he could be accepted as an apprentice back home. Save up some money, repay his dad and rejoin the community. He thinks the issue is the lost money. It isn’t, it’s his father’s loss. The problem is not the broken law but a broken heart.
He still wants to manipulate his father into trusting him just once more time, by endorsing him for job training, so that he could earn his way. He wanted no grace- just another chance to manage on his own. So he got up and went to his father. A resurrection is needed and here he thinks he can make this happen on his own.
But he hasn’t faced the fact of his father’s broken heart. The problem of healing that heart does not occur to him. If he can return the money, then he imagines all will be well. In the deepest sense the prodigal here is not going hom,e he is going back to servant hood. As long as his former attitude remains, he is still in a far off country. Even at the edge of his village, he is still lost.
What happened now was wildly unorthodox from every perspective. As he makes his way toward the village, he expects his father to remain at home and that as we walks through town he will be made fun of by the gangs of boys lining the streets, ready to taunt any unfortunate person. Bullying is not new.
But this is not what happened. His father breaks all the rules of his culture. Jesus here is dismantling all patriarchal views of God. In Middle Eastern life a man always walks. Never runs. To run is to risk ridicule for one is acting like a child or a women. You expose your ankles. But no, the father races down the road taking the front edge of his robe in his hand like a teenager. When he does this his legs are exposed in what was considered a humiliating posture. The father is shamming himself publically.
It is his compassion that races him down the road. He knows that his son will face the taunting and shame of the gangs along the road so instead he takes this upon himself. All this shame and humiliation due to his younger son, the father puts on his shoulders.
So this father becomes a metaphor for God incarnate. He goes out at great cost to himself for the sake of us. He finds the lost part of you, the dead part of you, and runs to kiss you to say my son, my daughter good to have you home. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. This parable of thefFather going out to his son is a parable of crucifixion and resurrection. Unconditional love is running toward you, taking all the burdens of reconciliation up on itself.
The father suffering at the beginning of their estrangement has no effect on the prodigal. He is not aware of it. A demonstration of love that involves getting your life disturbed must be witnessed. Without this, he will remain a servant and probably take on the character of his older brother. It is in costly love that makes for reconciliation. The younger son changes his mind in the face of his father’s love and is found. He accepts being found. Like a lost sheep he is found. Like a lost coin he is found. Neither the youngest son nor the father knows what to do; except to throw a party.
The older son refused to join the party and so insults his father. He can’t even call his brother brother, he says this son of yours. The father tries to entreat the older son to stand beside him and look at the world from this vantage point of costly love. The women who lost her coin, the shepherd who lost sheep made an effort to go out and find. The older son here does nothing.
God is dismantled as a patriarch and here is pictured as a compassionate father who loves both sons; it’s costly to love both the law breaker and law keeper. Some might say that the prodigal needs to be taught a lesson. So when you pile the table high with food, bring in a live band and have a big dance floor with everybody laughing and dancing. What lesson is taught?
The only thing he is being taught is we love you, we forgive you, we’re glad your home. That’s all I can think of. It’s enough for a party?
Sunday, February 28, 2016