How NOT to raise a family!
Lent 4 Common Lectionary Year C
Â©2013 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones
Sometimes a story this familiar doesnâ€™t need to be preached, so much as experienced. When itâ€™s Lent, the temptation is to encourage us all to delve into the hidden or forgotten recesses of our inner teenager, to remember our own prodigal moments,Â and to realize that we are all â€œsinners against heaven and one another,â€Â in need of forgiveness, of reconciliation. Youâ€™ve probably heard that sermon, and been nourished by it. Itâ€™s a good one. Youâ€™ve probably also heard the sermon about the â€˜older brotherâ€™ syndrome too, the one when we admit how often we relate most closely to that hard-working killjoy who measures out the portions of grace exactly, to the last millimetre.
But sometimes, we preachers get smacked in the eyes with the obvious weâ€™ve missed over how many years of reading the too-familiar text. While your pew bible tells you with its helpful bold face heading that the story is about the prodigal child, Jesus says otherwise. He says itâ€™s a story about â€œ a man who had two sons.â€ And he says, â€œ itâ€™s a story.â€
Iâ€™ll get to the meat of the story in a moment, but letâ€™s stall for a second on the â€˜storyâ€™ bit.
We need to try our best to put out of our heads the notion that Jesus was a moralizer; he was a story teller, and a fine one at that, innovative, edgy, and often hilarious, capable of spinning a yarn that will lingerÂ and upend your head or heartÂ long after heâ€™s left town. Â We need to also try to disabuse ourselves of the notion that Jesus was more pious or holy, serene or mystical than your sainted grandmother. Remember how we find him this morning? A bunch of the religious elite, the theologians, clergy and womenâ€™s guild hierarchy are tutting on theÂ church porch because Jesus is on the wrong side of the tracks, hanging out with the pot-smoking bored teenagers in the Couche-Tard back alley, having a late wine with the mafia wannabes at Buona Notte. And the reason he tells this story â€“ about a man with two sons â€“ is becauseÂ of those who are tutting on the porch. Â This story â€“ as Jesus tells it â€“ is the quintessence of ridiculous, edgy, over the top satire, aboutÂ God whose nature and whose name is Grace! If last weekâ€™s sermon was about grace beyond our knowing, this one is about Grace beyond belief!
Look at the â€œgod-figureâ€ in this story Jesus tells. Really look. Heâ€™s a wealthy landowner Â â€“ so far so good, kind of what youâ€™d expect from the Bible about God. Now, before youâ€™ve had chance to settle in your seats,Â Jesus bumps you out of them; the God-father takes his farm, this world he has fashioned, and owned and tended,Â and he gives it away, in the blink of an eye, to his offspring, his children, his loved ones Â -Â both of them (we miss that too often, donâ€™t we?) He gave money to the youngster who asked, and he gave the farm to the older one who didnâ€™t ask but got it anyway.
We donâ€™t fully realize how dumb this was. To give away a livelihood in that culture is to is to give life itself away, Â (a biblical theme if ever there was one) The father renders himself redundant, jobless, landless, moneyless, life-less. To give away the farm, the money, to let the kids do whatever they want with itâ€¦. will you do that for Ava when sheâ€™s 9, Andre? You might start off an RESP, but youâ€™re not going to give her the farm are you? Too many of us here know what itâ€™s like to have a prodigal child (or to have been one) to think it wise to trust a child with that sort of reckless generosity.
â€¦..But, â€¦. ohÂ right, this isnâ€™tÂ a moral tale, teaching us how to be good, forgiving parents, orÂ how to be responsible, honorable children, itâ€™s about God. And itâ€™s a story.
But if itâ€™s about God, why doesnâ€™t this father go charging off on the next camel- train to the far off land to drag his lost son back home to safety? Why does that kid have to be reduced to eating pig dirt? Isnâ€™t God supposed to take charge and rescue the fallen? And, while weâ€™re at itâ€¦ what?…
But Jesusâ€™Â story marches right past our questions. Over the far horizon, the â€˜good as deadâ€™ prodigal is sighted. Thin as a rake, hunch shoulderedâ€¦
(but letâ€™s not get distracted by her/him, Jesusâ€™ story isnâ€™t about her, itâ€™s about the Dad.)
What would we porch dwellers, we morally upright folk, we, doing our best to be good parents , want to see this Dad do now? Maybe we want to be a bit like him, and find that space in our heart for the genuine relief and delightÂ and love we see in this God-parent when the prodigalÂ appears on the far horizon. We feel the itch in our own bones to rush up the hill to wrap our arms about the lost one found, the dead one raised. Â But donâ€™t we also expect of God, and of ourselves, some form of reckoning?Â Some measured, dispassionate justice designed to educate and rebuild the broken trust?
But this is Jesusâ€™ story, not ours. Yet again, theÂ â€œparable for parentsâ€ is replaced by theÂ utterly ridiculous. With rings and fine clothes, wine and the choicest meat, Jesusâ€™ God-parent throws a party the likes of which this little world hasnâ€™t seen since the little tyke was first born!
God is less like a parent than the wild aunt, the sassy gran, the outrageous uncle whom good parents dread with their reckless disregard for sober order. God, in Jesusâ€™ story, has come to the crazy conclusion, watch us world-weary ones, that for grace to be grace, it must be a party. Where, with our Lenten habits, we expect Godâ€™s grace to be all about repentance, judgment, penance, and then forgiveness, Jesus tells us weâ€™ve got it all back to front.
We have to rewind to catch the moment of grace, because we probably missed it. Â â€œWhile he was still a long way off,Â the father saw him, and had compassion, and ran to him and hugged and kissed him.â€
No standing on the porch here to see if the sinner son or daughter is ready to repent. No warning fingers wagged in admonition or judgment. Just a wild, undignified, arms out wide running towards with a hug and a kiss for the lost-now-found one. So we now suspect that forgiveness, grace, happened long before the kid stopped eating acorns, and probably, if we can see back that far, long before God gave away the farm.
Grace, for God is knowingÂ fine well that weâ€™re all prodigals, all lost, all as good as dead, but weâ€™re all the ones God is waiting for, with a fatted-calf blow-out party of welcome and homecoming.
â€œThis is my storyâ€ Jesus says to the ones on the porch, and hereâ€™s your invitation. Will you come in andÂ joinÂ Godâ€™s party?