Embracing LovePosted: March 6, 2016
SLIDE 5: THE PRODIGAL SON
On Ash Wednesday we talked about the first third of the story of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The lost child turns toward home, not because he loved his father, not because he was missing life on the farm, but because he was desperate. He was sleeping and eating with the pigs! And for a good Jewish boy that was certainly hitting bottom. No this manipulative scoundrel of a kid had finally come to his senses. “Here I am eating and sleeping with the hogs, while my father’s hired servants have soft, warm beds and bread to eat. Here’s how I will manipulate the old man. I will go home and tell him, ’father I have sinned before God and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son, take me back as one of your hired servants.’”
This ne’er do-well of a child did not understand the dynamic of love. And so he was overwhelmed by the love and forgiveness of his father. Now we can question the father’s wisdom in taking back his rascal of a son without any preconditions. And we can debate whether or not the father was fair to the elder brother, who certainly felt like he had been wronged. But rather than focusing on the father’s behavior, I would like to spend most of our time meditating on the elder brother, for whom I truly feel sorry.
SLIDE 6: THE OLDER BROTHER
The older brother was coming in from a long hard day in the fields, and he heard music and the sound of dancing, laughter and the distinctive aroma of the fatted calf. When he left in the morning there were no plans for a party, a celebration, so he stopped one of the servants and asked, “What’s up?”
When he found out they were celebrating the return of his brother he was angry and stood outside the house pouting. When his father came to beckon him inside the older brother turned on his father with pent up rage and resentment: “I have worked for you and slaved for you all these years, yet you never even gave me a goat that I might make merry with my friends.”
SLIDE 7: FELT DISCOUNTED
Now I would like to cut the older brother a little slack. He really had been a dutiful son. When his brother left taking a third of the estate with him, all of the responsibilities fell to him. And based on his complaint he never even got an “atta-boy” in return. He felt taken for granted, taken advantage of, disregarded. His decision to stay on the farm his sacrifice wasn’t valued.
SLIDE 8: MISSED HIS BITE OF THE BIG APPLE
One commentator one time pointed out that when the older brother said: “Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up. . ,” how did he know what the younger brother had been doing? Or was the older brother projecting his own desires, imagining what he would have done, if he had left the farm and gone off to the big city. Maybe the older brother was envious that he had been stuck with the drudgery of the farm work and had missed his bite of the Big Apple.
Of course the father had no idea how much the older brother resented his decision to stay on the farm, rather than taking off for the excitement and the pleasures of the Big City. He assumed his older son’s loyalty was motivated by his love for his father and the simple virtuous life of the farm.
SLIDE 9: REMAINING VIRTUOUS OUT OF FEAR IS NO VIRTUE
Now having cut the older brother some slack let me try to explain why I feel sorry for him. First, he never had the guts or the gumption to follow his fantasies and take a bite out of the Big Apple. To remain virtuous out of fear is no virtue at all and only leads to regret and resentment. He didn’t stay at home out of love and loyalty for his father, he was stuck there because he was afraid to do anything else.
SLIDE 10: RIGHT FAILURE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN RIGHT BELIEF
In our study book The Gifts of the Dark Wood, Eric Elnes asks, “Could it be that right failure is more important to Jesus than right belief?” Thinking about this question allow me to go back to the beginning of Lent and the statement from, John Dorhaurer, the new General Minister of the United Church of Christ: “I want you to prepare to fail. I want you to give yourself permission to take risks and then be there to receive the risk-takers with grace when they fail, and to learn from those failures and pass on what we learn to others.”
SLIDE 11: PRISONER OF REGRET AND RESENTMENT
If the older brother really loved life on the farm, if he had been motivated by love for his father, then living a virtuous life would have been his highest joy. But since he didn’t leave home, because he was afraid he became a prisoner of regret and resentment.
SLIDE 12: STANDING OUTSIDE THE PARTY
The second reason I feel sorry for the older brother is he would not come into the Party. His father came out to beg him to come in. He even assured the boy, “All that is mine is yours!” But the older brother steadfastly, and self-righteously stood outside the door pouting. As a result, he missed a potential opportunity to find reconciliation with his brother, bask in the love and generosity of his father, and be in fellowship with his entire community.
SLIDE 13: SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS ITS OWN PUNISHMENT
Self-righteousness is a curse that carries its own punishment. There may be a momentary rush of vanity from looking down on other people, but self-righteousness is like living in a spiritually gated community. You not only keep other people out, but you keep yourself in, until the false pride that is the foundation of self-righteousness becomes a prison that cuts off relationship. Now since self-righteousness is the curse that carries its own punishment, I don’t see any need to imagine any penance for the older brother other than standing outside of the party. Standing outside of the love of God. Self-righteous people relegate themselves to a special spiritual prison, where they stand cut off from God’s love.
SLIDE 14: WELCOMED HOME
Now since this is a Parable of Jesus let me share with you the Good News. Jesus didn’t explicitly include this in the story, but if you use your imagination you can see that it is there. The younger brother has come home – good news for all of us. Even if the younger brother came home for the wrong reasons, he is still welcome and some day will learn how to respond to the extravagance of his father’s love. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome home.
SLIDE 15: THE DOOR IS ALWAYS OPEN
And the older brother can come home too, when he finally walks through the door. For you see the father did not close the door. I know in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens, the door is shut, and I believe that was an addition to the narrative added by the early church not Jesus. The story of the Wise and Foolish Maidens is about being prepared for the possibility of a long wait, not punishment if you fall asleep. And that is why God is still speaking is so important. We aren’t stuck with the negative punishment interpretation the early church read into Jesus. The door is open. The older brother is free to step through at any time. The father will not force him or compel him to come to the party, but the door is always open – remember that. I even believe that death does not close the door. God is always open whenever we are willing to come home. God waits for us.
SLIDE 16: FORGIVENESS
Now let me point out some practical implications of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Our motives for coming home to God do not have to be pure. God is ready to accept us no matter why we have returned. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome home. We must never assume we are beyond God’s forgiveness. God’s love is wide enough and deep enough to forgive whatever we have done. God also asks us to forgive others and welcome them home. It may not be easy. Forgiveness may take time. But just as we have been forgiven, so we forgive those who have hurt us. Holding onto grudges only hurts ourselves. God asks us to come inside to the Party, there is no sense remaining outside pouting.
SLIDE 17: THE CHURCH IS NOT A GATED COMMUNITY
The church is not a gated community. It is not our job to keep people out. It is not our purpose to judge anyone’s character or what they have done. Everyone is welcome. Every Sunday is intended to be a celebration of the infinite love of God. Come home to God’s embrace.
SLIDE 18: COME TO THE PARTY
If for some reason we become angry with God. It is O.K. Our alienation from God is our alienation not God’s. The door is always open. God never closes the door. God’s love is eternal. Whenever we are ready, we can come to the Party, because the Party is for us.