Sunday, March 24, 2024
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“Not all who are lost, wander”
By Rev.  Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, March 24, 2024
Reading: Luke 15:11-32

I’ll be the first to admit we’ve had some strange Bible stories in here lately. Priests burned up at the altar. Brothers murdering each other. Sisters at odds. Let it never be said that the Bible is not realistic. Most of the stories we’ve studied in this sibling rivalry series since Christmas are unfamiliar, even unknown. But today, it’s different. Today we get well-known. The so-called Prodigal Son.

Father: give me my share of the estate now. That is, father, you are dead to me. I want your money, and not any further relationship with you.[i] And the father agrees. The family has to sell ancestral land to grant this request for cash. Land they’d tended for generations, where forebears are buried. It will now be tended by strangers, a daily reminder of this insolent brother’s humiliation. And his father may well grow old alone. In traditional cultures, every child’s first obligation is to care for parents in their old age. Not going to happen. The boy goes off and spends the money in a selfish spree. And the father bears this triple insult: inheritance now, family land gone forever, son not there to care in old age. Apparently if you read this story in traditional cultures to this day, they can’t believe it. ‘The father will beat the son.’ ‘No, the father will kill the son.’ No father would bear such insults. But this one does, in Jesus’ parable.

Now as good readers of the Bible we know what to think about first and second sons. You’ve been listening these last four months, right? Ancient cultures expect the first child to be favoured, blest, given more goodies. But Israel’s story always upends that expectation. The second or last or unfavoured is blessed, given more stuff, preferred. Well, this second son upsets that upset expectation. He’s the worst. Denies his father, takes his money, wastes it. Hires himself out to feed pigs. That’s the ultimate Jewish in-joke. Feeding pigs, disgusting animals no Jew would come near, let alone eat. And he envies the pigs. He wishes he had their food. You can’t get any lower.

This story is why we Christians are suckers for a good conversion. No matter how low you go in life, God can find you there. You can come to your senses and come home. The door is never closed to you. You still know where the key is hidden. We’re waiting.

The boy returns. The father glimpses him a long way off, and he runs. Ancient people didn’t run for fun. And older people never ran without an emergency. A friend of mine did a semester abroad in Israel in the 90s, and when she would go jogging people would stop and ask if she needed help. Who’s chasing you? Even today most adults will never sprint again after childhood, and we all think jogging is healthy. This father runs. Because he misses his boy, and delights in his return. Cuts off the rehearsed speech. Hired hand? No. Quick, get the robe, the ring, the fatted calf, my dead son is alive again! One scholar says the father runs to shield the son. The other villagers will throw things at the child, or even want to kill him. You disgrace your father and come back and show your face here? You should stay dead. The father protects the boy from this onslaught. Another scholar says we shouldn’t call this the parable of the prodigal son. We should call it the parable of the running father. What would it take to get the old patriarch to hike up his robes and dash across the desert? Love for this child, no matter what he’s done.

I called this sermon “not all who are lost wander.” I’m playing on the Tolkien saying, “not all who wander are lost.” The hobbits wander, not in a straight path, to Mordor to save Middle Earth. The Israelites wander 40 years in circles in the desert. They’re sort of lost, but under God’s guidance. This elder son has not wandered but is the definition of lost. He’s stayed by the father’s side. Done everything he’s ever been asked to do. Never needed an ounce of mercy. But the prodigal returns and whoa, robe? Ring? Shoes? Calf? Party? Hey, that’s my stuff! The younger son already got his inheritance and squandered it, remember? Anything the father gives to that loser now comes out of the elder son’s future inheritance. Just like his brother, he doesn’t want a relationship with the father so much as he wants the father’s money. He’s just waiting to get it, as socially accepted, when the father dies. The elder son says he’s slaved away for the father all these years. No, he’s a son, not a slave, but he’s convinced the father has done him wrong. Never even a goat to celebrate with my friends.

Ever felt a twinge of envy? Or an avalanche? Someone wise said “comparison is the thief of joy.” The elder brother is altogether envy. Without joy. Someone else wise said we should call this the parable of the two lost sons. One is lost in a more obvious way: rejecting the family, wasting its wealth. The elder is lost in a less obvious way. He has not wandered or wasted. He has been dutiful, observant, but he is joyless, calculating that he’ll get what’s his in due time. Unless this loser of a brother snakes back in and takes it first. He refers to his own brother as “this son of yours.”

We religious types have loads of sermons about the prodigal son. The lost child who comes home. Every decent musician has a story like that: Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Elvis, every African American singer ever, either grew up in church or converted back to it or both. Amazing Grace is our favourite song for a reason. The play Kim’s Convenience on which the TV series was based, by Toronto’s own Ins Choi—it’s a prodigal son story and was the most watched show in Canada for a time. We’ve got space and time for lost second sons. But elder sons? Upstanding religious types who never do anything wrong and don’t need a moment’s mercy? We don’t have so many hymns or sermons about those. Maybe it’s too close to home. We church goers tend to be more like this elder son, dutiful, observant, looking down on those less deserving. Jesus calls us both . . . lost. You can reject God by wasting your life. Or you can reject God by being very diligent. You can reject God by rejecting faith. Or you can reject God by embracing faith. Church is a great place to hide out from Jesus. Both these boys want the father’s money but not any relationship with the father. They just have different strategies for how to get the money: now or later; before the appropriate time or at the right time. Neither wants the father’s love or mercy. The second son just wants to be a hired hand and something better than pig slop. The first son just wants what’s his. The story ends and no one knows how it turns out.

But the father? He’s the running one. He doesn’t wait for the second son to get home, he runs out to meet him, protect him, welcome him with all he has. He doesn’t wait for the first son to get over his pity-party. He goes out and pleads with him to come to a real party, with the music and the BBQ. Please, we have to celebrate your brother who was dead and is now alive. This father is the prodigal one. Prodigal just means extravagant, wasteful, uncalculating. The prodigal father leaves the safety of home to come get us wherever we are, however we reject him. He’s like the washer woman in the parable just prior, who loses a coin, and moves the heavy furniture and the kitchen appliances and the washer-dryer out to the yard, finds her quarter and summons a party for the neighbourhood: hey, look, I found my quarter! Yeah, good for you, weird lady. He’s the father who doesn’t take offense, let alone beat or kill his son for the insult of asking for his inheritance. He gives all. Then when it’s wasted, as he knew it would be, he rushes out to welcome the waster home with more. He doesn’t berate his observant dutiful elder son for not coming to the party. He rushes out to beg him to come in. Please, my home is a party, and we need all to celebrate.

I wonder which of these sons you identify with? Which way you’re tempted to reject God? I know I’m more like the elder son, counting up spiritual achievements, cataloging others’ failures. Martin Luther would advise his hearers to sin more boldly. No more of these petty little sins. Go do something God actually has to die on a cross to forgive you for. Christ’s heart is tender for those farthest away. Those who think they’re near: religious authorities, churchgoers, he has hard words for us. A friend of mine is an unlikely pastor, foul-mouthed, much tattooed, former bartender and stand-up comic. Someone confessed a sin to her that was actually worth committing: something juicy. And in tears she said it’s so good to know whatever I’ve done my pastor has done worse. More sin is more chance for mercy. You see I admire the second son, but I know I’m more like the first. Standing outside the party, not going near the sinners, thanks, I’m good out here. In the cold. With my righteous indignation and seething rage at this waste of resources that should be mine.

In the New Testament church, this story may be about Jews and gentiles. Jewish people have been observant since Abraham and Sarah. The rabbis tell a story of God offering the yoke of his Torah to every nation on earth. All the great nations refuse: the Babylonians and the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. But little old no-account Israel says, okay, we’ll do it. We’ll take your yoke of Torah. We’ll be your people. Well. When Luke is written, gentiles, non-Jews are flooding into church, coming to faith in Jesus, being baptized. This is too good a party to turn down. And if you’re Jewish you might think, wait, we wore the yoke of Torah for millennia, who are these Johnny-come-latelies? Gentile Christians are the wasteful younger brother. Jewish people are the dutiful older brother. And what does the father say? He begs both to come to the party. The father says to his older son, “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” That’s over against the church’s long history of antisemitism. God is never not with his people of Israel. Everyone’s invited to this party, we only stay out by choice, stewing in resentment, but it only hurts ourselves. Our wise friends in AA say unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. You could apply it to any alienated people, siblings at odds. God is rushing, running, to bring reconciliation, and will never rest until he has it.

Look at this father. This prodigal father, wastefully spending himself, running, forgetting how to be mad, never playing moral accountant. You see the point, right? We can’t just be super nice in here, in the building. That’d be like the father staying home. No. We have to run, without dignity, down the street, for those God loves. We have to leave to plead with those not here: our party is not complete without you. Our goal in mainline churches has been to lower the threshold so people come back. When we’re nicer folks will come back. When we’re more accepting they’ll flood in. When we’re more orthodox they’ll believe us. But people aren’t straining to come back, inhibited by some obstacle we can remove. No, we have to go get them. They have good reasons not to be here. But we need them at this party. They need to be at this party, especially if they don’t think so. Because this party is nothing but mercy. This parent is nothing but mercy. And no one can escape his mercy. He lets none of us alone as we refuse him, but begs us to come in. And his party continues in Jerusalem this week, on a hill outside it this Friday, and in a borrowed grave next Sunday. Amen.


[i] It may be clear in the plain letter of scripture, but I got this interpretation from Tim Keller.