March 10, 2013
Robert G. Moore, Senior Pastor
Christ the King Lutheran Church, Houston
The Readings (New Revised Standard Version) and Psalm (ELW) for the Day:
Psalm 32 Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the LORD. (Ps. 32:11)
2 Corinthians 5:16–21
Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
As I was growing up in a “good” middle class home, I took in a lot of the lessons that my parents taught by their example but also their words. I do recall forming the belief that the world was neatly arranged into cause and effect patterns.The key to life was to learn the good things to do, so that the effects of those good things would return.
Maybe you had such an experience in your upbringing. What parent does not want their child to grow up understanding the things that are good to do and the things that are not good to do. Specialists in human development affirm that we human beings grow up through a moral phase. Some of us specialize in doing the good things. Some of us specialize in doing the bad things.
I don’t understand why, but that is the way it is. Society begins to separate the sheep and the goats quite early. If as a child you specialized in the good things, you were a good kid. If you specialized in the bad things, you were the bad kid.
The Bible is full of examples. The contrast is often presented in the family where two brothers exemplify the contrasts. Cain and Abel, for example, show us the mystery of human beings. The story teller tells only that each brother brought an offering to God. God liked Abel’s offering but did not seem to like Cain’s offering. Cain was so angry in this situation that he killed Abel. (Cf. Genesis 4) The Bible doesn’t explain why or how. It just is.
Now when I was little, we all assumed that Abel was the good boy, and Cain was the bad boy, but we do not know that. Maybe Cain was angry because he had been good and he felt God was unfair by approving Abel’s offering, when Abel was not necessarily good.
Who knows the answer here? No one knows. But the literature is full of pondering the mystery. John Steinbeck devotes a whole novel, East of Eden, to this riddle of life.
You can find in the Bible other siblings at odds with one another. There is Isaac and Ishmael. And there is the famous feud between Jacob and Esau. (Cf. Genesis 33) Jacob tricks and steals from his older brother until Jacob realizes that Esau is so enraged that he will kill him. So Jacob leaves home and goes to a far country, where he is a big success. But Jacob wants to go home after years of work. On the way back he is anxious that Esau will come to him to kill him. When, in fact, Esau encounters Jacob, Esau runs to meet him and falls on his neck and kisses him. There they wept in each other’s arms.
We read in Genesis 50 the story of Joseph and his brothers. Suffice it to say that biblical wisdom recognizes the puzzle that is our relationships. Sorting out who is good and who is bad is perhaps necessary, but it is also insufficient for living our lives. After Joseph’s brothers had thought to kill him, they sold him into slavery. Joseph became the vice-regent of Egypt. When he had his chance to take revenge on his brothers, he chose rather to invite them to dine with him.
But Joseph’s brother suspected that Joseph was kind to them in order not to offend their father. When their father Jacob died, the brothers feared for their lives. Joseph’s brothers fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. (Genesis 50:18b-20)
As I grew older, I kept my eyes on my older brother and the other kids in our small town. I clung to the belief that good kids would thrive and the bad kids would fall into ruin. This belief soon did not hold up. The good kids and the bad kids would go off to college. It was as if they went off to another land. I noticed that the key to their ongoing maturation and character did not depend on their having been good or bad. The good ones went away and returned after falling into trouble. The bad kids returned having charted a different path.
At some point we human beings have to grow beyond the moralism of childhood. Life is not simple, and it certainly does not yield to our calculations as to who is good and who is bad.
It is just such wisdom that the parable of the father and his two sons offers to us. Whether we identify with the father or with one of the sons does not really matter in this great story. For the parable nudges, even pushes us beyond our moralistic world.
It does so by confronting us with life and death. The brash young son thoughtlessly insists that his father give him his inheritance. Give me my inheritance now is about the same as saying, “Drop dead.” One would expect the father to be offended or maybe hurt or angry. But the father does as the son asks. He gives him a part of his own life.
The son then leaves and goes to a far country. By leaving his Jewish homeland the younger son has himself become dead to his father and his brother. He lives among the Gentiles. As long as the money holds up, things go well. But he runs out of money fast. A famine arises and he is forced to do the abhorrent thing. He must go to work on a pig farm. This is about as low as one can fall.
It is at that moment that the insight breaks in. The son decides to go home. It does not say that he feels bad. In fact, the story reveals a desperate person doing anything he can to survive. He composes a speech in which he confirms that he is dead to his father and would ask only that he be allowed to be a servant.
That is when the scandal of it all occurs. The father will have none of it. The moment he sees his son on the horizon, he runs out to greet him; his heart fills with compassion; he embraces his son and kisses him. As the son begins to confess his sin, the father interrupts his speech and announces, “Let the feasting begin! Bring out the best clothes, and a ring. Prepare the fatted calf. Let’s celebrate!”
The parable is a scandal to our simplistic, moralistic world views. It is the older brother who mirrors our displeasure in discovering that the wasteful living of the younger son is matched by an even more wasteful extravagance of the father.
Dear brothers and sisters, this story is not about the prodigal son. It is about the prodigal father! The older son appears and is told that his brother has returned. One hears the music and dancing in the background. The older son grows angry at his father who does not enforce the rules. So the older son withdraws by refusing to celebrate. When the prodigal father comes out to him, the older son treats him like he is dead. He will not even address him as “Father.” He just reads his father the riot act.
The prodigal father will not listen and declares,
Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. (Luke 15:21-22)
Like it or not, brothers and sisters, our faith is not about being right or being wrong, being good or being bad. Our faith pushes us to the dimensions of life and death, of being lost or being found.
When we were baptized, we were not declared good. We were declared dead and risen in Christ Jesus. To be alive in Christ is to discover a whole new self re-created to live and to enjoy life with others. It is to experience the prodigal God coming out to greet us, embracing us and kissing us. This God makes us alive with compassion for all who suffer whether it is their fault or not. This God says, “Welcome home.”