Our sermon text this morning is a very familiar story, from the gospel of Luke, chapter 15, verses 11 through 32. It’s a little bit of a long story, and it typically gets truncated, but I wanted to read the whole thing:
Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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.”’
This has to be, I think, one of the favorite stories told by Jesus. I know it’s one that youth groups love to enact out, kids always love to play out that part about feeding the pigs 🙂 You can just do all kinds of great things with that. And it’s a great story because it is as rich in imagery as it is in meaning. This story not only gives us powerful insight into the love and forgiveness of God, but it also gives us tremendous insight into the way that Jesus taught, the genius of his storytelling method, and how in the process he challenges the conventional wisdom.
One of the significant revelations of Biblical scholarship in the last century is the role played by the wisdom tradition in the teachings of Jesus. Within the Bible, there is a body of literature we call the Wisdom Literature. It’s a collection of sayings from the sages of time that comes out of that observation of living. And these sayings present a recipe, if you will, for the good life. Presumed to be the mind or the spirit of God. You often find in them common themes that are reflected in just about every religious tradition. Such as The Golden Rule, that is found in just about every tradition in some form — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
There’s a story of a man who sought out one of the great Rabbi’s of Israel (during the time of Jesus), and ask him to teach him the meaning of the Torah, teach me the entirety of the Torah, while standing on one leg. The first Rabbi said, “That’s impossible”. But then he went to the great Hillel. Hillel thought for a moment and then he said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole of the Torah, everything else is commentary thereon”.
So wisdom tradition can take several forms. The most common is the proverb — a short crystallization of insight into the nature of things. It’s the kind of thing that when you hear it, you say, “Ain’t that the truth”. Now, many of you have seen the movie “Lincoln”, right? Great movie, if you haven’t seen it, you want to see it. Of course Lincoln is a great storyteller. My favorite scene is when he launches into one of his stories and someone gets disgusted and says, “Oh, not one of these stories again!” Can you imagine that? If someone did that to Jesus? Not another parable, and stormed off?
But also the short, pithy sayings, the proverbial sayings are in the movie. I don’t think this particular one was, but it’s a great saying of Lincoln’s on the meaning of motherhood. He says: “No one is poor who has had a godly mother”. Now, ain’t that the truth, right?
There’s a Spanish proverb on the same notion that says: “An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy”. Ain’t that the truth, right 🙂 Amen.
And then there’s the value of aging in this Jewish proverb: “For the ignorant, old age is as winter. For the learned, it is as a harvest”. Huh. If we just think of ourselves in our old age as a plump, juicy, cluster of grapes, you know, that becomes the aged, mature wine with all of it’s flavors. It’s either that or a shriveled-up dried old raisin 🙂 Take your pick 🙂
So, the English have an even better proverb on aging: “The older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune”. Now, most often these catchy one-liners are a reflection of the conventional wisdom that everyone knows. They express the dominant consciousness. “A bird in a hand is worth more than 2 in a bush”. “Give an inch, take a mile”. My personal favorite, from the great ancient culture of eternal wisdom, the Vulcans: “Only Nixon could go to China”. OK, so if you missed Star Trek, you missed that one 🙂
The book of Proverbs is a collection of these kinds of sayings. And some of them ring just as true today as they did 2,500-3,000 years ago. Here’s a great one: “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses”. Yeah, yeah. “One who is slack in work is a close kin to a vandal”. Or then, my personal favorite: “Like a gold ring in a pigs mouth, is a beautiful woman without good sense” 🙂 It’s in the Bible! It must be true 🙂 You probably don’t want to use that on your first date 🙂
And then there are those proverbs that we question. That I think we even would dispute. “Spare the rod, spoil the child”. If there’s a verse of scripture I’d like to strike, it’d be that one — it has resulted in so much domestic abuse, we need to re-think that one.
So, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, the Psalms, all reflect this wisdom literature. Job — the book of Job is an interesting one because the book of Job actually refutes the conventional wisdom of how God rewards the faithful and only the wicked suffer. So if you’re suffering, there must be something wrong that you’ve done. And of course that’s not the case for Job.
Well, Jesus is credited with over 100 sayings that reflect this kind of wisdom tradition. “No slave can serve 2 masters. Either serve God or Mammon (wealth)”. “A tree is known by its fruit”. “The measure you give will be the measure you get”. That’s reflected in other religious traditions, right? Karma, etc.
But what is most striking in the sayings of Jesus is how often they go against the conventional wisdom. “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last”. Tell that to Joe Flacco — after winning the Super Bowl, he signed a $120 million contract. I mean, sometimes the first are just first. Wouldn’t it be nice.
“Those who lose their lives for my sake will find them. Those who save their lives will lose them”. That’s a tough one. Not high on my list. “Let the dead bury the dead”. That’s a real head-scratcher. Particularly in that society that so honored the family tradition, respected the elders, had to be tough to hear. “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God”. Now, aside from the logistical issues there, we forget that camels were unclean — they’re a cloven hoof, and animals with cloven hooves are unclean. Jesus is essentially saying that pigs are going to get into the kingdom of God before the rich. I mean, that’s hard. That’s hard, Jesus.
Even more contrary to the conventional wisdom were the parables of Jesus. For instance, just the concept of a ‘good’ Samaritan was contrary to the understanding for most Jews in the first century, who thought of Samaritans the way that some now think of Hamas in that culture (at least in the way the Jews of that first century viewed them). Take the contrast Jesus makes between the prayer of the Pharisee and then that of the sinner, whom Jesus uplifts (the latter). It’d be like Jesus telling you to follow the example of an ex-con rather than your preacher! I don’t know if it offends you, but it offends me 🙂
And then there’s the parable of the great banquet, where all the outcasts are honored guests. That goes against conventional wisdom at any time or culture. Over and over again, Jesus uses these sayings and stories to challenge the conventional wisdom. To invite his audience to see things from a new perspective, to imagine a different reality than that of the dominant culture. And perhaps the two greatest tenets of that conventional wisdom, refuted by Jesus, were the notion of rewards and punishment (by God) for our behavior, and the image of God as the judge who requires strict adherence to the law. And that’s especially the case in this parable, that we call the parable of what? The Prodigal Son. So the first thing we have to note is the dis-service we perform in calling it that, as if he only has 1 son. Well what about the other one? And already we are confirming the elder son’s worst fears, that he’ll be forgotten! Right — that no-good younger brother of his is the one that gets all the attention! Case in point, we prove it by calling it the Prodigal Son.
And the title misses the point of the parable — there are two sons. One wise, one foolish. Both of them greatly misunderstand the love of God, the forgiveness, the love of the father. According the the conventional wisdom, the younger son has forfeited his inheritance — he’s earned his just-desserts. Penniless in a Gentile country, he’s glad to eat the food of pigs (again, imagine the revulsion of the Jewish audience). It’d be kind of like a citizen of our good, fair city, you know–Eugene, going to work in Corvallis. Nothing wrong with that. A recession hits, you become unemployed, you lose everything, and then you’re forced to go work as the mascot for the Beavers! Now we’re talking horror 🙂
So the son decides to return, to throw himself at the father’s mercy, begging to be taken back as a hired hand. What you have to know is that hired hands are lower than slaves. We don’t think of that because we think of slaves as being the absolute worst, and of course slavery is absolutely horrible, but a master has an obligation to a slave — to at least provide for their existence. A hired hand comes & goes — you can fire a hired hand at any moment. You have no obligation to them whatsoever. So it’s lower than even slaves.
So why is it that he assumes that he will not be welcomed back as a member of the family? It’s conventional wisdom — you get what you pay. Penny-wise and pound-foolish. Look before you leap. And you see, he went against that conventional wisdom, he dishonored his family. He wasted his inheritance. His only hope now is to start over again.
And surprise, surprise, the father — bless his soul — does not see it that way. He doesn’t ask “What happened to my money?!” He doesn’t accuse, he doesn’t blame, he doesn’t teach him a lesson he’ll never forget, he doesn’t lecture. He doesn’t even wait for an apology or a confession, any explanation. He just welcomes him with open arms. Throws a party.
And meanwhile, back on the farm, the older brother is pretty disgusted, which is easy to understand because after all, conventional wisdom says that he is the one who should be rewarded for his loyalty, for his faithfulness, for upholding the family honor. For sitting next to his father in the family pew Sunday after Sunday, right? And what does he get?
So he’s pretty upset. He’s not going to engage in this shameful celebration of wanton living. And note that the father goes out to him as well. Just as he went out to greet the younger son. What is mine is yours, he says. You still have your inheritance. Your brother, however, has lost everything. But he is still a member of this family. Never forget that. So here that good news — he’s lost it all, and he is still a member of the family. He still receives the unconditional love of his father. He suffered the natural consequences of his actions (we talked about that last Sunday). And the natural consequences of God’s action, you see, is that love.
So you see what Jesus has done — he has overturned the most basic assumptions of the conventional wisdom, that life is based on a system of rewards and punishments (God will reward you if you’re good, and punish you if you’re bad) and instead God welcomes him.
See, that’s not the way it works, says Jesus. The younger son has suffered from the natural consequences, but God has not changed. God’s compassion overcomes that. God’s love is unconditional. And as soon as we revert back to that conventional wisdom and we get caught up in that system of rewards and punishments, we contradict God’s compassion. Faith in God is not about believing the right things about God, it is about trusting the way of God. Trusting this way of love and compassion.
So, what, then — shall we all become prodigals? As the apostle Paul writes, shall we sin all the more that grace may abound? By no means. The foolish son is no more a role model for us, right, than is the wise one. Both base their lives on false assumptions of what makes for the good life, and they nearly miss the party. You can’t buy your way in, you can’t work your way in. The only way in is to put your complete trust into that graciousness of God that permeates all that is. It’s like the air we breathe. “Consider the lilies of the field”, says Jesus. The sparrows of the air. Does not God love you as much or more than these?
I think I hear laughter. I hear music. I hear dancing! There’s a party going on! And we are invited. But you know, . . . early to bed, early to rise, got a lot to do tomorrow. Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know. You got to work hard if you want to get ahead. Better safe than sorry.
I wonder who the party is for? Could it be for you? For me? We’ll never know unless we go, but that wouldn’t be wise.
Or would it?