A lot has changed with the family in just a few short generations.
I’ve heard Baby Boomers tell about their childhood and explain that if they did something wrong, their parents would discipline them by sending them out into the yard to get a switch off of a tree – that’s a branch that would be used to switch the legs. The child was to bring back the weapon with which they would be punished and if the switch they chose wasn’t big enough, mom or dad would go get one the right size and it would be so big that you would never make the mistake of bringing in a switch too small again.
Just look around and you’ll see that the approach to parenting today has relaxed a good bit, but you’d be hard pressed to find a parent more permissive than the father we meet in this parable Jesus tells to the crowd of tax collectors and sinners, and pharisees and scribes that are gathered around him.
The father in the parable is approached by the younger of his two sons, who comes to make a demand, but he’s not just asking for access to social media because all his friends are on Instagram, or an Xbox One with NBA2K19, or even a car of his own.
The son says, give me… EVERYTHING. I… want… it… all.
And the father says, “Okay!”
The father takes stock of all that he’s worked for, saved for, and stashed away. He cashes out his stocks and bonds, his equities and annuities, and liquidates half of all that he has and gives it to his younger son.
And this leads us to wonder: What kind of father is this?!
This is the kind of father who has a son who can’t wait to blow town. The younger son heads down the road with his pockets stuffed with cash, spending it like it will last forever, until is doesn’t, and in a far distant town, he realizes that he has spent everything he has and scattered it all into the wind. And then, bankrupt, penniless, and all alone, things go from bad to worse. A famine hits that country and no one has anything to eat.
So the boy gets a job at a local farm slopping the pigs, but he hasn’t eaten for days and as he looks at the gruel in his bucket, he feels the hunger pain in his gut, and the pod soup, which he’s supposed to feed the pigs starts to look good, and he wishes that he could eat it, but no one allows him to have even that.
So the younger son realizes he’s hit rock bottom. He has no food. He’s far from home. He has no friends. He has no one who can help. He may wonder how he could have possibly failed so spectacularly and taken every single wrong turn necessary to end up standing in this field of excrement and mud, with pig food a delicacy beyond his reach.
And then he remembers. His father! His father’s servants at least have food to eat! So he will go home and apologize and throw himself at his father’s mercy. Surely, his father will help.
And we don’t know what really motivates the younger son at this point. Maybe he is contrite. Maybe he has been brought down so low and feels so devastated by his failure that his heart is filled with remorse and he’s prepared to change his ways.
Or maybe he is the same conniving, manipulative, selfish son that his actions have so far shown him to be, and he just knows his father well enough to know if he can get home, his father will be a push-over and will agree to help him.
This younger son’s motivation is impossible to read, but he has a moment of clarity about what’s happened and he heads home.
And in this moment, we learn what kind of father this is.
The father sees his wayward son far off, coming over the horizon, which means he or a servant has posted themselves around the clock to keep watch for the son. He’s kept watch because he loves his son, and maybe because knows his son and his son’s lack of business acumen well enough to know that eventually he’d be coming home empty handed.
And so the son comes over the horizon and the old man is running – not sending a servant or even walking out to meet his son – but running out to meet his son – and the Greek here is even more poignant and lovely than what we heard read this morning.
We heard that the father is filled with compassion and puts his arms around the son but the text actually says that the father throws himself on his son’s neck – imagine the old man’s nose buried deep into the warm flesh of his son’s neck – it says: and he kisses and he kisses him fervently.
Before the son can finish the talking points that he had rehearsed and explain that he had just hoped for some food and maybe a place to live, the Father is calling for the finest robe – which signifies he won’t be working like a servant in the fields – and calling for a ring for his finger, which signifies that his honor as a son has been restored.
is so happy that his son has come home that he calls for a feast. He’s not thinking about his financial ruin,
or the fact that he’s lost half his estate, because he’s too busy giving orders:
“Fire up the grill! Tell everyone you
know: tonight, we sink our teeth into grain-fed beef and all the fix in’s! Bring everyone you see: tonight, there’s
going to be an open bar!” And you can
almost see the guitar players tuning up their strings, as the band counts off
and the first song lifts into the air as everyone heads out onto the
dancefloor. The father has to celebrate because his son is back home under his
roof safe and sound.
But the strains of music aren’t so sweet to everyone. The father’s older son is standing out in the field after a long day of work with tired muscles, and he is incredulous. He simply can’t believe it. He hears the ruckus, and finds out second-hand what the party is all about, and he refuses to come in. It would be a shame worse than death to walk in in order find his reserved seat by locating the little card with his name on it above his plate and to sit down at the table and join this party thrown for his loser brother.
And again, in this moment, we learn what kind of father this is.
The father leaves the celebration and comes out to his eldest son to plead with him to join in the party. Under the stars the father listens to his son’s complaints. He listens as his son finally unbottles his feelings that he’s always seen himself as a slave rather than a son. He listens as his son admits that when he dreams, he dreams of having fun and celebrating with his friends – not with his dad. The father listens as the son grumbles about how terrible his life has been with him at home.
The father listens to this rule-following but cold-hearted son and tries to get him to see that his fatherly love for him isn’t diminished by anything that’s happened. In fact, each day that they were together through his brother’s long absence was precious to the father because the elder son was with him at home.
assures his older son, “All that is mine is yours” and holds out his arms to
the older son, hoping he will give in and join him and his brother and their
family and friends inside, where the party is going strong.
This is the invitation and we are invited to the party.
Our Heavenly Father welcomes us home when we are like the younger son and go astray, when we waste opportunities, when we neglect his compassion, when we ask for things from a place of selfishness, when we try to manipulate him, and when we hurt the people he has put in our lives.
And our Heavenly Father welcomes us home when we are like the older son and are cold-hearted, and judgmental, and have a chip on our shoulder, and don’t want to make room for others who aren’t as faithful or smart or this-or-that as us, and when we think we’re good enough to earn God’s love.
Jesus’ parable features two unfaithful, stumbling sons.
We can focus our eyes on the younger son and see that those who recognize they’re powerless to save themselves and call on God will receive the full welcome, forgiveness, and love of God.
We can focus our eyes on the older son and see that there’s the danger of forgetting how much we need of God, but that even if we do God will forgive us.
And we can probably see parts of ourselves in each of these sons, but really, the best place to focus our eyes is not on the younger or the older son, but the son telling the story – the one who gives us the love of the Father.
Christ we are all brought home, we are forgiven, we are sheltered, we are
kissed and kissed fervently, we are given a robe and a ring, and we’re invited
into the feast that never ends. His
death and resurrection is the celebration that is the bright light in the night
of our despair, our fear, and our wandering.
I don’t know about you but I’ve been far from home. I’ve been through times in my life that were so hard, I didn’t know if I would make it through. I didn’t know if I had it in me to take the next step. In those times there was nothing left to do – no other options – but to pray to God and beg for enough strength to get through the day. And he did give me enough strength. I remember thinking in those times that if I could just keep going; if I could just get through it, one day I would look back on that time and it would be like a dream; almost like it never happened.
This morning, Joshua reminds us of how God brought the Israelites through the desert and after forty long years, how their long wilderness wondering was finally ended as they ate manna for the very last time and finally sunk their teeth into the crops growing on the vines of the promised land. Their years in the desert were over, like a dream they just woke up from, because God saved them.
And Paul tells us that most surprising news that if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. It’s over. It’s almost like it never happened. Everything has become new. Its as if we never were in the far distant land with excrement and mud on our boots. Its as if we never were standing outside the party with our arms folded, too resentful and ashamed to come in.
In our baptism into Christ, we are home with our Father, who keeps watch for me and for you by day and by night.
We have a Father whose discipline is forgiveness. Whose correction is mercy. And whose approach to parenting is grace.
Today God embraces you, protects you, loves you, and invites you to the feast.