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Two versions of the same story…

March 14, 2010

Lent 4C
Luke 15:1-32

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus encounters the grumbling spirit of those who are critical of his missional table practices—that he welcomes sinners and eats with them. In response to this spirit of mistrust—Jesus tells a Story.

The beauty of a really good story is that it speaks to generations of listeners wherever they are. Whether you are living in first century Palestine, in fourth century Rome, in sixteenth century Switzerland, or in 21st century Lancaster County, everyone has a weird family. No matter where we are from…

None of us gets to choose where we are from—the story we are born into. Some of us are from the family business, the Protestant Work Ethic and Land deeded by William Penn. Some of us are from a shanty on a back street with blackened windows—so no one can see the truth.

Some of us are from summer picnics in the backyard…from cousins laughing, playing with sparklers and catching fireflies. Some of us are from the unwed mother and drunkard father, with unnamed brothers and unknown sisters.

Where we are from colors the way we see this story and how we find our place in it. Barbara Brown Taylor describes two distinct versions of this story. The first one goes like this.

The American Protestant version

In 21st century Lancaster or Philadelphia, there is nothing remarkable about a young man who decides to leave his father’s home. When you are the baby brother, you sometimes need space to find yourself…to self-define, to seek your fortune in the world. From Huck Finn to Lance Armstrong, the rugged individual is a national icon. The younger son did what young men are born to do.

Alas, the son falls short of the American ideal. His dream collapses, but all was not lost. He learns from the school of hard knocks and returns home to beg his father’s forgiveness—which his father gives him before he asks. The boy who was lost to his father is found. He still has some things to work out with his elder brother, but he is restored to his family and to his father’s love. And he now has a great conversion story to boot.

Told in this way, the parable is about our individual relationships with God—it’s about individual salvation. When we decide to go home and say we’re sorry, we too can be sure that a banquet awaits us. End of story.

That’s a good story. As Barbara Brown Taylor points out though, it is also an American Protestant one. I wonder what this story might have meant to a Middle Eastern audience hearing it from a Middle Eastern storyteller in the middle of the 1st century. What does Jesus know about the dynamics of this story that we do not?

The Middle Easter version

First of all, his world was largely agrarian. Chances are that nine out of ten of Jesus’ listeners were rural farmers, like the family in the parable. Their land was their livelihood. They were from the family farm handed down from generation to generation. They were from honor thy father and thy mother.

They were from having and being good neighbors. When you needed help getting your crops in before the rain came, or raising a barn—or having a baby, or digging a grave—you counted on the neighbors, the same way they counted on you. Whenever tragedy struck, you could count on neighbors to plow your field, to bring you chicken corn soup and hot ham sandwiches. You invited them to your home and they invited you to theirs. If things worked out the way they were supposed to, your children married their children. In this world, an individual had little meaning apart from his or her family and community.

We might get the whole family thing—the family name, the family history, the family standing in the community. But there are other things about Jesus’ Middle Eastern world that we might not get. Like the huge honor owed the patriarch of a clan and the unwritten code for keeping that honor in place.

When we put on our cultural glasses we see that…Patriarchs did not run. Patriarchs did not leave their places at the heads of their tables when guests were present. Patriarchs did not plead with their children; they told their children what to do. And patriarchs certainly did not transfer their property while still alive.

Understanding all this, we begin to realize that the parable Jesus tells is a story of a dysfunctional family. It is a story about a weak patriarch with two rebellious sons he seems unable to control. It is also the story of a father who is willing to sacrifice his honor to keep his community together. It’s about the high cost of reconciliation. It’s about the setting aside individual rights and identity so that those who are as good as dead in their division may live together in peace.

When the younger son asks for his share of the family property, he deals his father a double blow. He not only means to break up the estate; he also means to leave his father, who counts on both of his sons to care for him in his old age. If there is a mother upstairs listening from behind her bedroom door, then she gets clobbered too.  But the younger son is not thinking about his mother, his father, his family’s honor or his village.  He is thinking about himself—what he needs, what he wants, who he hopes he may turn out to be.  Staying in relationship is not high on his list of priorities. Being his own person is.

His father responds to the double blow with a double turning of the cheek.  He not only divides his property between his sons, though he is still very much alive; he also allows his younger son to sell his share.  So the boy liquidates his inherited assets and hits the road.

Everyone in town hears about it.  There is talk.  What kind of patriarch cannot prevent his son from carving up the family farm?  Does the boy have no shame?  What is a bag of money, compared to land that has fed his ancestors for generations?  What a shame!  The only way that boy might be welcomed back into good graces is if he makes good. Then maybe…

But of course this is not what happens.  Instead, the younger son loses everything, and he loses it to Gentiles—Roman citizens, pagan pig-owners, complete strangers to the God of Israel.  What he does is so reprehensible that the Talmud describes a ceremony to deal with it—a qetsatsah ceremony, to punish a Jewish boy who loses the family inheritance to Gentiles.

The prodigal’s only hope is to reach his father before the village reaches him. He will return to apply for a job as a hired hand on what is left of the family farm.  He will try to earn enough to pay back what he has lost.  He will try to avoid the qetsatsah ceremony.

Rehearsing his confession, he heads home.  He is ready to take the initiative.  He is ready for lunch.  But someone must have seen him coming and told his father, because his father is on the lookout for him.  His father sees him while he is “still far off,” and is filled with compassion.  Then his father does one of those things that patriarchs do not do.  His father runs to his son. He runs so that his robes flutter out behind him like an apron.  He runs like an exuberant kid…like a mother instead of a father—he runs and puts his arms around his son, and kisses him right there on the road, where everyone can see them.

A Feast of Radical Mercy and Reconciliation

The first response we see in the text to the son’s return is radical mercy.  It is the scene so powerfully evoked by Rembrandt.  The father turns to his slaves and tells them to bring his son the best robe in the house, to put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet (only slaves go barefoot).  Next he orders his servants to kill the fatted calf—a clear sign that the celebration about to take place is not a quiet family affair but a feast for the entire village.  It is a feast of reconciliation for anyone who will come.  The prodigal is saved, though not in isolation.  He is saved by being restored to relationship with his father, his family, his clan, his village.

In this story Jesus tells to explain his missional table practices to the grumbling scribes and Pharisees, there is another response to the return of the lost son.  The older son shows up, hears music…dancing, and refuses to go into the house.

This son’s problem is that no one asked him whether he wanted to be reconciled with his good for nothing brother.  No one asked him how he felt about spending what was left of his inheritance taking care of three people instead of two, or being known as the prodigal’s brother.  The elder son is the good son, for pete’s sake!  He has done everything right, and he isn’t about to sit down at the same table with the self-centered, pig-loving, sin-sick brother who has cost his family so much grief.

So the elder son refuses to come in the house.  He stands at a distance… scowling face, arms folded across his chest—a picture of passive aggression.  This is a terrible insult to his father, right there in front of everyone.  The only way for the father to save the evening is to stay right where he is at the head of the table, ignoring his elder son’s conspicuous absence until his guests leave and he can go outside.

So he goes out to his good son the same way he went to his bad one.  He goes out even though he is worn out by these warring, wasteful children of his.  He is saddened by how little it means to them to belong to one another.  He is weary of how much more interested they are in being fulfilled and fed, or blameless and right than they are in being reconciled with each other.

Do we grasp what the father knew—that peace always involves a profound crisis of identity?  What would the father tell us?  Might he tell us that you can’t have peace and stay exactly who you are, or even who you want to be.  Sometimes you sacrifice things as concrete as fields that have been in the family forever.  Sometimes you sacrifice things like honor, greatness, rightness and self-respect. Sometimes you have to run like a little kid to protect your kin, even those who have done you great harm.

The father makes this case to his good son, who is as pig-headed as his bad son, but it is not clear that this child buys his argument.  It feels good to stand in the yard—even when that dishonors the family and divides the village.  It feels good to know who’s right, who’s wrong, and which one you are, even when that shames your father and breaks his heart. And there ends the story…unresolved.

Here is the question that lingers for me.  Do we share the father’s priority for relationship at the feast of reconciliation for all who will come?  Or are we more like the older brother?  More concerned about who’s right and who’s wrong—not wanting to be associated with those who have been to the pig pen.  Are we willing to listen to the stories of those who for many different reasons have left the father’s house to find out who they are?  Are we willing to listen to their stories, stories of why they left the father’s house and how they have been changed by their time away?

There is a feast of reconciliation taking place in the Kingdom of God. All are invited, not everyone comes. May we be given grace and courage to come to this feast—to continue the missional table practices of Jesus.

**Barbara Brown Taylor provided the insight into the two versions of this parable as well as much of the preaching voice that comes to life in this sermon.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    March 15, 2010 9:30 am


    Thanks for sharing the meaning of this powerful story with us. From “where I’m from”, I see myself in both guys in the story that Jesus told. It’s wonderful to experience Jesus’ love and grace and His sustaining relationship with me. Have a good week. Jim

  2. Dave Harnish permalink
    March 16, 2010 3:34 pm

    Good stuff Brian! Have you read Tim Keller’s “Prodigal God”? It adds some additional flavors.

  3. just an apprentice permalink
    March 17, 2010 6:47 am

    Thanks Dave…I have not read Keller’s book that you mention. I have appreciated Keller’s perspective on missional church.

    Just heard you have transitioned to lead pastor at MCC. Blessings!

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