Sunday, July 13, 2014

Second Chances (7/13/14)

Second Chances
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 13, 2014

Luke 15:11-32
Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The 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. A 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. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But 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! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So 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. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “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.”

Meals of the Bible is the theme for summer. 

The meal featured today is one of the more famous in the Christian tradition.    It is the meal that is prepared by the father for the younger son who returns.   This parable and the parable of the Samaritan are two parables most attested in Christian artwork.   If anyone knows any parable of Jesus, it is likely to be either "The Good Samaritan" or "The Prodigal Son."    

Bernard Brandon Scott, who was with us a few years ago with the Jesus Seminar, has an insightful analysis of this parable, in his book Re-Imagine the World:  An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus.  I am using some of his insights in this sermon.

This parable provides the narrative for the theology of repentance.   The individual comes back from the far country into the warm embrace of the father.

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
calling for you and for me. 
See, on the portals he’s waiting and watching,
watching for you and for me. 
“Come home, come home!  You who are weary, come home.”
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling,
“O sinner, come home.”

That 19th century hymn was inspired by the imagery of the father watching for the prodigal son to return home.    In this theology, the most important thing is the relationship between the sinner, that is you and me, and the father or God.   

But that is only half the parable.   There is another son.   The man had two sons.  The parable is not so much about the father’s relationship with the son as it is about the relationship between the sons. 

Luke sets this parable in the context of Jesus welcoming tax collectors and sinners.   He is criticized for that by the Pharisees.  This the third of three parables in that context.  The parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and then this third parable.   This parable is read in light of the other two as one in which a lost son, like the coin and sheep, are found.   This justifies why Jesus spent time with the so-called “lost.”

This parable is from the sibling rivalry tradition.  Every culture has them.   There are other stories of sibling rivalry throughout the biblical tradition.  It begins with Cain and Abel.   Ishmael and Isaac.  Esau and Jacob.  Leah and Rachel.   Judah and his brothers and Joseph.  

In all the above cases, the favored one, the apple of the eye is the younger.    That is a problem.   In terms of sons and fathers and inheritance, the vast portion of the inheritance went to the older son while the remaining sons divided up the rest.   By that time, it wasn’t much.   It was the older son who kept the estate and the family intact.    The younger sons needed to fend for themselves.   Of course, the daughters needed to rely on marriage.   

There is a legal tradition that favors the firstborn son.  There is a subversive storytelling tradition that sides with the younger son.  

There is also a wisdom tradition in regards to patriarchs.  In the book of Sirach in the Old Testament apocrypha, this advice is given to fathers:

To son or wife, to brother or friend,
   do not give power over yourself, as long as you live;
and do not give your property to another,
   in case you change your mind and must ask for it.
While you are still alive and have breath in you,
   do not let anyone take your place.
For it is better that your children should ask from you
   than that you should look to the hand of your children.
Excel in all that you do;
   bring no stain upon your honour.
At the time when you end the days of your life,
   in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance.

Don’t give your money to your kids before you are dead.   It is a matter of honor.  Everybody knows that.   When the younger son asks for his share, he is dishonoring his father.  It is as though he is wishing him dead.

The father dishonors himself and the family even further by granting the request.   Something is wrong right from the start.   The father is foolish.    He lets the younger son have the share and the son leaves and spends it wastefully.    One of the reasons this parable is popular is because it resonates.  We all know this kind of story.  

He loses his money and tough times hit.  Famine.   He will likely die.  There is no safety net.   This is Paul Ryan’s Holy Land.     The younger son further shows his lack of honor or self-respect by living with pigs.    You can’t get lower than that.    When he finally realizes that he cannot even eat what the pigs eat, the text says:

“…he came to himself.”

He came to his senses.   Some might say he repented.  OK.   He decides to survive.  He calculates a speech to deliver to his father and he sets off for home.    Before he even arrives at home, his father, watching from the “portals” runs to him, a shameful act to be sure for a patriarch, and greets him with according to the Greek text, repeated kisses.    The father doesn’t even let his son finish his rehearsed speech.  He gives him the robe, the ring, sandals, and instructs the servant to prepare the fatted calf. 

He won’t be a hired hand.  He will be a son.  The whole village will feast.  A fatted calf is a lot of meat and you need to eat it all before it spoils.   

All without even a scolding.

You know what?  The younger son got away with it.  He got his inheritance and his fatted calf, too.   How many times has the younger brother done this?  How often has he gotten away with dishonoring his father and the family and manages to get in his foolish father’s good graces?     I know that parents and grandparents and especially siblings know this story.   It is the child who never grows up and who gets away with anything and everything because the parents can’t and won’t let them go. 

If you don’t think something is wrong with this picture of the father foolishly being suckered once again by the younger son, just ask the elder brother, working in the field as he has been all his life.    In this setting, the elder son might be a generation older.  He might even be the son of a different mother.    We might expect him to be middle aged by now and the one who runs the estate. 

He is in the field while the celebration is happening.  He asks a servant about it.  The servant tells him:

“Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”

Isn’t that great news!!  

Hmmmph.  The elder brother, the word for elder is presbuteros, where we get the word Presbyterian by the way, is not amused.  The Presbyterian has been there all along, doing the work, being loyal, waiting patiently.  

“Party for that one, eh?  I’ll just stay outside.”

I don’t know how long he waited, but long enough to build up a good head of steam.    The father doesn’t ignore him.   He is “watching and waiting on the portals” for this son, too.  Instead of doing the fatherly thing of commanding this older son who is now the one dishonoring his father, the foolish father goes out to him and doesn’t command but pleads with the older brother.     

Then the father gets an earful.  It is the longest speech by any character in the whole parable:

“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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
There it is.   Notice the distancing of the relationship.  “This son of yours” as opposed to “my brother.”    The detail of the prostitutes is interesting.  Was the older brother spying or just guessing?    Of course, the feeling of being unloved.  

“…you’ve never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends…”

That is a good speech.   The storyteller, whether it was the historical Jesus or the author Luke, or someone else, captured the anger.  You can hear a lifetime of bitterness in those few lines.   Children of all ages know about fairness and unfairness, at least how they perceive it.  The other sibling gets better treatment than I do.

The younger son is partying inside, with his ring, robe, and sandals, perhaps thinking he got away with something.   The older brother outside, angry, knowing he got away with something.   Then the father, who knows the truth.   He tells the older brother:

“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.”

Again, the father uses terms of endearment as opposed to command and control.   The father tells him that all he has is already his son’s.   His son has all the wealth and the power.  Yet he is angry, thinking it is unfair.  Whatever the younger son may think he has, he doesn’t have any wealth or power.    Whatever inheritance he had, he squandered.   One day he will be at the mercy of the older brother.   He is still a son, but the stuff belongs to the older brother.   

The father reminds his older son who they are:  “this brother of yours.”   That is perhaps the only command the father makes to either of his sons.   “This brother of yours.”   You are brothers.   Don’t forget that.  You need to rejoice

“…because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

This parable in my view is not really about Jesus welcoming the prodigal sinner such as you and I home even though evangelical piety has portrayed it as such.    The parable is the tireless work of wisdom and reconciliation working on behalf of relationships between siblings.     It is about getting us to acknowledge this brother, this sister of ours.    It is about the truth that each of us is our sister’s and our brother’s keeper, whether that sister or brother is of blood or not.  

Bernard Brandon Scott concludes his commentary on this parable by writing:

So what happens next?  The audience is perhaps asked to imagine a third act.  Soon the father will die. Then what?  If the sons continue on with their established scripts, they are headed for a collision.  One will kill the other.  Or they can follow the father’s script and surrender their male honor and keep on welcoming, accepting, and being with the other.

They have a choice between being lost or found, dead or alive.  Pp. 82-3.

It is fitting that the father’s last speech is to the older brother.  It is the older brother who has the means, power and wealth to make peace.   He is by those standards not the victim.  He hasn’t been treated unfairly.   He has all of the wealth of the father.  As soon as his father dies, the fate of his younger brother will be his to decide.   Yet he thinks of himself as a victim.

The stories of siblings in the Bible are presented as stories of unfair or unbalanced circumstances.   In the first story of sibling rivalry, The Lord shows favor on Abel’s offering rather than Cain’s.   Cain is upset.  The Lord speaks to Cain and tells him that there is a lion crouching at the door.  Don’t let it master you.  In other words, yeah, life is unfair.   Don’t let anger over that rule your life.    We know the rest of the story.  Cain is not able to master it and he kills his brother.   

Life is based on unfairness and imbalance.   It is not fair that just because you are born first that you get all the stuff.  It isn’t fair that just because you didn’t choose to be born first that you have undue responsibility.  It isn’t fair that Rebecca favored Jacob and helped him steal Esau’s birthright.    I always thought of that story that Esau was the bigger man at the end.    He was the one who hugged Jacob’s neck. 

One of the things I have noticed about the biblical stories is that they are not fair and they don’t even try to be fair.  They just are what they are and the characters have to decide how to live with that.    Some of them carry that unfairness with them their entire lives.  They live with a perpetual victimhood.

In the news today, the modern nation-state of Israel is bombing Gaza.  Israel thinks of itself as a victim even as it has the some of the most powerful and sophisticated weaponry on planet Earth.    When the oppressed out of sheer hopelessness fire worthless rockets, the propaganda machine kicks into full gear.  Israel still thinks of itself as David against Goliath.   It has the capability to end the occupation and to make peace.   Time will tell what its choice will be. 

How often are our choices and attitudes based on a self-perception of victimhood.  We think the world is against us.  How easy it is to fall into that trap.   We may tell ourselves, “I wasn’t loved like I needed to be or wanted to be.”   True enough.  So who pays for that?   Do we pass that debt on to another generation?
  • Or is there a way to call for a Jubilee? 
  •  Is there a way to cancel those debts? 
  •  Is there a way to stop the cycle of victimhood and the resulting violence against self and others?  
  •  Is there a way for those two brothers to recognize that both have a case? 
  • Is there a way to let the case go and find each other?
What did the younger brother think of himself?   The younger brother, surviving the way he knows how acts out and shirks responsibility.    The older brother, unforgiving, knows the feeling of favoritism shown to the younger.   He folds his arms.  Resentful.

Everyone has his or her stuff.  

Nations have it.  Families have it.  Churches have it.   Perpetual victimhood.  It just isn’t fair.  Someone is getting more than me.   I know of congregations so divided they broke into factions over hymnbooks.     They couldn't decide and so they kept two hymnbooks.  Each side counted the number of hymns chosen from one hymnbook over another to be sung on any given Sunday, just to confirm for the record who was being treated as the favorite.

Meanwhile the father plays the fool. 

Running out to each sibling to demonstrate what is truly important.   To each he shows that each is his son whom he loves.   He hopes that his love for them will somehow carry over into love for each other.   Hoping that somehow by some miracle, each will lose his narrative of victimhood.   Hoping they will find a way to see each other as the father sees them both.   Hoping they will each give the other a second chance.

“This brother of yours,” he says.   

This brother of yours.


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