March 10, 2013
“The Scandal of God’s Grace”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
Scripture Reading: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable:
11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.
12 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.
13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
15 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.
16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
17 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!
18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
20 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.
21 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.’
22 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for 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. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.
27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.
29 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.
30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’”
This story is so familiar that sometimes it is hard to really hear it fresh. It is one of the most beloved story in all the Bible. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Dickens called it the greatest story in the Bible. Perhaps that is because we relate to particular characters: the parent because we know what it is like to have our children do hurtful things, the older brother because we can be a little self-righteous now and then, the younger brother because we have lost our way.
There are many titles we could give this story: The Prodigal Son, The Lost Sons, The Waiting Father, The Enabling Father, The Undignified Dad. I would call it, “The scandal of a father who loved his sons so much that it neatly cost him everything.”
We don’t read this story as scandalous because we hear it with our American ears. On some level we get the younger son wanting to go out and spread his wings and make his way in the world, and what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. With the trend of young adults moving back home with their parents (I’ve done it), there may be some parents out there who would like for their children to set out on their own.
But Jesus’ culture was entirely different. This story would have taken the original hearers completely aback. They wouldn’t have seen it coming.
Jesus was eating with sinners, with the lost, and he is criticized for it so he starts telling these parables. One about a lost sheep and another about a lost coin, and there is rejoicing when these lost things are found (I rejoice when I find my lost car keys). Jesus is talking about how much God rejoices when sinners repent.
Just as Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, so does God.
Jesus is talking about repentance – it is Lent and we get repentance.
And then out of the blue comes this story – and we think it is going to continue with this theme: something is lost, it gets found, there is repentance and great rejoicing.
But the story is not really about a lost son, and it is not really about repentance. It is about a scandal. It is about dysfunctional family with a weak patriarch who sacrifices his honor, his livelihood, his retirement plan, and his standing in the community for the love of his children.
In Jesus’ story the father does things no one in his culture would ever do.
To begin with, the younger son asks for his share of the property that would come to him as inheritance when the father died.
You may have heard this before, but that is like saying to his father, “I wish you were dead” or “You are dead to me.” He was asking for not only his share of the livestock, but his share of the family’s ancestral land, the land that would have supported the aging father until his death. Ancient laws had no provision for doing this as far as we know, but the father agrees. The land is sold and the son who should have cared for his parents until their death, abandons them and his family and his community.
It is difficult for us to understand how great a break of trust this was.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “[Jesus’] world was largely agrarian, for one thing. 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 received it in trust from their ancestors and they held it in trust for their children. There was no courthouse where they could record their claims to it. Those claims were kept in the memory of the community, where honor was everything. Break faith with the community or lose its respect and your property lines might be “forgotten,” just like that. A great deal depended on being and having 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.”
This wayward son brought shame on his whole family. He has dramatically affected their means of making a living, and their relationships with their neighbors.
It is difficult for us to understand the power of honor and shame in the culture of Jesus’ day.
To associate with sinners, as Jesus was doing, was shameful.
To lose money to Gentiles was shameful.
To leave your family and your land was shameful.
We don’t really understand this – but there are still cultures around the world where honor is everything. In some places in Africa a woman who is HIV positive who has a baby and who could dramatically reduce the child’s chance of getting HIV by not breast feeding it, will throw away the bottle and formula given to her because it will tell everyone in her community that she has HIV and the shame is too great, and she will be ostracized.
There are places in the world where families kill their daughters because of rumors that they are no longer virgins, even if it was because they were raped.
There are places where boys and girls kidnapped into forced prostitution will not return to their families when they are freed because they are too ashamed and the community will not accept them.
Honor was everything – it meant whether you were connected or not, whether you were worthy of love or not. Whether you were accepted in your home and in your village.
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston and for years she has studied relationships and she gave a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk on shame and vulnerability that has become one of the most watched of all time with almost 8 million views.
And she says in the talk that she started out studying connection. We are hard-wired for connection and she discovered through years of research that what breaks connection is shame – shame being what tells us that we are not worthy of love and connection.
The shame that this younger son brought upon himself breaks his connection to his family and his community. There was even a ceremony that the younger son could expect the community to perform on his return – it is called a Gesasah. This is a ceremony for a son of the village who has lost his money to Gentiles or married an immoral woman. The community would gather around him, breaking large earthenware jars filled with corn and burned nuts and declare that he was to be cut off from the village. His entry into the village would be humiliating as his townspeople expressed their anger and resentment toward him. After that, he is considered an orphan.
So the son leaves, loses everything, becomes an indentured servant to a Gentile, and is sent into the field to feed the pigs, a humiliation to a Jewish man. Even more than that, he is starving so he even considers eating the same food that the pigs are eating. And that is when he realizes that if he just goes home he will at least not be starving.
So here’s where it gets interesting. How many of you think that the younger son is repentant – that he is truly sorry for what he has done?
It is not clear – there are a lot of Biblical scholars out there who doubt that he is. I always assumed that he was.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The prodigal’s hope, apparently, is to reach his father before the village reaches him. He has his confession ready. He isn’t returning home out of love, and he won’t pretend he is. He is returning home out of hunger. He is returning to apply for a job as a hired hand on what is left of the family farm. If he can earn enough to pay back what he has lost, then perhaps he can dodge the gesasah ceremony. Once again, being in relationship is not on the prodigal’s list of priorities. Being in groceries is. Being under a dry roof is.”
The story doesn’t say that he felt sorry, only that he realized he would be better off a slave in his father’s house because he would be treated better and fed.
In the story about the lost coin and the lost sheep Jesus talks about repentance, and uses the word repentance. But he doesn’t in this story, at all. One commentator writes, “Perhaps Jesus’ point is that even scoundrels are joyfully welcomed in God’s household. Just pointing oneself toward home is what unleashes God’s welcome.”
Here is what patriarchs in Jesus’ Middle Eastern culture would not have done. They would not have tolerated any disrespect from their children because of the depth of honor owed the patriarch of a clan. 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 yet this patriarch, the father, in our story runs out to meet his disrespectful son. Aristotle said, “Great men never run in public,” but this father runs.
He runs out like a girl, 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. He runs to get to his son first, before anyone in the community can cast him out. He exposes himself to terrible humiliation to prevent his son from being humiliated.
As one commentator puts it, “His running to meet his son is an expression of a love so strong that one is willing to cast one’s dignity to the winds, to put aside one’s power and position for the good of another.”
Back to Brené Brown’s research – she discovered that what restores relationships, what restores connections that have been broken by shame, is vulnerability. And vulnerability can look different for different people – but sometimes it looks like offering forgiveness before the other person is sorry, and sometime it looks like saying I love you first.
The father is vulnerable – he offers his son a kiss, which was a sign of forgiveness before the son even makes his rehearsed speech which may or may not be sincere, he offers him a robe, the best one, his own robe, which was a mark of distinction, a signet ring which was a sign of authority, and shoes because only slaves go barefoot.
And the father throws a banquet before anyway can throw a shunning party. It is a feast of reconciliation for anyone who will come.
The younger son is literally saved by love and vulnerability of the father.
We so often read this story as a repentance story and maybe even apply it to ourselves – all we need to do is turn around and head home.
But it is not really about repentance – it is a love story. A story about a father’s love that sacrifices everything – honor, wealth, pride, status – for his child.
As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “The restoration of relationship means more to him than being thought great, right or even a good father. His son’s salvation costs him almost as much as his son’s abandonment of him in the first place, yet he never says a word about the price.”
That’s how God loves. God is vulnerable, vulnerable enough to overcome our shame and sinfulness. This is the scandalous story of God’s grace. Our gospel was always a love story about a father longing for us to come home.
In the end, as much as we like to explain Jesus’ parables, it is more important that we experience the story for ourselves. This is our story. God is running out to meet us.