John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to[a] one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. 17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise 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 as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And 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 servants,[c] ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”Luke 15:11-32
Anglicans are Bible folk. Our Biblical formation is structured through readings laid out in daily morning and evening prayer and in the Sunday lectionaries. So when Jesus says: “There was a man who had two sons” you’re probably saying to yourself “Hey, Hold on, I’ve heard this before in other stories”. And you’re quite right.
In the library that is the Bible one can leaf through page after page of stories about fathers and children, sons and brothers. Only a few pages into Genesis we are listening to the brothers Cain and Abel and their deadly relationship. And we note once again the absence of their father Adam in word and deed. Not too further on we encounter Noah’s troubled relationship with his sons after the flood recedes. Arguably the most complex and disturbing of all the stories in the whole of the biblical library involve Abraham and his sons Isaac and Ishmael. In the story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob, the younger brother, receives the family inheritance by deception. The patriarchal period closes with the longest sustained narrative in the Bible about a father, Jacob and sons and brothers in the Joseph stories.
The conquest and settlement periods narrate a well known father/son conflict in the Samson saga. A less well known but notable example that overturns the whole father/son cross section is the tragic story of Jephthah and his unnamed daughter. The monarchical period enlarges the anthology narrating sustained conflict between newly crowned Saul, his son Jonathan and the “adopted son/brother” David, then further down this path David’s own family tragically begins breaking up starting with sons Amnon and Absalom and ending eventually in the breaking apart of the united kingdom itself between the brothers Jeroboam and Rehoboam.
There is another father – son/child story that doesn’t get much air-time. Please, allow me to provide a “big picture” theological platform for this morning’s Gospel lesson. The Sinai covenant – Ex. 19 all the way through Deuteronomy – is framed as a relationship between a loving father, YHWH and his son/child, Israel. In covenantal thinking YHWH is not an employer who pays wages but a father who desires a proper relationship with Israel. He is obeyed, not for the reason of compensation, but out of love. Now YHWH, through His compassionate, graced redemption, freed Israel to obey even disobey covenantal directives. His major role, played out as a father, loves Israel enough to let them have freedom to make their own choices/decisions. And as a caring parent is always waiting and willing to help with each child’s individual needs. The Sinai covenant is the Lord’s refusal to limit the measure of grace. Admittedly the results have often been disastrous and painful for both as a quick read through prophetic literature will show. Nevertheless a careful reading of covenant literature discloses sin isn’t defined in legal terms but in relational terms. Disobedience or sin is nothing to be trifled with because it is a breaking of a family relationship. Sin is not a matter of not keeping the rules but deliberate offenses actively failing to maintain an open, loving relationship with YHWH, with community, with family and with neighbors (TDOT 3: 272-273).
In this morning’s lectionary Jesus adds a finely crafted story to the biblical archives from his cultural setting. The immediate intention is to take issue with social/religious divisions between “brothers”– “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (15.1). Jesus responds to the raised eyebrows of the “good” folk about his close relationship with “drug dealers and loan sharks” with three parables: first about returning a lost sheep to its flock, the second about successfully finding misplaced money and then this story about the return of a wayward son/brother.
Luke’s intentions for Theophilus are more subtle. The parables involve the kingdom mission of the Father presenting Israel with “my beloved son whom I have chosen”. They’re not an attack on all Pharisees. Remember he sits at a table with Pharisees and sinners. Rather, the parables lead Theophilus and listener/reader on a collision course with choices, decisions, recognition, responsiveness, forgiveness and repentance. Everything will depend onTheophilus and the reader/listener in the scenes. Who or what are you going to identify with? Are you willing to step onto the stage and act out the scenes?
The story begins with the youngest son demanding “Show me the money” as if his father is a banker. The dramatic shock effect is that the demand is for an obviously smaller share of any inheritance. That the youngest had the audacity to ask suggests his relationship with the family was not all that great before the demand. So let’s look more closely. It’s actually more stark, more cutting. The father, perhaps like many a parent, knew what the boy was going to do. Nonetheless he grants the demand, dividing the inheritance between the two sons – 2/3rds to the oldest 1/3rd to the youngest. Allow me to point out something subtle. The translation reads property but the sentence reads he divided his “Life” not merely property. The point is to feel the heart wrenching pain that comes when the child who is the light of his life is about to remove himself from his father, his family and the community that nurtured him. And we as readers are tempted to yell “Don’t do it”!
With a saddlebag of cash, he backs his cherry 409 supercharged camel out of the driveway, lays down rubber, and in a cloud of smoke heads for fame and fortune in a land far away. In recklessly, self-indulgent misbehavior, he loses his inheritance. We don’t know the precise details of the wasteful. lavish behavior but remember what he wasted was his father’s life not money or things.
His downward mobility into poverty is swift. He encounters a perfect storm – in this story – famine. Without family, financial support, training or skills and facing starvation, he hires himself out as a day laborer tending pigs and longing to eat with them.
Jesus tells us he “came to his senses” and in a skilled use of interior speech, we hear what Junior is thinking. First , he will go to his father, admit that he has sinned against the Lord and wronged his father. Grave words of confession and repentance over a broken relationship. He was lost and dead in sin. And it’s the subtlety in theological storytelling that thrills me. Here the participles arise and arose in vs. 18 and 20, used in the immediacy of this narrative about repentance suggest coming back to life because they are the theological word for resurrection. And they pre-set us for the father’s joyus exclamation “this brother of yours was dead but is alive again (vs. 32). But second, take note of this: Even though “father” dominates the rehearsed speech, Junior will ask him if he can be hired as a day laborer. Momentarily, he still regards him as a boss/employer who controls the finances.
Now glance back to the opening sentence “there was a man who had two sons”. The youngest is going to step aside from the story as we focus our attention on the central character of the story – the father. This father has been scanning the horizon, waiting and watching eagerly for his son’s outline against the sky. And when he sees his son far off his response is captured in a rhetorically powerful rush of verbs. The father is “moved with compassion”, without hesitation he gets up, runs, embraces and affectionately kisses him. Interrupting the son’s prepared day worker speech, he commands servants to accessorize the son with robe, ring, sandals – emblems of restoration to sonship and fatherly care. And he commands them to set the table with a festival meal. Overwhelmed by such demonstration of compassion, the son can only say, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son”. But the father had long ago made up his mind what he would do if the son ever showed up on the outskirts of the village. His son was dead and lives again; he was lost and is found.
The lead verb “moved with compassion’ in this rush of verbs is profoundly theological. It is a depth word drawn from Sinai covenant vocabulary. Here is the central point of the story: to emphasize to Pharisees, sinners and tax collectors that compassion is the major feature of Jesus’ ministry. Compassion defines what it means to be Israel’s Lord. To be Lord is to be vulnerable to the suffering of another. To be Lord is to feel your insides churn and to act on it, to do something. To be Lord is to heal, restore, renew, and in all ways to help. Compassion is important as it allows Jesus to imagine himself in our shoes. Compassion is what arises when he is confronted with our suffering and it motivates him to want to do something to relieve that suffering (IDB 3.352-354).
Up to this point in the story the younger is the one who is lost. But before we take a seat at the festival table there is the matter of the lead sentence “there was a man who had two sons”. This story isn’t going to end seated at the table but with two men standing in a field: one emotionally urging compassion; the other angrily resisting reconciliation.
Like the younger brother the older brother appears on the horizon but stops short of the house and speaks to a slave not his father. He’s angry and refuses to join the festival table. Much to our surprise, the older son will be a lot like the younger – selfish, preoccupied with his own interests. Will the father bring this lost son home?
Notice the slave’s report actually voices the motives for the older son’s frustration and alienation. “Your father has received him back safe and sound”. Intentionally he ran out to reconcile with his son while he was still far off deliberately restoring peace where there was discord.
Now children, unlike sheep and coins, have long memories and a voice of their own. This son blurts out his rage scolding his father with bitter words: ‘Listen old man, I’ve slaved for you all these years. I’ve never disobeyed your commands. You never gave me so much as a young goat to celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who devoured your life with prostitutes, you killed the festival calf for him! In a twist he bases his relationship on the finances also. His father’s not following the rules. Smacking of favoritism, he let the “little brat” come back without a plan to pay back what was lost. The father is a boss to be obeyed, a banker to be respected “Show me the reward I deserve; I’ve earned it by being “faithful”.
Re-affirming their close relationship, the father addresses the older son tenderly, compassionately “Child, All that is mine is yours”. But more is at stake so he reasserts the older brother’s familial relationship with his younger brother using words of resurrection “and this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” and words of reconciliation “it was necessary to celebrate”.
In a sense, there is no story closure for either of the sons. Did the younger one get his act together? Did the older one continue to ferment? However, how Theophilus and you/I hear this parable somewhat depends upon whether we sit at table with tax collectors and sinners, or stand outside with Pharisees and Scribes in vs. 1.
May I suggest Luke is exploring for Theophilus divine grace as it has been revealed in Jesus. So in the parable the wayward son is the sinner and tax collector; the oldest son is the pharisee and scribe; Jesus is the father, the central character, the compassionate seeker offering restoration to the relationships.
The Theophilus intent is about the impact of Jesus’ ministry and the attitudes expected of his disciples. The contrast between the sons mirrors the Lord’s attitude toward repentant sinners and the attitude of those who refuse to celebrate repentance instead disparaging repentant sinners. Jesus is inviting the Pharisees to adopt his attitude to forgive those they disdain as sinners and join in the celebration accompanying the repentant to the kingdom table
The Theophilus point is the illustration of amazing divine patience and love for ungrateful children. Now the Lord delights in the younger son’s repentance but probably would prefer he not sink so low before coming to his senses. And the Lord would have liked to see the older son hug his father, go into the house, warmly embrace his brother, kiss him, and weep on his neck. It’s never too late to make the right decision.
The Theophilus lesson, then, is double sided. Real life is often complicated. At different times, don’t we find our lives in either of the son’s. How seamlessly we flip from asking forgiveness for ourselves to denying forgiveness for others, voicing “this son of yours,” not “this brother of mine.” So the lesson: not only are we loved, but we are meant to love; not only are we forgiven, we are meant to forgive.
Although Jesus knew it would not be easy, the Theophilus invitation is to follow as a disciple in the work of reconciliation and peacemaking. This mission is costly and demanding because it requires risk and sacrifice. It requires going to the lost in compassion offering forgiveness to those who are repentant, welcoming them to the Lord’s table.
Siblings in Christ “Welcome to Lent!” Work with me here…. we’re in the business of helping people find what is lost. This is our job description. Amen.