Sermon for March 31, 2019 | Lent 4
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And his critics were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
There are a number of things we should grasp so that we don’t transform this parable into a story about a teenager who suffers with impulse control issues.
The first is this. In the patriarchal village life known by Jesus and his followers, all fathers were discouraged from distributing any inheritance during their lifetime. No social security, no pensions, no Medicare or Medicaid – one was utterly dependent on one’s children for care in old age. But if they did give an inheritance, every father and mother was entitled to draw on it while they lived. This son – who demands the inheritance and then leaves home and loses it, has, in effect, wished his parents dead. And then there is the elder brother. Instead of protesting the inappropriate division of the inheritance – one that would harm his parents – he accepts it. And once the younger sibling has returned home, he refuses to be reconciled with his father and his brother, setting up what every lawyer could see coming on the horizon: a conflicted dispute over inheritance rights once the father has died.
The second is this. In that world then, everyone – every one in the village would know that this impetuous younger son had taken advantage of his parents. And in that world then, the villagers would be protective of the parents and quite eager to reject and physically abuse the son for demanding his inheritance and then squandering it, thus leaving his parents bereft of that which would have sustained them until they died.
The third is this. The younger son loses his inheritance through wasteful spending in a far-off land. When famine comes, he begins to starve and in desperation he tries to leech on a wealthy gentile patron who gives him the most repulsive of jobs for a Jew: feeding pigs, an animal considered religiously unclean and thus forbidden to devout followers of the Law of Moses. Not only is this son wasteful, he has excommunicated himself from his home and religion. To touch him would to be share in his moral impurity.
So: what’s a miserable child to do? He resolves to become a “hired servant” of his family, who will be able to pay back what he had lost of the inheritance and thus care for his parents as long as they live. What’s a rejected parent supposed to do? Well, there were two options: the father could reject the son’s advance (“You are dead to me”); or he could severely discipline the son in front of the village, show who’s in charge, and then retain the son as a servant – the son’s shame being the robe he would wear for the rest of his life. But the father does the unexpected and acts totally out of character: he runs through the gauntlet the villagers have prepared for abusing the son (in that world, it was the child who should be running toward the elder); and then he accepts the pain caused by the son – he accepts the pain and shame caused by the son – and publicly forgives him by kissing him on each cheek. That is, the father forgoes the option for punitive justice – you must be held accountable for your crime against the family and make restitution – and, instead, practices restorative justice – the desire to restore relationship, to heal a relationship outweighing any desire to punish the one who has failed.
But, then, we need to ask: Why did Luke include this parable in his gospel? Why did he want his assembly of gentile Christians, gathered around a house table on a Sunday, to hear this story? Why did he want his assembly, an assembly raised with Roman imperial social values, to hear and reflect on this parable as they ate and drank in the presence of the wounded and risen Christ? Was Luke concerned that the Roman preference for punishment could erode the Christian preference for restoration and reconciliation? Was he concerned that tax collectors and sinners – symbols for cultural and religious outcasts – were being excluded from the assembly’s table fellowship because a pernicious caste system – alive in their culture – was exerting its influence within Christians gathered for the breaking of the bread? For it is necessary to remember that in Jesus’ world, sharing food and drink was not only sharing nourishment together but also sharing the status and reputation with all those who ate from the same loaf and drank from the same cup. That conviction remains alive among us: we receive not only nourishment but share in the status and reputations of all those gathered here at this altar. Was Luke concerned that his assembly was beginning to forget that Jesus’s critics perceived him as unclean, impure, not sufficiently devout; that Jesus himself was perceived as a social outcast, and that to consume his life in bread and wine cup was to participate in his identification – not so much with the compassionate father – but with the messed up son, himself an outcast?
You see, every culture, including our own, has its implicit or explicit ranking of who is at the top and who is at the bottom. The children of wealthy white parents are admitted to prestigious universities. The well educated patronizingly look down upon those with little education. The protest against racial inequality sung by black artists in rap or the blues is rarely if ever heard in churches with supposedly more “refined” tastes. The elder brother who rejects the invitation to celebrate the unexpected return and restoration of his sibling is not just a sad character from the first-century but alive among us when we are told by leaders in high office that refugees and immigrants coming from a far-off land are nothing but rapists and petty criminals to be refused a place at the table of American life.
In every Eucharist, dear friends, two things take place. The first is this: the wounded and risen Christ comes to you and to me within bread and wine cup. Have you ever imagined that he is in solidarity with the seemingly “outcast” and messed up dimensions of your life and mine and is in compassionate solidarity with you and me? The second thus follows from the first: if, in his generosity, he so willingly gives himself into the overly controlled or wildly uncontrollable, messy, and outcast dimensions of our lives and does so with mercy, will we stand with the unrepentant older brother who imagines that he is at the top of the social pile or – or – will you and I find ourselves resisting those rankings that divide and, in turn, give our lives over to the reconciling and reforming work our world cannot seem to muster yet desperately needs?