Lent 4—Year C
March 6, 2016
Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Luke’s prefaces our story today by saying: All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus tells the grumblers three parables: We know them as the parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son, which makes you think they would be stories of loss and sadness. But Fred Craddock points out, however, that they are, in fact, stories about a found sheep, a found coin, and a found son and each story ends in a party, not a wake. (Interpretation Commentary on Luke)
But truer still is the observation that the central character in each is not that which is lost and then found, but the shepherd, the woman, and the father who finds them and then throws the party.
We make the gospel about us, while Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are quite clear the gospel is about God, and not about some philosophical abstraction abiding in the deepest recesses of the universe but about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses, Deborah, and Ruth, who is embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.
Embodied for what reason?
Embodied in Jesus for the rescue of humanity (and creation) which is enslaved by powerful forces that seduce us to form communities that are held together not by love and non-violence, but by fear and hate of the Other.
We lived it on the playgrounds of childhood when we formed tight circles of friends by picking on, gossiping about, and generally abusing, verbally and sometimes physically, those we deemed weird and different. When we get older we keep the Others away from our homes and our places of business and tell the police to keep them out of our country and off our streets, so we don’t have to see them.
But God’s vision for us is different: In Jesus God means to draw all people to himself.
Therefore when Jesus sits at table with the very people our parents tell us to avoid, he is enacting a sign that points to God’s will for the whole world.
In other words, Jesus embodies an alien worldview that is deeply threatening to the status quo. Nobody cares if Jesus tells sweet stories about sheep, coins, and sons as long as they are pieces of harmless wisdom that never become real events in the world.
Just like nobody much cared, except parents, when long-haired hippies went off to Yasgur’s farm near Woodstock, NY to engage in an experimental community of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
But the moment a bunch of them burned the US flag on the steps of the Capitol something had to be done.
Talk is cheap and free in this country, but symbolic actions against the the Powers that Be will get you killed.
Just like Martin Luther King had to be killed when the movement left Black churches and hit the White restaurants and White neighborhoods.
When Jesus invites such people into his table communion he is making God visible, and his parables are verbal viruses meant to infect our software with that God. Jesus is not trying to tweak us, but to re-boot us with a new program. By practicing the arrival of God’s reconciliation, on earth as it is in heaven, Jesus is burning a flag on the steps of the capitol.
So Jesus says, A father had two sons. The younger son blows his father’s hard earned inheritance on prostitutes and riotous living and ends up where such living always takes us, which is alone and near death. The older son works hard every day on the Father’s farm doing his duty.
In any rational world the older son merits the party, while the younger son, if he merits anything, merits only sackcloth and ashes, and a bed in the slave quarters.
In America we believe we are born with the inalienable right to name ourselves and to tell our own story. In Jesus’s parable, however, we don’t get to do either. Only the Father has the power and the authority to do that.
Notice—— the younger son makes up his mind to tell his Father that he is no longer worthy to be called his son, but before he can say that or anything else, the Father has run to him, embraced him, and kissed him.
Then when the son finally gets a few words out the Father ignores his wishes to be made a slave and says, “Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him, put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet—and fire up the grill cause we’re having a par-tay tonight, because this son of mine was dead and is alive, was lost and is found.”
No matter what sins the son has committed the Father claims him as his son and gives him a place at his table.
Of course this isn’t fair, so the older son goes off in anger, saying, “This son of yours deserves punishment, not a party.”
But again the Father gets to name who we are. He says, Son you are always with me and all that is mine is yours, but we have to celebrate because this brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life, was lost and has been found.”
It is God the Father, the Creator, who names us daughters and sons. It is Jesus the Son, who names us sisters and brothers. We only find our true story when we accept God’s story as to who we, and all people, truly are. The American dream won’t get us there.
In Bible studies reading this parable, people will at some point say they identify with one son or the other. For most of my life I’ve identified with the younger son. The danger, of course, is that we will begin to feel anger rising toward the other brother who is against us, we forget the central character is the Father and that he is the one we are being called to follow.
But this is so hard to do because our worldview is still trapped in a dualistic world that only finds comfort in dividing up the world into those on the inside and those on the outside, the good guys and the bad guys.
Baptist preacher Will Campbell was born in 1926 and grew up in Mississippi. (He became the model for the character Rev. Will B Dunn in the Kudzu comic strip which ran from 198 to 2007.) A New York Times article when he died a few years ago, said that Will Campbell, “was the only white person invited by Dr. [Martin Luther] King, Jr. to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1957.”
“Yet, Campbell also came to believe that “Christ died for bigots as well as devout people [which] prompted his contacts with the Ku Klux Klan, and he visited James Earl Ray in prison after the 1968 assassination of Mr. Campbell’s friend Dr. King. He was widely criticized for both actions.” JUNE 4, 2013
It makes me wonder that if Will Campbell could update the parable of the loving father he might change Luke’s opening words to something like this:
“All the white supremacists and members of the KKK were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the liberal southerners and progressive New Englanders were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes racists and eats with them.”