Open Arms – God’s Extravagant Welcome
Readings: Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Luke 15:1-3,11-31
If you’ve been obsessed with signature bakes and soggy bottoms recently, or have been part of this month’s supermarket sales boost by purchasing party food and drink to accompany rugby celebrations and commiserations, then take heart –you’re in very good company for in this morning’s reading we join Jesus and his band of merry men and women at a time when the great gastronaut is once again eulogizing about food and feasting. In the preceding chapter, he’s compared God’s kingdom to a banquet, spoken of the qualities of salt and has advised on table plans and party invites, whilst his choice of dining companions provides the impetus for another of his sideways stories in these following verses:
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him”, we are told. “And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”. So he told them this parable.”
Well, a series of parables actually – lost sheep, lost coin and now lost son. And, like the tale of the Good Samaritan that we heard a couple of weeks ago, this one’s a classic. Most of us here will be well acquainted with the story, having seen paintings, read reflections, heard numerous sermons over the years about the redeemed younger son, the bitter older one and the loving father of them both. And like many of the other parables, we’re so used to this story today that we’re in danger of losing the impact of its narrative – the shock and uproar that the tale would have originally provoked. You see, to the listeners and readers of first century Palestine this was a confounding tale of indecent behaviour and unforeseen outcomes; to the scribes and Pharisees, this was an outrageous rebuttal of their obedient outlook. So what, then, made this now comfortable story so shocking?
“A man had two sons,” Jesus begins, “and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me’ and he did!”
In just a few words, the great storyteller sets the scene and scandalizes his audience for both father and son have already acted improperly. Let’s start with the son’s request – ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me’. Putting aside the absence of please and thankyous – manners maketh the man after all – the son’s request was tantamount to wishing the father dead. Asking for your inheritance early was unheard of. It was no clever use of a tax loophole…it was to say “I want to act as if you were dead – to take the money that will be mine and cut off all ties with you, never expecting or wanting to see you again.” It was cold. It was cruel. And it deserved a beating, if not something far worse…so what does this good Jewish father do? Does he spurn his request? Does he reprimand him? Beat him? No…in a move that would have shocked and appalled some of Jesus’ listeners, this foolish father actually grants his youngest son’s request!
So the boy takes the money and runs. He heads off to a distant country – a heathen country – and wastes his father’s money on what, in the pew Bibles, is most euphemistically called ‘reckless living’. The older brother’s mention of prostitutes later in the story probably begins to give us something of the picture. Anyway, the guy enjoys some ‘adventurous’ living, squanders his savings and finds himself in dire straits. Starving, he takes the only job available to him – he works on a foreign farm, tending pigs! If you think that recent media rumours about rich young men and pigs were offensive, then multiply such disgust by a thousand, as for the listeners of Jesus’ day, tending to pigs in a foreign land, and even considering eating what they fed on…well you couldn’t get any lower, you couldn’t do anything more socially outrageous, more ethically vile. In her reflection on the parable, URC minister Susan Durber suggests that this work ‘would have been about as disgusting as maintaining a child pornography website would be in our context’. Just think about that. Tending the pigs isn’t the equivalent of some manual job only given to outsiders but was the mark of someone who had transgressed all boundaries of the law and human decency. The audience might well expect the story to end here. The rich man, the unruly son has had his comeuppance – he is starving, he is alone, he is exposed as the repulsive individual we suspected him to be.
But Jesus isn’t finished. “When he came to himself,” the storyteller continues, “he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” Subsequently the son decides to return to his father, apologise profusely and hopefully then get a job as one of his father’s hired hands. So he trundles back home, speech rehearsed, hoping that his father will be kind enough to look past his wishing him dead and wasting his money; kind enough to look beyond his debauchery abroad and his time spent with pigs. The listener’s prepare themselves for the denouement – for the young man to get his just desserts, after all, Jesus doesn’t take any prisoners when it comes to the judgment of the rich and self-absorbed in Luke’s gospel and his readers would have known what a good Jewish father should do –
“He shall say to the elders of his town, “This son is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey me. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.’
So says the law. Well, we all know that the story ends quite differently – the father welcomes back his younger son with open arms whilst the elder brother, quite understandably, takes umbrage, refusing to join the party.This whole affair might involve familiar tropes of financial squabbles and sibling rivalries but the behaviour of the key protagonists and the story’s implications would have made the very foundations of the social and religious institutions of Jesus’ day tremble. Nearly two thousand years later, what then, might this incendiary tale teach us today?
For now, let us pause, take stock and remain seated as we sing hymn number 141 – Forgive our sins as we forgive, you taught us, Lord, to pray, but you alone can grant us grace, to live the words we say.
Hymn 141 – Forgive our sins as we forgive
So what does the parable have to teach us today? In the time I’ve got remaining, let me outline five things for us to consider. Firstly, then, the parable tells us something about forgiveness. In Jesus’ tale, the younger son could hardly have been more hurtful, disappointing or humiliating to his father. The son publicly wishes his father dead and he cuts off all ties with him bringing him into social disrepute; he then uses this money to fund a hedonistic, immoral lifestyle and only stops when all his savings have been spent; at which point he accepts unlawful, morally reprehensible work. When, at his lowest ebb, he comes to himself, when the man he has become catches a glimpse of the boy he was, he realizes his own foolishness, and perhaps begins to realize his own brokenness. We cannot tell how genuine his repentance is – does he realize the hurt he’s caused his father or does he return because even life as a hired hand back home would be better than his current state? – but either way, he knows that he must turn his life around, literally, to return to his father’s house. And he has not even made it back when his father spots him, is overwhelmed with compassion and embraces him with a kiss. The son barely begins his rehearsed speech of repentance before the father interrupts with acts of extravagant welcome. When the son deserves the cold shoulder, he receives open arms. When the law calls for retribution, love offers grace. Perhaps this might be a reminder to some here that whatever our own story – wherever we have been, whatever we have done, God’s forgiveness is bigger, wider, deeper, than our brokenness. Perhaps, for others here this morning, this might spur us to take stock of where our actions have led and come to realize our own need for forgiveness, to begin that journey home where our cry of ‘Abba’, ‘daddy’ will be met with joy. And perhaps, for others still, this example of forgiveness will remind us of our call as a church to welcome all to God’s house; that whatever others have done, in whichever ways they may have hurt others or humiliated us, here you are not judged by the worst thing that you have ever done but rather embraced as the child of God you were created to be. The tale of the lost son speaks of our deep need to offer and receive forgiveness.
Secondly, as we remember our duty to strive for a more peaceful and just global society this One World Week, Jesus’ parable might hold a mirror up to our own treatment of foreigners. In the parable, we hear that the younger son travels to a foreign land at a time when he has money to burn. He and his bulging wallet are welcomed as he spends the money he doesn’t deserve on things he shouldn’t indulge in. And then, when the cash flow runs dry, when he no longer offers any further financial gain to the country, he is cast aside, he starves, he is offered work that pays disgustingly little and which requires him to break Jewish law and demean himself in an unspeakable way. When, as a nation today we prepare the red carpet for oligarchs and arms dealers with money to burn whilst ill-treating those who seek asylum and refuge, leaving many scared, starving and considering work that breaks laws and demeans their very humanity, perhaps this tale calls us to reassess our own treatment of the foreigner. When Parasanthika, an intelligent and engaging women from Sri Lanka who spoke so movingly about her fleeing domestic violence and struggle to balance work, study and parenthood as she sought asylum at our evening service a fortnight ago, might be denied assistance and made homeless this coming week, perhaps we might be encouraged to offer her welcome and practical support as we also hold our government to account regarding their giving or denying a person residency based on their worth to the economy rather than on their need and inherent worth as a human.
And if Jesus’ tale speaks of forgiveness and foreigners it also tells us about family. The demise of the youngest son begins when he wishes to break ties with his father and wider family; his rebirth begins when he returns home and says the word ‘father’. Compare this then to the older son whose language of full of ‘mes’ and ‘Is’; who does not address his dad as ‘father’ and who refuses to acknowledge his relationship with his younger brother, calling him instead ‘this son of yours’. If repentance for the younger son means saying ‘Father’ again; repentance for the elder might mean saying ‘brother’, to acknowledge his family ties. And the family might need to go further than this – that for the family to truly come together in love once again, perhaps there needs to be an acknowledgement of the hidden women of the story – of the forgotten mother and invisible sisters. Perhaps then, as we continue our month of events looking at people, prejudice and protest, the tale of the lost son might remind us of the importance of acknowledging our family. A worldwide family of sisters and brothers, black and white, straight, gay or other; a gaggle of prodigal sons and daughters who are old and young, with or without disability, in good or ill mental health, married, divorced, widowed or single, from Sri Lanka, from South Africa, and all over God’s creation. As Gwendoline Brooks puts it in her poem about Paul Robeson, ‘We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond’. None of us walk this Earth alone. We are, this parable might remind us, one another’s sister and brother – so may we sing; so may we act.
Fourthly, the parable of the adventurous son is strewn with incidents of foolishness – the younger son’s request and actions, the older son’s sulk…but it is the foolishness of the father I want to highlight for now. At the very beginning of the story, the father can be seen to act unwisely as he grants his son’s request for his inheritance money. To spoil his son in such a way when he instead deserved a beating would have raised eyebrows and got tongues wagging around the village but that would be nothing compared with his actions later on. Remember, the younger son has publicly wished his father dead, cut off all ties with his family and indulged in a wasteful, immoral lifestyle. And yet the father could be seen, day in day out, straining his neck to scan the horizon, searching, hoping for his beloved son to return. And one glorious day, he does…he returns home to seek work as a hired help. Any reasonable Jewish father would, at the very least, scold his son. Any sensible dad would think of those words in Deuteronomy, so would at least disown or beat the boy. Any astute businessman would think of the consequences that accepting such a social pariah back might have on the family’s reputation and business. But this character isn’t reasonable, sensible or astute – he is foolish.
When he sees his boy he humiliates himself further, picking up his skirt to run…something no respectable older man would ever do…run to the boy to wrap his arms around him, to kiss him before a word of apology is uttered. And when it is, when the son begins to acknowledge his faults, there is no hint of an ‘I told you so’, no consideration of filling in the job application…instead, this foolish father publicly welcomes him home, dresses him with the finest vestments in the house and starts arranging a knees-up for the whole village to celebrate the return of his son. What extravagance! What foolishness! What love!
The actions of this foolish father give us just a glimpse of the extravagant, shocking, foolish love that God has for each and every one of us. It is not sensible, reasonable or astute. It is not tempered by or dependent upon our actions. It’s a foolish, extravagant love that saw God run to us as a man from Nazareth, whose open arms on the cross were to embrace us all. It’s a foolish, extravagant love that sees God as a parent, scanning the horizon for us to return home, for us to say ‘father’ and for the party to begin. It’s a foolish, extravagant love that sees the most broken of us – the lost, the last and the least – as beloved children of God.
So then…forgiveness, foreigners, family, foolishness and finally, you’ll be relieved to hear…feasting. Here we come full circle for, just as this parable was inspired by some sniping about dinner, so it ends with a feast. With finger rolls, folding chairs and a volley of streamers, the father celebrates the return of his son. In that party, the best food is offered, the whole village is invited and there is love enough to light the street. This morning, not with fatted calves or trays of Christian quiche, but with loaves and wine, we feast again. For this morning, we are all invited to break bread with God. We are all invited to rejoice in the extravagant love of the Father; to give thanks for a meal of sacrifice and celebration; to share food and drink with our prodigal sisters and brothers. In this meal, then, foreigners are embraced as family; forgiveness is offered; and the foolishness of God’s love might be encountered.
“A man had two sons,” a wandering preacher said two thousand years ago as he began another tale that would turn the world upside down. May we hear the shock and challenge of that message today. May we learn to seek and offer forgiveness; to treat strangers as family; to share and show the foolishness of God’s love. And may this church be a community where broken hearts, lost sons and forgotten women might find healing, a home, and a welcome with open arms. Amen.
Response: ‘Open Arms’ – Elbow
Rev. Dr. Phil Wall
18th October 2015
St. David’s Uniting Church