“A Story with Which We Can Identify”


Lent 4

March 6, 2016

 

Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

         

          The Parable of the Prodigal, today’s Gospel lesson, is very familiar to many of us. Many of us have probably heard quite a few sermons on this text over the years.

One way of interacting with a Bible story is to consider which characters we may especially identify with. It is entirely possible to identify with more than one character, each in a different way. I invite us to consider four characters in this story.

Let’s start with the younger son, the one who is generally referred to as prodigal. He demanded his half of the inheritance while his father was still alive (which was pretty much telling the old man “I wish you were dead”), and upon getting it went far away, squandered it all, found himself broke and hungry, and survived by getting a job feeding pigs (which Jews consider “unclean”). Then he came to his senses and decided to go home and ask his father to hire him as a farmhand. He recognized he had wronged his father and his family badly and was not worthy to be considered his father’s son anymore.

Have you ever messed up so badly in life that you decided you were no longer worthy of anyone’s love, and above all, were unworthy of God’s love? That’s where the younger son was, deciding to tell his father: “I have sinned before heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired hands.” But as we shall see, that was not the last word on that subject.

Next, let’s consider the father. How heartbreaking it must have been to have his own son disown him and leave, presumably never to return. He must have wondered often what the younger son was doing, how he was faring, if he was all right. Those who have been estranged from their own children know something of what this is like.

Then one day the father saw a bedraggled, yet familiar figure coming up the road. Recognizing the figure as his younger son, the father ran out to meet him, hugged him, and kissed him. When the son made his speech about no longer being worthy to be called his father’s son and asked him to take him on as a hired hand, the father instead ordered that the son be clothed in the best robe and sandals, and to put a ring on his finger. He immediately decided to throw a huge “welcome home” party for the younger son that same day, and had his servants begin preparations.

Some people can identify with this father. Some families are all too familiar with the sorrow that comes when a child chooses to turn against his/her family, leave, and cut off all contact. They would love to be able to welcome their child home with open arms, and would throw a party if that happened. God likewise seeks to welcome home those who have gone far away from him, and Jesus said there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over many righteous people who don’t need to repent.

However, not every parent in this circumstance has the attitude of this father. I recently read about a similar situation that ended much differently. In 1868, two sisters, Celia and Sarah Blaylock, ages 18 and 15 at the time, left their parents’ farm near Fairfax, IA because they didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives on the farm. The girls had gone to Sunday School as children and learned to live by the Ten Commandments. The parents, Henry and Betsy Blaylock, were stern, strict parents who took seriously the proverb “Spare the rod and spoil the child” and believed “children should be seen, not heard”.   Celia and Sarah headed west to make a new life for themselves, but found it difficult, for there were few work opportunities for young women in those days. After less than a year, Sarah went back home chagrined and shamed by her experience. Her parents received her cheerlessly and treated her as a disgrace. Celia, meanwhile, found her way to Dodge City, Kansas, where she began working as a prostitute, often going by the name Mattie. For eight years she was the common law wife of notorious lawman and gambler Wyatt Earp before he dumped her for another woman. She became addicted to laudanum (a highly addictive narcotic made from opium which at that time was available over the counter). She also drank heavily. Celia Blaylock died of opium and alcohol poisoning in 1888 at the age of 38. The death was ruled a suicide, although some historians think it might have been an accidental overdose.

I wonder how this story might have turned out had Henry and Betsy been more like the father in the parable of the prodigal. I imagine that at least part of the reason Celia never went home was that she knew what kind of reception awaited her—the one Sarah got. Not much is known about Sarah’s life after that, except she married a much older man, had two children (one of whom died in infancy), and died in 1906 at age 53. We do know that Celia’s life ended badly.

It seems to me that Henry and Betsy’s attitude appears to have been more like that of the older son in the parable. When he found out his brother had returned and Dad was throwing a big party on that account, the older son was furious and refused to go in. “All these years I’ve worked for you without disobeying you once, and you haven’t even given me a lousy kid goat so I could have a party with my friends. But when this son of yours returned after wasting your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him!” The older son saw this situation as patently unfair, at least in part because he saw his brother as a total disgrace. The older son believed his brother did not deserve to have a party thrown for him.

Many people can identify with the older brother. We live in a time when many people believe certain people do not deserve welcome, honor, respect, or even the basic necessities of life because of who they are, what they look like, where they came from, or what they have done. Indeed, this is the very attitude fueling much of the conflict going on in the political realm in our time.

I believe the older son was just as estranged from his father as the younger son, for while he didn’t run off and waste his father’s estate, his attitude was nothing like that of his father. He was not interested in welcoming the prodigal home. He figured kid brother deserved no sympathy or compassion, but only scorn.

It seems to me if we are like the older brother, if we judge those who have wandered away from God and seek to return as undeserving of God’s mercy, we have missed the point of what God is all about. We are just as estranged from God as anyone who has engaged in blatant wrongdoing.

There is one more character in this parable I would like us to look at, namely, the fatted calf. Some people may find this a bit of a stretch. That’s OK. Stretching is good. Consider this: In order to make it possible to celebrate the return of the prodigal, the calf was required to give up its life. Similarly, in order to make it possible for us sinful human beings who have strayed from God to return to God as forgiven and reconciled people, Jesus gave up his life. Jesus said that there is great joy and celebration in heaven when even one sinner returns to God.

How can we identify with the calf? The calf had no say in the matter of giving up its life. On the other hand, Jesus, with whom we are also called to identify, gave his up willingly, although not easily. Recall his struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane as he asked God his Father to “take this cup from me—yet not what I want, but what you want.” And if we are to be like Jesus, we face the same struggle. As we are reminded in 1 John 3:16, “This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” Now the sacrifice that is being described here does not mean necessarily that one must get killed for the sake of others. But it does talk about lesser sacrifices, including sacrificing our worldly goods in order that the needy might be provided for, for in the very next verse we read: “But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in that person?” I see the question as follows: What sacrifices are you and I willing to make in order to make God’s love known to others, to show God’s welcome to those we judge to be undeserving? After all, you and I don’t really deserve God’s love, either. We, too, are sinners in need of a Savior, dependent on what God has done in Jesus Christ to keep us from being estranged from God.

So:

  • If you identify with the prodigal, know that even though you may judge yourself undeserving of God’s love, God wants to welcome you home, forgive you, and reconcile you to himself.
  • If you identify with the elder son, know that you, too, are a prodigal because your attitude is not that of God. Though you may judge others undeserving, that’s not how God sees it. You, too, are invited to come home and be forgiven and reconciled.
  • If you identify with the father, know that God shares in your pain and your desire to welcome the lost ones home, not only in your family, but also in God’s family.
  • If you identify with the fatted calf, know that God honors your sacrifice and will use it to accomplish his purpose of welcoming all who turn to him, including those whom the world judges to be undeserving. Without your sacrifice, the celebration in heaven might not happen.

          God of the prodigal, help us hear what you have spoken to us in this parable, so that we may come home to you.

                                                                   Amen.

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