One of the greatest challenges in a Gospel reading like ours today is to try to say something fresh and relevant with a story that’s as familiar as ours is today. I would assume that many, many of you could tell this story and summarize it to me without needing to refer back to what’s written in our prayer guides from which we do our services. So what to do with it?
There is something that struck me anew about this parable. Let’s go to Deuteronomy, chapter 21, which if you’re not familiar with Deuteronomy, it’s presented to us as Moses’ last instructions to the people as they are about to enter into the Promised Land without him, as God has forbidden him from crossing the Jordan (that’s a story for another time). Here’s the text:
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard. ‘ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
Two things about that. First, that curious bit where they are to stone the young man with stones. Seems a bit redundant, as though they would think to stone someone with bath loofahs or something similar.
Second, the crazy scenario that the people were commanded to execute a “stubborn and rebellious” child. One who is a glutton and a drunkard.
The parallels here to what we are told about the son in the Gospels seem fairly 1:1, because the son in the parable takes the money to live lavishly and wastefully, or “dissolute living” as is translated, which means in a way that is strongly disapproved of. That probably involved things like drinking and feasting–or being a glutton and a drunkard.
And while researching to see if anyone else has made the connection, I came across an essay about the functional purpose of the command in Deuteronomy to stone the stubborn and rebellious young man. Consider this from the essay on the question of why go to such extremes: “The son, probably a firstborn, would inevitably squander his inheritance when his father died; he would likely bring ruin to his present and future family. He was like a compulsive gambler who bets away his home and life savings right out from under his family’s feet. More than that, drunkenness and gluttony lead to and represent a wholesale departure from the Law. You can easily imagine this including a tendency to criminal debt, familial violence, and other profligacy. This is a man, then, whose choices not only threaten his own safety but who shows every sign of being on course to destroy his family.”
The parallels there are fascinating. In the parable, the younger son wanted his portion of the inheritance while his father was still alive, ignored societal customs about honoring one’s father and one’s mother, and took the money and spent it in ways that violated the moral and ethical code of the Covenant Community.
And yet, the father doesn’t resist. He willingly grants it, without so much as a word of protest. The father complies with this insolent request, and his son takes off to “a distant country” to live large.
Which of course is only part of the story. The son, unsurprisingly, loses it all, and arrives at a plan to grovel before his father, hoping that his father can find forgiveness enough to take him in as a servant. And note, he’s uncertain if he can find THAT much mercy from his father.
But what does the text say: that while he was a long way off his father turned and ran out to meet him. And for all the words of humility and repentance that he had prepared to speak, he only gets part way through his speech before his father cuts him off and calls for a feast and restores his status as a beloved child.
THAT, my friends, is mercy that knows no bounds. That chooses forgiveness first and foremost. That keeps no records of wrong, but rejoices when the wayward returns.
That is, afterall, meant to be a picture of God’s love for us. That when the experts in the law grumble that Jesus is associating with the sinners, the tax collectors, the unfavorables, and the dregs of society, that these are exactly the kind of people that are loved by God. There is no bottom to how low God is willing to stoop to show love to all humanity.
There are, then, two things to learn from this.
First, of the unconscionable love of God toward us. That the love of God knows no bounds. That God loves you, no matter who you are and where you came from. All God cares about is that you come, and open your heart to God, seeking that love of the father from the parable, who keeps no accounting of the things that we may have done, but runs out to embrace the wayward and the sinner.
Second, that just as God loves us, God loves all the other sinners out there. And not just loves the sinner, but slaughters the fattened calf to throw a party for them when they too open their hearts to God’s love. That one can be a tough pill to swallow. It was difficult for the older brother to accept. He had done nothing wrong, but was faithful his whole life–why should the wayward, the sinner, and the arrogant be welcomed with such fanfare. That is the unique feature of this parable, compared to the lost sheep and the lost coin before it. To summarize: a shepherd has 100 sheep, goes out to find one that was lost, and throws a party when it is found. A woman has 10 coins, searches everywhere to find on that was lost, and throws a party when it is found. And here, a father has two sons, one is lost and returns, and he throws a party when the one returns… and the older brother is angry that his father was merciful to his jerk of a brother. So Jesus’ call, to the experts in the law and to us, is to not be jealous of God’s love for the wayward and the sinner, but to rejoice at the excessive kindness of the Almighty.
THAT, right there, is the greatness of the lovingkindness of our God.