Do you like a good cliffhanger? Do you like the anticipation of not knowing how the leading characters are going to escape their sticky situation? Ugh! I hate them. They stress me out. And it is always at these tense moments that television shows opt to break for commercial. I remember being a big Dukes of Hazzard fan when I was a kid. Any other Duke boys fans in the audience? They were always getting a gun pointed at them, or having to make an impossible jump in the General Lee (that was their supped up Dodge Duster). And right at the tensest moment, they would freeze the frame and go to commercial. The absolute worst though is when the show would be getting toward the end and the resolution was nowhere in sight. The killer was nowhere close to being found. Or the kids were not going to make it out of the cave in time. Or Brenda and Dylan were still on their way to the prom. For a second you wonder how they are going to wrap it all up and still have time for the closing credits. Then three simple words spell out your answer...”to be continued...” Guess you will just have to come back next week.
We are going to see one of those “to be continued...” moments in our story today. But first I have to fill you in on last week. If this were a TV show, it might go something like: “Previously on The Sermon.” We heard a story about a wonderful homecoming. It goes like this: A man had two sons and the younger son wants his inheritance early. His father gives it to him and he leaves. Soon after we find him penniless as he spent all of his inheritance on loose living. He gets a lowly job feeding pigs. And as he sits with filthy pigs wishing that he could eat their food, he comes to himself and decides to return home and beg his father to hire him as a worker.
But when his father sees him coming, he runs out to meet him. He tells his servants to put a robe on him, a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. He tells them to kill the fattened calf and have a feast in his honor. For he says “This son of mine was dead and now he is alive; he was lost and now he is found.”
Now we could end it here. It certainly seems like a nice capper to the story. It is a tale of extravagant welcome and forgiveness. It is a lesson for us as a people and as a church of being warm and accepting. If you were here last week, you heard that lesson. But there is more to the story. At the end of the episode if you look past the party guests and out the window you would see a disgruntled man standing in a field. The older son! What is his beef? Find out next week on The Sermon.
Lucky for you, next week is today.
We pick up right where we left off. The father goes out to the older son to plead with him. The older son wastes no time with niceties or a respectful greeting to his father. He starts right in. “Listen!” he says “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Essentially the older son is saying, “What is HE doing here!?!” This is a bold statement. The bile and judgment comes right through. The older brother is mad. But can you really blame him? After all, he has a point, right? Why should this younger brother get the king’s treatment? After all, he has done nothing but squander everything that he has been given whereas the older son has been nothing but faithful and true.
To understand why Jesus put this reaction in the parable we have to go back a bit. Back before the sermon last week to look at the beginning of this chapter of Luke. This parable comes as a capper to a trio of parables about finding lost things. There is the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and finally this one which could easily be called the parable of the lost son. They are teachings about how much celebration there is in heaven when a sinner is repentant and changes their sinful ways.
These parables are not being told out of the blue. They are all in response to the Pharisees. Now who are the Pharisees? The Pharisees were powerful religious leaders that were entrusted with the task of making sure all of the Jewish religious laws were being followed. The text says that they were grumbling about Jesus eating with quote “sinners” unquote. These sinners had not earned their space at the table. They were unclean, not the blessed people, the ones that God truly loved and admired. No. The Pharisees thought that the grace of God must be earned, and they had earned it, not these sinners. If this Jesus, this Son of God, should be eating with anyone, it should be them. In essence they felt like the older son.
This is exactly why Jesus introduces the character of the older son into the story. It would have been hard for Jesus to illustrate this concept of jealousy with sheep or coins. But here we have an older son that is upset that his younger brother is being doted on by his father after squandering his money. That is something that hits home. This is quite obviously intended at the Pharisees who are looking down their noses at Jesus and his merry band of sinners.
The story does not hide the idea that the two sons are opposite contrasts of one another. The younger son does everything wrong. Everything about him is dirty, except...his heart. His heart is humble. His heart is willing. He is filled with rediscovered love for his father and for his family. He just wants to be a part of it, if only in small way.
By contrast his brother, the older one, does everything right. He is perfect in every way except...his heart. His heart is full of hate and resentment. He resents his father. He resents his father’s actions. And he clearly resents his brother, the one who devoured his father’s property. In essence Jesus is claiming that hearts of these Pharisees are no better than the sinners with whom he dines. In fact, they might be worse.
It is likely that we have all felt like the older son at one point or another in our lives. Perhaps you have resented others for the actions that they have taken. Maybe you have felt unfairly treated or even hurt. Or you have wished that others would just go away. Certainly this is the easy response. But this parable gives us an alternative in the actions of the father. When the world says to forget about others, this parable says to run to them with open arms. When the world says that you should cut those people off, this parable says that we should reach out with grace. When the world says that we should only look out for ourselves, this parable says that we should be abundant with forgiveness. Resentment will only breed isolation. But acceptance will foster togetherness.
It is only fitting then, that the father, the example of the love of God, should have one more thing to say. “Son,” he says. “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
There are two important details about this response.
The first is that the Greek word that we translate as “son” is teknon, which is a very special word for son that denotes affection and intimacy. There is a great deal of love in that word. There is a great deal of love that the father has for his older son. He does not exchange malice for malice. He does not respond with resentment, but with love. The same kind of love that he had extended earlier to the younger son.
The second detail is the equality in the statement. “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Certainly we can read this as a monetary promise. After all the older son remains such and will receive all that comes with that title. But it is about more than money. Remember, this is a parable. The older son is not just an older son, but a thinly veiled characterization of the Pharisees. So when Jesus as the father says “All that I have is yours” what he is saying is that the Pharisees are not going to be removed from their post, but rather that the Kingdom of God is available to them. They can share in this joy. They can be a part of all that God is doing in the world at that moment.
And with that he repeats what he said earlier. What was dead has come to life. The lost son, like the sheep and the coin before him has been found.
And then, the text ends. But I would argue that the story doesn’t. I think that there is an invisible “to be continued...” at the end of this story.
The Bible scholar Dr. Ken Bailey’s does too. Dr. Bailey analyzed this parable in comparison to Hebrew story structure and concludes the parable cuts off too early. To complete the structure there should be a final response from the older brother, but there is none. Why? According to Dr. Bailey the last part was for the Pharisees to fill in on their own. If the term “to be continued...” existed in Jesus’ time, he might have directed it right at the Pharisees. Remember, it was the Pharisees who looked down on Jesus for dining with sinners and the unclean. But Jesus called them out. He uses the story to show the true nature of their hearts in comparison to God’s love. The next move is on them.
So Jesus leaves it up to the Pharisees. Do they want to continue to stand on the outskirts looking in with disdain and judgment at this new thing that God is doing? Or do they want to cast off their pride and join in the party? Whether or not they do, God’s grace and love is still going to be abundant. To saints and sinners alike.
So in this day, as we gather in this place, as we take part in this worship, the question of response is not directed at the Pharisees, but rather directed at us. The “to be continued...” phrase is aimed at our lives. How are we going to act?
A few months ago, we started asking these kinds of questions. Who is our neighbor? How will we respond? What will get us talking? It is a tough process and one that we certainly can not complete in twelve short summer weeks. But along this process we have to ask ourselves, “What will our response be if and when we do start making connections?” After all, we are not called to reach out to those who are doing great, but rather those who, like the younger son, are in need of a place to feel at home. And I will be honest: some of these people can make us uncomfortable at first. So how will we respond?
Will we be like the father and give ourselves over to welcome and acceptance making this a safe haven for the lost and the broken, for all of God’s children? Or will we be like the Pharisees who prefer to have order and comfortability and keep things the way that they have always been.
Maybe a better way to put it is, “What does your love look like?” Is like the father’s love in the story or by parallel God’s love? Does it flow abundantly through you? Does it overcome being wronged, being left, being forgotten? Does it seethe with resentment or does it offer forgiveness? Does it lift others up or break others down? Does it extend to the least of these? Does your love shine even in times of embarrassment, awkwardness, and uncomfortably?
So when we check in again on the next episode, will we find yourself ourselves alone in the field like the older son with only our pride and stubbornness to keep us company or will we be inside, at the party, sitting at the table of grace? Well, if Luke is correct, you know where Jesus will be, sitting down with a loaf of bread in one hand and a sinner in the next, trying to figure out how to make something of this community. People of God, people of love, go and do likewise. Amen.