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Theological “Whats” and “Hows”

Karen Greif

July 29, 2012
Isaiah 58:6-9a; Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

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The subject matter of our sermon series is near and dear to my heart. My introduction to A Brief Statement of Faith was here at UPC, 25 years ago.  Jack Stotts, chair of the committee writing this confession, invited session members to critique the “draft form” of this document.  Three years later, Dr. Stotts was my professor at Austin Seminary, and became my mentor and friend.

My sermon title is “borrowed” directly from Dr. Stott’s teaching methodology. He liked to open our Christian Ethics class with a denominational “question” beginning with the word “What”  Twenty years later I still remember two:

“What did the Presbyterian say after he fell down 3 flights of stairs?”  “I’m glad that’s over.”

“What did the Methodist couple do after they won the lottery?”“They became Episcopalians.”

These “whats” always led to discussion of the same theological question — “How then are we to live?” How does “the doctrine of predestination” impact our call to be Christlike? How does wealth influence our lives as Christians? Our guides in these discussions were the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and 20th C theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonheoffer,

Dr. Stotts thought the key to answering this ‘how question’ was in knowing who and whose we are.”

“Beloved children” who in life and in death “belong to a faithful God.”

Loving us still, God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant,
Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child,
Like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.

As I reflected on these lines in a Brief Statement of Faith, I tried to place them in the context of Jesus’ audience.  Which images of God could they also affirm?  A loving God.  Yes. Who makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant. Since Christ is the Greek word for Messiah  – yes

Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child—yes, again — to this image from Isaiah.

But a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, this image would be completely new.

The prophets spoke of God’s compassionate nature – loving Israel like a parent loves a child.

Over time this prophetic witness was overshadowed by an image of God as lawgiver and judge.

With this “dominate image” came an exacting legal system and a rigid social structure.

Theologian Marcus Borg describes these systems as the “conventional wisdom” of Jesus’ day.

“Through the narrative of this parable,” he writes, “Jesus opens the door to an alternative possibility,”  the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ most exquisite depiction of the kingdom is found in this parable. Scholars refer to its 21 verses as “the gospel within the gospel.” But as Barbara Brown Taylor warns, its message can become “limp from overexposure.” When this happens, the parable dissolves into an Aesop’s fable – a secular short story with a moral – bad things happen to sons who misbehave.

Mindful of this danger, let us listen with ears to hear its gospel message. In vs. 1&2 we find the teachers of the law up in arms because Jesus welcomes and eats with sinners. How does Jesus respond with three parables about being lost and being found. 1 sheep in 100 — 1 coin in 10 – 1 son in 2.This third parable begins innocently enough,  “There was a man who had two sons,”but quickly the drama unfolds.    How many ways can a Jewish son be “lost?”

Jesus lists five:
1) He asks his father for his inheritance, the same as saying, “Father, I wish you were dead.”
2) He sells off his share for cold hard cash,
3) leaves his Jewish homeland,
4) and through wild and reckless living,
5) squanders every penny.

When he winds up in a pigpen, the original audience is not surprised.

Having hit bottom, he “comes to himself” here I am starving while my father’s hired hands have enough to eat and more.  I will go back, admit I have sinned and ask my father “to take me back as a hired hand.” The 1st century audience knows what lies in wait upon his return.  A Jewish ritual in which he will be disowned.   Holding a jar of burned corn overhead, then smashing it to the ground,

his father will declare him “forever cut off from his people”

But Jesus doesn’t follow the script. The father’s heart is filled with compassion.  He runs to meet his son, hugs and kisses him. The father dismisses his son’s speech of contrition. “Fetch the best robe for him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet.  Kill the fatted calf.  We’ll celebrate with a feast.

This son of mine was lost, and now he is found.”

Our familiarity had numbed us to the knockout punch Jesus just delivered. The father’s behavior would have astonished his audience even more than the son’s.

The elder brother now enters the scene. Physically, he has never left the father – but spiritually he is on a completely different plane. Even though, as elder son, he received  2/3  when his father divided his property, he still wants the corn burned and the jar smashed.

In the elder’s brother’s response, writes Borg, we hear the voice of conventional wisdom.

And not just that of the 1st Century Jewish world, but of our own as well. Conventional wisdom does not change.  Its goal is societal order.   It means are social stratification, reward, and punishment.

Which is why this parable can still pack a punch. Fred Craddock shares a story about a congregant who disapproved of his sermon on this passage. “I didn’t like your message at all,” she told him,  “to reward such bad behavior just isn’t right.” Craddock’s response:  “I only preach the text.  I didn’t write it.”

The father goes outside, and entreats his elder son to enter the house. The son’s response is a litany of complaint. “ All these years I worked like a slave for you and have never disobeyed your command.

But when this son of yours, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, returns, you kill the fatted calf for him.”

What do the two brothers have in common?  Being lost. At least the younger “comes to himself” and understands that he is lost. The elder son, who sees only through the eyes of conventional wisdom, has no clue.

How does the father respond to the elder son? With all the graciousness, love and compassion he offered the younger one. “Son, 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.”

The most common initial response to this parable is to see ourselves as one of the brothers. For most of my life, I identified with the elder one. Because I’d never abandoned faith or family, the story of the younger son was incomprehensible to me.

But in March of 2000, with a diagnosis of breast cancer, I suddenly found myself a far country.

I didn’t go there on purpose — but was now able to understand the younger son’s perspective.

There was no kidding myself that I could “earn” my way back to health.

A second lesson from the far country of cancer was a new understanding of scripture.

Before I had taken passages about the poor, homeless and hungry quite literally.

The poor lacked money; the homeless, shelter; the hungry, food.

But having cancer added another level of meaning.

I learned first hand from this disease how hunger can also apply to hope.

How poverty can apply to health.

How naked it feels to stand in the midst of uncertainty.

And how little shelter is offered in the face of the unknown.

I had no place to turn except to God’s grace. The parable’s pivotal figure is the father. Scholars often lament its traditional title, The Prodigal Son.

Derived from the noun prodigious, meaning abundant, the adjective can also have positive connotations – lavish, extraordinary, exceptional, amazing. The true prodigal is the father – prodigious in love, compassion and grace.

22 years ago, as a chaplain intern at Seton Hospital, I was assigned to two floors, labor and delivery and neonatal. That’s when I learned of a treatment protocol prescribed for all neonatal infants – human touch.  Without it babies will not thrive – and not just the premature ones. When I wasn’t “called away” to labor and delivery, my chaplaincy job was gently touching, caressing, and holding newborns.

We are born with an innate need to be touched.  That is our nature. We are the beloved because it is God’s nature to love.  God’s love for us is unconditional and always present.

How then are we to live?  As the beloved. Knowing that God’s love can lift us from any pigpen – whether or not of our own making.   Trusting that God’s love has the power to heal every broken and hardened heart. We are to live reconciled lives – with God and one another– lives filled with joy, not grim-faced duty.We are to be guided by the vision ”of the kingdom” with all its profound challenges and amazing promises. Jesus summed it up in his usual succinct way, we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. Isaiah put it this way: “Is not this the fast that I choose,” says the Lord. “To loose the bonds of injustice, and to let the oppressed go free?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?  Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and the Lord will say: Here am I.” To the glory of our Lord and the kingdom of God, all praise and honor are due, both now and forever.  Amen.

That refuses to be quenched by the conventional wisdom that judges, compares and condemns.

Jesus told us:

To love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength and mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

But “conventional wisdom” rules our day as well.  While Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God remains and is revered, it too has been overshadowed by an image of God as lawgiver and judge. The elder brother lived with the father, held title to 2/3 of the estate, and he didn’t get it either.

We may encounter shining glimpses of grace, but few of us are willing to rely on it as our sole support.

In early Christianity, this parable had no name.  In the 2nd and 3rd C. it was called “the parable of the two sons.” Since prodigal means “recklessly extravagant” or “lavishly abundant”. It was unfortunate that later this parable became known as “The Prodigal Son.” “The Prodigal God” is a title more in keeping with the nature of God’s grace. As the Hebrew prophets understood it and as Jesus proclaimed it.

Saint-Exupery “One sees clearly only with the heart.  Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

Jesus taught in parable s  a parable invites it’s listeners to enter the narrative a parable has its own authority  imagination  walk around  try on the story from each of its perspective.

I’ve always identified with the older brother. Never a risk taker.  Frugal in nature – a nicer word for cheap.

The only time I’ve ever entered a far country was when I was diagnosed with cancer12 years ago.

Suddenly I was a stranger in a strange land.  I certainly didn’t go there on purpose.

There are others who identify with the younger brother – those who have intentionally wandered far from home – those whose fortunes waned unexpectedly –

The two brothers represent the two sides of human condition  —

The real prodigal in the story is the father —  and in many ways it is as hard for us to comprehend such as God as it was for the Jews of the first century.

Like the OT prophets Jesus spoke of a God full of compassion, merciful, etc. while we remember and revere this image    20 centuries have passed and our dominate image of God remains one of judge – is its invitation to enter.

Perhaps this is also because “conventional wisdom” really hasn’t changed. That’s why, most of us can identify with the older brother.

The younger said to his father, “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” In Jewish culture this was the same as saying, “Father I wish you were dead.” Even so, “the father divides his property between them.” The But because this parable is the best known story in the western world,

It is also the most well-known story in the Western world, which can be a danger for us.

It has the dramatic feel of a three-act play.  The younger brother is featured in the opening act.

It opens with him on a downhill slide, breaking every code of Jewish honor and tradition.

This parable has been declared the world’s most well known story.  Shakespeare borrows its plot twice — for King Lear and Henry IV.

With that in mind, let’s focus on parts traditionally overlooked, downplayed, or overplayed.

Overlooked  —

When the father divides his property both sons are given their share.

According to custom the older son would have received 2/3rds –twice that of the younger son.

It is the literal truth when the father tells him.  “All that I have is yours.”

He suffered no financial hardship as a result of his bother’s request.

Downplayed —

The significance of the famine in the far country. While the younger son brought most of his misery on himself, the famine was not a result of his actions, nor did the famine effect only him. This detail dispels the notion that the events of our lives are the result of reward or punishment. As Rabbi Harold Kushner puts it, “Bad things do happen to good people.”

Overplayed – the role of forgiveness

While the father’s response is often interpreted as an act of forgiveness, it is “compassion” that fills the father’s heart when he sees his son. For centuries Biblical scholars have debated whether and how forgiveness relates to this story.  What is know is that Jesus did not use  this word in the telling of this parable.

What the father desires is reconciliation.  What the father extends is grace — equally to both sons.

The one who knows his need of grace – and the one who does not yet realized this need.

When the elder son refuses to enter the house, his father goes to him, just as he did to his younger son, and “earnestly asks” him to come in. The father listens as his son vents his rage.  The father does not deny his right to be angry nor does he make excuses for the behavior of the younger son.

He responds by saying, “Son, 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.

This parable has been called the gospel within the gospel.  The good news within the good news.

The father’s loving response to both sons.

The mirror images of human nature both sons represent.

With open arms, God runs to meet us whenever we make our way toward home.

Jack Stotts was  my ethics prof, then president of McCormick and later Austin Seminary. In 1991 he led the writing team for the “Brief Statement of Faith” that he had helped develop for the new PCUSA (after reunion of the UPCUSA and Southern PCUS). I asked him if he didn’t think that the Bible was becoming “too old” to have the impact on future generations that it had possessed for past generations. He was aghast. Scripture was the authoritative basis for his faith and ethics in a way that it could no longer be for me. But he captured some new thinking in the Statement. After affirming the Trinity (a nod to the past and the supernatural), it began with Jesus, spoke of who God was in terms of Jesus’ teachings, and affirmed the Holy Spirit as “giver and renewer of life.” Scripture then enters the statement:

“The same Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles

     rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,
engages us through the Word proclaimed,
claims us in the waters of baptism,
feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
and calls women and men to all ministries of the church.”

 Each person is of such value to God, however, that none is excluded from God’s grace. Neither should we withhold our forgiveness.[4]

R. Alan Culpepper, “”The Gospel of Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995, 305