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“The Unrighteous and the Self-righteous”
March 31, 2019
Gracious God, illuminate your Word by the power of your Holy Spirit that we may recognize and acknowledge the various ways we have offended you, and that we may recall again your amazing, redeeming grace made known to us through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen.
Our scripture reading comes from the 15th chapter of the good news according to the physician Luke.
The context of our scripture reading is that Jesus has been welcoming sinners.
Jesus has been spending time with tax collectors and other persons who had gone astray
from righteous paths, and he has even been sitting down at table fellowship
with persons deemed unworthy by the scribes and Pharisees.
The scribes and Pharisees had begun to complain about the sort of folks
with whom Jesus was spending time. In response to their complaints,
Jesus tells three stories, one about a Lost Sheep, another about a Lost Coin,
and then a third surprising story with a twist – the story of the Lost Sons.
Hear the word of God:
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him and the Pharisees and Scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable. There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything a severe famine took place in that country and he began to be in need. So went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare? But here I am dying of hunger. I will get up and go to my father and I will say to him, Father I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me like one of your hired hands.” So he set off and went to his father, but while he was still far off his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quickly bring out a robe, the best one, and put it on him; put a ring on is finger and sandals on his feet; get the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and celebrate for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and was found.” And they began to celebrate.
Now his elder son was in the field and when he came and approached the house he heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him but he answered his father, “Listen, for all these years I have been working like a slave for you and I have never disobeyed your command, yet you have never even given me 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 kill the fatted calf for him.” Then the father said to him, “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 Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
A well-to-do Middle Eastern father has two sons.
The younger son does the unthinkable.
He requests a share of his father’s wealth while his father is still alive.
For any Middle Eastern son to do so would communicate that the man is impatient for his father to die.
No younger son in his right mind would make this request,
and no family would allow a third of their estate to be liquidated.
To make this request was an incredibly unusual and offensive act.
This request would shame the entire extended family, shock their entire village,
and without a doubt break the father’s heart.
Once the younger son receives his share of the property, he runs away to a far country
and depletes fully one-third of the family’s value of land, buildings, and animals,
actions which would have had dramatic, long term consequences for the entire family and even village.
The young man shames his father, embarrasses his family, angers his community,
and squanders valuable assets that the family had accumulated over generations.
Such selfish and irresponsible actions could easily cause a family to disown such a person.
In a Middle Eastern village, even up to present day,
your family is your source of social security and your assurance of marriage.
Your home town is where you will be accepted regardless and taken care of when you are in need.
When a Middle Eastern villager is disowned, there was no possibility for future reconciliation.
All ties that are of utmost importance have been thrown away.
Now, it is important to note that the younger son did not necessarily break any laws.
He perhaps even acted within the parameters of the law,
but this unrighteous son has certainly broken his father’s heart.
What about his older brother?
The older brother stayed home, took out the trash, mowed the grass,
tilled the fields, put up the hay, and basically did everything he was supposed to do – right?
Let’s take a little closer look….
In a Middle Eastern village, when there are two quarreling parties,
they do not traditionally make up with one another directly.
There is always a mediator whose job it is to intercede between the two quarreling parties.
This is a very important role in a Middle Eastern village.
When a father and a younger son have a falling out, there is one designated person
who must step in and mediate, which is of course the elder brother.
Everyone in the Middle Eastern village knows this!
When the younger son makes his ridiculous request, the older brother holds a sacred responsibility –
the sacred responsibility of going back and forth between the father and the younger brother
to try to make sense of the situation, to seek and find some solution on behalf of the family.
But in this parable, the older brother remains silent.
Even though it takes the younger brother a few days to liquidate his share of the estate,
still the older brother remains silent.
Then, when the younger son prepares to leave home, again the older brother fails in his duties.
Custom required that the family provide a proper goodbye ritual.
It was incumbent upon the elder brother to plead with his younger brother to stay,
and if he would not stay, then at least he would assure him that their prayers were with him.
The elder brother would be expected to invoke God’s protection upon his younger brother,
give him a blessing, and then send him on his way.
But again, the older brother fails to act, fails to speak, and everyone, everyone, would have noticed,
especially the father.
In Middle Eastern villages, family relationships are of utmost importance,
especially between the fathers and elder sons.
These relationships come before everything, even the law.
When the self-righteous older brother fails in his sacred duties, he shames his family,
he shocks his village, and he breaks relationship with his father.
There were two audiences listening to Jesus’ parable –
the tax collectors and sinners, and the Scribes and Pharisees.
The tax collectors and sinners would no doubt have identified with the younger son.
They knew they were guilty of sins of commission.
They had pursued sins of greed and sins of the flesh.
In Jesus’ presence, they were aware of their need to turn their lives around and turn to God.
By this point in the parable, the Scribes and Pharisees, those responsible for the faith of the people,
would have been identified with the elder brother.
Everyone present would have realized they too were on stage.
For all the Middle Easterners originally listening to Jesus, this would have been painfully obvious.
These elder brothers, these Scribes and Pharisees, had neglected their duties to God and to the people
and were thus guilty of serious sins of omission.
What is most surprising in this parable is the action of the father.
The father disrupts everyone’s expectations.
Towards both sons, the father acts very much out of character for a Middle Eastern villager.
The custom in the Middle East required that the prodigal son, upon returning home,
would have to face harassment from the village for the shame he has brought on his family.
He would have to walk through the gangs of young men in the street in potential danger for his life,
because that the penalty for shaming a father could be a public stoning.
When the son would arrive at the father’s house, the custom required that he would sit for some time
outside of his father’s gates.
An angry father would often let considerable time pass, hours or even days,
until a prodigal son would be summoned to receive his punishment.
The only way a father could maintain honor in his village in such a shameful situation
would be through harsh discipline.
But when the prodigal in our parable returns home, something very strange happens.
The father does not make him face the torment of the village nor does he make his son wait.
When the father sees his son from a distance, he runs to meet him and throws his arms around him,
protecting his son from the curses and assaults of the villagers.
Since no one over thirty years old would ever run in a Middle Eastern village,
and since there was no honor is welcoming a prodigal home without severe punishment,
the father humiliates himself before the village in the process.
The whole village would be shocked to see the father run, embrace his son, kiss him again and again,
and throw the best robe over the son’s dirty, emaciated body.
When the father gives has family signet ring put upon the son’s finger, the father signifies
that this selfish, irresponsible son has once again been given authority over family business.
And when the father puts sandals upon his feet,
he shows that the prodigal will not be treated like a servant, but like a son.
Fully restoring the younger son to home and to community,
the father shocks the villagers and brings shame and humiliation upon himself.
When the elder brother hears what has happened, he too is shocked and angry.
He is dumbfounded over his father’s actions.
Many would argue that the elder son was well within his rights for his behavior.
But the elder son’s response, or lack thereof, is crucial.
At a Middle Eastern banquet, the elder son would be expected to greet the guests
and serve as head waiter.
Standard custom is that the elder brother would pay particular attention to the father’s honored guest,
who in this case is the younger brother.
For the elder son to remain outside, aloof from his father and his father’s guest,
would be a tremendous personal insult to the father and to the entire family.
The father would once again be humiliated by the inaction of the elder brother,
and the entire village would once again recognize the high offense of the elder son against the father.
Even so, once again the father acts in an incredibly extravagant and unexpected way.
In an act of shame and humiliation, the father gets up from his seat at the table,
leaves his guests, and goes outside to plead with his elder son.
This is an unheard of action, an action that would have sent shock waves through the village.
This very unusual father seems to be willing to do whatever is needed
and to incur whatever shame is necessary in order to reconcile his sons to himself and to one another.
As it turns out, the parable is not so much about an unrighteous younger brother
or a self-righteous elder brother, but mostly about an incredibly gracious father.
We do not know what happened after the grace-filled welcome home of the younger son.
The story is left open as to whether the younger son becomes an eternally grateful and loyal son.
The tax collectors and sinners, those who have committed sins of commission,
are left to decide what they are going to do and who they are going to be.
The parable is also unresolved in relation to the elder brother.
We are not told whether the elder son ever comes in, fulfills his duties, and joins the celebration.
The Scribes and Pharisees, those who are guilty of serious sins of omission,
are left to decide what they are going to do and who they are going to be.
I suppose all of us in part prodigal, part elder brother.
All of us are guilty of sins we have committed, things we have said and done,
that have been offensive to God and others.
And all of us are guilty of sins by omission, because of things we have failed to do or say
for the sake of right and healthy relationship with God and others.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church