Stop Sulking Already!

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

1.

With whom are we supposed to identify in this very familiar parable?

Are we supposed to be the prodigal?

How many of you have ever gone against your father’s wishes?

Well, maybe not to the extent that this young man went; maybe you’ve never journeyed so far from home.

There, in that distant country, after living riotously until he had nothing left, and after a famine swept over the land so that most everyone was in need, what’d he do but hire himself out to feed pigs?

Pigs! Swine! Unclean beasts! Not kosher!

Effectively, the prodigal son became no longer a son of Israel or even of his own father.

Maybe you’ve never journeyed this far from home.

Literally, anyway.

But what about figuratively? Have you ever journeyed so far from your heavenly Father that you effectively cut yourself off from him?

So, is this the character with whom we are supposed to identify most closely in today’s parable, the prodigal son?

2.

Or, maybe, are we supposed to identify with the merciful, benevolent, gracious father?

Yeah, this guy, the prodigal’s father, breaks with all convention.

He’s a Palestinian Jewish man. Convention says ancestral land is something you must hold on to with all tenacity, like a bulldog with a lamb shank bone.

When your son whines and wheedles his share of the ancestral lands out of you and then goes off and sells it in order to live selfishly, against all you’ve ever taught him—well, that’s got to be the end of it! Convention, not to mention common sense, demands that you disown such a profligate, rebellious, riotous son!

Besides, have you heard what the neighbors are saying?

But what does this father do instead? He watches for his son, keeps vigil, like Aegeus straining day after day to see Theseus’s white sails crossing the sea.

And when finally he does see his prodigal son still far off—who cares what the neighbors are saying!—he runs to greet him, embraces him, and weeps for joy over him.

Faugh on convention! His son was dead but is alive again; he was lost but now is found.

So, are we supposed to be like the father—merciful, benevolent, and gracious beyond all convention?

3.

But there’s a third character, an often overlooked, or maybe ignored character, in this parable: the older brother.

He’s the one, remember, that has obeyed all the rules. He’s the one who did not ask for his share of the inheritance, but instead kept to convention. He’s the one who remained faithful and loyal to his father throughout his younger brother’s selfish time of foolishness.

And yet what thanks does he get?

Has his dad ever thrown him a feast for all his years of fidelity? Has he ever gotten so much as a barbequed chicken dinner for him and a few friends?

Yet when his profligate partier of a younger brother returns home without a penny to his name—all the inheritance, for crying out loud!—he receives no punishment at all but a full prime-rib feast! What the heck!

So, I wonder, are we supposed to identify most closely with him, the older brother?

4.

Prodigal, Father, Older Brother: with which character are we supposed to identify?

We find our answer at the beginning of today’s Gospel. We might not like it, but the answer is there nonetheless; at the beginning of the passage, in the first few sentences, which frame the context.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable.

Two distinct categories of people are gathered around Jesus, his supporters and his opposers.

Who are the supporters? Tax collectors and sinners.

Well, here are the people, surely, who represent the prodigal son.

And I’m a sinner too. I have no problem wearing that label. And so I identify with the prodigal son. How about you?

But, really, am I a social outcast?

Tax collectors, in Jesus’ day, were nothing short of extortionists. Normal John-and-Jane taxpayers hated them. Tax collectors, plain and simple, were social outcasts.

For that matter, so were the demon-possessed, the lepers, the blind, the prostitutes, and the other sinners Jesus welcomed and ate with.

So, to be honest, this really isn’t me. Is it you?

For most of us, the answer is no. We’re not social outcasts in the sense that sinners is meant here. And so, as much as we might like to think so, we’re actually not all that much like the prodigal son.

And, in case you’re wondering, as for the father—the kind, watchful, benevolent, merciful, gracious father who breaks with all convention? That’s a picture of Jesus, not us.

That leaves only the opposers. By default, for most of us anyway, we are the older brother.

5.

But we don’t want to identify with the older brother! We don’t want to identify with the opposers, the grumblers, the scribes and Pharisees.

Well, like it or not, that’s us. After all, the Pharisees and scribes whom Jesus addressed were members of the established “church” in their day.

Which leaves us at a crossroads. This is where the parable goes; this why we need to identify with the older brother.

For one thing, the church is called to be inclusive.

This theme comes up over and over in the Gospels; and we see it again today, loud and clear. Jesus is dining with tax collectors and sinners; the prodigal son is welcomed home with open arms.

Jesus loves the hated and the marginalized. We, his church, are called to love them too, to invite, welcome, and connect them into this living organism we call St. Thomas.

For another thing, the church is called to be adaptable.

Where do I see this? In the older brother’s reaction to the father throwing off convention. The older brother gives us an example of what not to do.

Jesus is doing a new thing in his church. Mainline Christianity is experiencing changes unlike anything it has ever faced in our nation’s history. We can no longer have an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. For, the fact of the matter is, people just don’t view church the way they did a generation ago: to be affiliated with a church is no longer a social obligation.

This has its pros and cons, sure. But the point for the moment is that in the last four decades both attendance and donations are in decline, yielding unprecedented change. All convention has been cast aside.

Will we be able to adapt? Or will we brood and sulk like Jesus’ opposers?

So, here’s the thing: Back to the parable, what the older brother decides to do in the end is left open. Will he celebrate with his father and younger brother, because his little brother was dead but is alive again; lost but now found? Or will he continue to brood and sulk, outside and alone?

We don’t know: the answer isn’t given; Jesus doesn’t tell us. We’re left at a crossroads.

We do know from history, however, that Jesus’ opposers chose the latter: to brood and sulk over the changes Jesus brought. And their brooding and sulking led to hatred, bigotry, and death.

But our history has not yet been completely written.

We are part of a church—mainline Christianity—that has tried to serve our heavenly Father faithfully and obediently, not nearly perfect yet repentant—a lot like the older son. So how will we respond to convention being thrown off—to Jesus doing things in an unexpected way?

Will we brood and sulk over it, guarding and protecting the institution we have created? Or will we rejoice with Jesus, going out into the highways and byways and inviting, welcoming, and connecting the hated and marginalized into our heavenly Father’s home?

Those who opposed Jesus in his day no longer have a choice.

We still do!

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